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In preparation for this review, I watched a series of interviews and videos on Youtube, read a few articles, and watched a documentary on Fred Hampton titled The Murder of Fred Hampton to get a sense of the man and partial subject behind Judas and the Black Messiah, directed by Shaka King.
For those not familiar with the story of Fred Hampton, he came to prominence in Chicago as chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), and deputy chairman of the national BPP. Hampton dedicated his efforts towards activism within his community and preachings surrounding anti-capitalist ideals, socialism, and Marxism.
However, the movie mostly centers on the efforts of the FBI informant William (Bill) O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield, as he recounts his time with Hampton in an interview, mirroring a real interview O’Neal participated in for a 1990 docuseries titled Eyes on the Prize II.
In the sixties, prior to his time with Fred Hampton, William O’Neal had a history of criminal activity, involving car thefts, home invasions, kidnapping, and torture. At just 17-years-old, O’Neal was approached by Roy Martin Mitchell, an FBI agent, who made a deal with O’Neal to infiltrate into the BPP in exchange for having a felony charge related to a car theft dropped.
As the film depicts events, O’Neal is a carjacker whose process of stealing consisted of pretending to be an FBI agent to scare victims into handing over their vehicles to “law enforcement.” When O’Neal is eventually caught, arrested, and interrogated by Chicago officer Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), he is confronted with a potential 5-7 years in prison for impersonating a police officer and attempted theft.
However, officer Mitchell offers O’Neal a deal. To avoid jail time, O’Neal must collaborate with the FBI and Chicago Police Department by infiltrating the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to spy on Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) within close proximity.
The film details how O’Neal grew close to Hampton and climbed through the ranks of his security as Hampton united organizations across Chicago to form the Rainbow Coalition. A real effort and movement Hampton set to accomplish in 1969, uniting the Panthers, the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots. Eventually, as most people know, O’Neal’s efforts then lead to the murder of Fred Hampton at the hands of law enforcement on December 4, 1969, at the young age of 21-years-old.
Daniel Kaluuya’s performance in Judas was outstanding. So much so, that for an A-list actor, I forgot I was watching Kaluuya many times throughout the movie because of how effectively he embodied Hampton’s speech and overall charisma. I even found myself wanting to see more of Kaluuya onscreen as well as more intimate moments of Hampton’s personal life like his budding romance with Deborah Johnson, played by Dominque Fishback.
Lakeith Stanfield also gives an Oscar-worthy performance as O’Neal. However, Judas portrayed O’Neal through a sympathetic lens, and I’m still not sure how I feel about that. In the actual and only interview that O’Neal gave he stated, “I felt like I was working undercover for the FBI doing something good for the finest police organization in America. And so I was pretty proud.”
Although, as Nick Pope explains in an article for Esquire, “It’s hard to know what O’Neal truly thought about the party’s ambitions and actions, and many have suggested that he was ultimately overcome by guilt.” This is fair enough since none of us will ever know if William O’Neal ever truly regretted his involvement in Hampton’s murder; making him at least a little worthy of sympathy from history’s perspective of the events that transpired.
I’m not sure how much of the film is historically accurate, either. Was O’Neal as regretful as the film suggests? Was Hampton as trusting of O’Neal as the film suggests? Did O’Neal respect the Black Panthers and individuals he simultaneously was spying on as much as the film suggests? I know the answers to some of these questions, but after watching Judas there is so much more about Fred Hampton’s legacy that I want to know.
In turn, I realized after watching the film, the minor research I conducted for the sake of this review wasn’t enough to truly capture the legacy of Fred Hampton, nor the tragedy of both Hampton’s murder and O’Neal’s cooperation with law enforcement that led to Hampton’s murder. Notably, in the evening right after the documentary Eyes on the Prize II released, O’Neal committed suicide by walking into oncoming traffic on a Chicago highway.
In her review of Judas and the Black Messiah for Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién writes, “In the years since Hampton’s death, pop culture has mined the Black Panthers for their posture and aesthetic”, rather than the progressive, socialist politics the organization truly stood for. All of which, is true.
It’s important to remember while engaging in pop culture’s portrayals of radical Black movements, to go beyond Hollywood’s depiction of said movements if you want to learn more. That’s how you honor the legacy of those who dedicated their lives to stand up for something greater than themselves.
There’s so much more to Black history, Black legacies, and even Black people than Hollywood’s portrayal of us. For the sake of capturing history in around two hours, so many important details get left out of a story. Details that may not be relevant to the plot of a movie, but rather humanize actual individuals who had a life outside being a “revolutionary.”
Overall, the film is wonderfully made. Wonderfully directed, produced, written, acted. Wonderful musical score and editing. At the same time, in the words of Fred Hampton, “Racism is a by-product of capitalism.” Movies like Judas and the Black Messiah are by nature capitalistic portrayals of revolutionary politics that should, if nothing else, encourage viewers to engage with the teachings of their movie subjects beyond simply watching a film.
Fred Hampton understood the importance of education before engaging in nuanced politics, political theory, and individuals. Ultimately, Judas and the Black Messiah prompted me to learn more about Fred Hampton’s legacy, ideology, and politics within the Black Panther Party, Chicago, and beyond.
Donate and share Fred Hampton Jr.’s (Fred Hampton’s son) Gofundme to preserve the Hampton house:
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