When we decide to save ourselves, who do we hurt? This question looms large in Shaka King’s 2021 release Judas and the Black Messiah. Telling the true story of FBI’s assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), Judas focuses on William “Bill” O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a black man hired by the FBI to infiltrate the group. Highlighting O’Neal’s perspective, King challenges us to view the Panthers as an enemy. With its unique setup and stakes, Judas works because it understands the implications of its characters’ choices–even if it sometimes fails to capture the characters themselves.
Judas depicts the FBI’s infamous attack on the black power groups of the 1960s. When FBI director J Edgar Hoover launched the mission to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize” black power groups, his agents recruited black people to pose undercover as activists. In 1966, the FBI hired the real Bill O’Neal to surveil Chicago Black Panther’s leader Fred Hampton, and later facilitate his assasination. In Judas, we watch O’Neal confront this. Hampton was killed, December 4th, 1969. After police reported the assasitantion as self-defense, investigations revealed that 100 bullets were fired into Hampton’s apartment, but only one was fired out. Hampton was 21.
Perhaps the most complex aspect of Judas is King’s choice to frame the world through O’Neal’s eyes. A black man, O’Neal’s ability to understand the Panthers fears and use them to manipulate the group makes him both challenging and fascinating. Framing the film through O’Neal’s perspective, King challenges us too. In one scene, the Panthers become suspicious of the nice car O’Neal drives. At this point, we know the FBI bought it for him. But, O’Neal lies. “I hot-wired this shit, all right?” he says. The Panthers don’t believe him. “Do it again,” one Panther says, insisting on proof. This scene is difficult. Generally, modern audiences might consider themselves allied with the Panthers over their informant. But now, we know something they don’t. Judas’ ability to make us relate to and despise O’Neal all at once ignites the film.
But Judas’ struggle to convey O’Neal’s internal journey speaks to the film’s larger struggles with characterization. We explore O’Neal’s external motivations for being an informant–he doesn’t want to go to jail. But, he has little inner life. Though O’Neal describes his FBI contact Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) as his role model”— “(Some people) had Martin Luther King, Malcolm X…I had an FBI agent.”— O’Neal seems ambivalent in their scenes together. One day, Mitchell tells O’Neal about his FBI’s fight against the KKK: “A couple kids was trying to register Negroes to vote….They got arrested…(and the police)… hand-delivered them to the Klan…They shot ’em, of course. Cut off (the black activist’s) penis.” O’Neal laughs when Mitchell says “penis.” This tracks when you learn that in reality, O’Neal was a kid during these events–recruited at 17 and around 19 during the assasiton. But played by the 29 year old Stanfield, his underdeveloped quality seems unexplainable. Same goes for Hampton, who is largely undefined outside of his politics. In a romantic scene with his girlfriend (Dominique Fishback), Hampton (jokingly) compares cuddling to socialism. Though this plays on Hampton’s devotion to the cause, it also cuts viewers off from knowing who he was outside of it.
The film’s detailed world engages viewers through these omissions, but a deeper dive into these characters would underline Judas’s true uniqueness. Amidst controversies surrounding the film’s oversimplification of Hampton and the police, this dynamic might symbolize Judas’ need for less heightened storytelling. But with Judas’ immersive storytelling and style, King still ensures that the complexities of Hampton’s tragedy feel all too real.
Judas and the Black Messiah is in select Theaters and available to stream on HBO Max.