“Judas and the Black Messiah” is directed by Shaka King and produced by Ryan Coogler, the director of “Black Panther” — fitting, as the film depicts the dismantling of the Illinois Black Panther Party with assistance from an FBI informant.
The movie was the talk of this year’s Sundance Film festival, which included an early satellite screening of “Judas” in Columbia.
The film opens in the late-’60s, with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) giving a presentation to agents about preventing the rise of a "black messiah." For the Illinois Black Panther Party, the messiah was Fred Hampton (played tremendously by Daniel Kaluuya). We see his focus on his people in the community — providing free breakfast for kids in the community, investing in a free clinic for the people to go to, and equipping them with the greatest lesson of all: Where there are people, there's power.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have car thief Bill O'Neil (LaKeith Stanfield), who uses a fake FBI badge to hold up a Black-owned bar to get keys to a nice GTO sitting outside. When his plan fails, he ends up in custody. Calm, clean-cut FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) interrogates him. Mitchell informs O'Neil he can spend years in jail or go home if he agrees to infiltrate the Panthers and get close to Hampton.
To kill the suspense, Hampton was assassinated in his bed after O'Neil tipped off the FBI. The film's power comes from exploring Black potential through the lens of the Panthers’ struggles and O’Neil’s wrestling with the morality of his task.
Moments like Hampton telling his pregnant girlfriend Deborah (an Oscar-worthy performance by Dominque Fishback) about how his mother used to babysit Emmitt Till. Till was another Chicago figure whose horrific death was a flashpoint in racial politics.
While watching “Judas,” I couldn't help but think of my struggles with race in America. During a recent conversation with a white friend about the HBO series “Lovecraft Country,” another show that follows Black characters struggling to overcome the legacy of Jim Crow. He doesn't watch because it's difficult to see white people be mostly vilified. It's just as difficult for me to watch films like this as a Black man, wherein the greatest villains are Hoover and O'Neil, a Black man.
Flashes of a interview — both real footage and restaged with Stanfield — where a journalist asks O'Neil about his involvement as an informant leading to Hampton's death are spliced throughout the film. He uses pronouns like “us” while talking about both the Panthers and the FBI.
Stanfield provides an Oscar-deserving performance, showcasing O’Neil paranoia about being caught and his wavering belief in what he’s doing. After Hampton returns home from incarceration following a bogus charge of stealing $71 worth of ice cream, he gives a speech that includes his now-famous "I am a revolutionary" chant. His status then became almost godlike in the movement, and that was a problem for the bureau.
It's painful to think of these fantastic Black leaders from the ’60s and how incredibly young they were. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King died before the age of 40. Hampton died at 21.
His Black Panther platform, once considered radical, is now espoused by mainstream politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Black America lost a giant, and for what? This calculus about the value of lives of various shades is put into sharp relief when O’Neil is given a bonus of $300 for providing the information that led to Hampton's death.
The film shows more details about the Panther leader’s muder that I never knew and information about O’Neil’s ultimate sad end. By the film's conclusion, I found myself shaking, speechless, and left with complete sadness.
I then felt grateful for King telling Hampton's story in a brutally beautiful way, enforcing that you can kill the revolutionary but not the revolution.