Movie Review – Judas and the Black Messiah
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
So far, most of the awards buzz for this film has been about Daniel Kaluuya who is likely to get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Kaluuya is good in the role, but the film is more about the character played by Lakeith Stanfield and Stanfield is absolutely the standout. Strangely, he’s being overlooked. Maybe, he’ll be recognized for this next year at the NAACP Image Awards, given that the organization didn’t adjust its eligibility window to match the Oscars. Stanfield is by far the best thing about this film, in terms of acting. The reason he’s being overlooked is because arguably Kaluuya is the bigger or more famous star here. Kaluuya was in two of the biggest or most acclaimed films of the past few years, Black Panther (2018) and Get Out (2017). Kaluuya’s name has been tied to more financial success within the past five years than Stanfield. Kaluuya was even nominated for an Oscar for Get Out, so once an actor has been invited into that club once before, it raises his profile to be nominated again and again, regardless if he’s in a role that deserves it. It’s not that Kaluuya is bad here, but Stanfield is the one that should be getting the notices at award shows.
The reason that Stanfield is being overlooked could be because how the film paints his character. Stanfield plays William “Bill” O’Neal, the FBI informant who had a role in the 1969 assassination of Fred Hampton, a leader in the Black Panther Party. Despite showing his anguish and conflict with being an informant, the film seems to come down on the side of condemning him and looking at him as a rat. The title of this film even reveals the filmmaker’s opinion of Bill. The word “Judas” is meant to be a reference to Bill O’Neal. Director and co-writer Shaka King essentially blames Bill O’Neal for Fred Hampton’s death when Bill was as much a victim.
The film does spend the majority of the time in the head of Bill O’Neal, so perhaps Shaka King understands Bill’s dilemma implicitly. Bill was a car thief before the FBI basically blackmailed him into helping them get intelligence on Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. First, Bill was blackmailed with prison time. Later, when news was reported that a Black Panther Party member was killed under suspicion of being an informant, the FBI used that news to scare Bill even further into cooperating. Essentially, the FBI made Bill just as afraid of the Black Panther Party than any drug gang or even police force.
The so-called FBI informant who was murdered was a Black man named Alex Rackley. Rackley was accused of being an informant or a rat. He was then kidnapped, tortured and eventually shot dead where his body was dumped in a marsh. Three Black Panther Party members were involved in his death. One of which was a man named George Sams. Now, Sams wasn’t the trigger man. He was the one who told the other two to kill Rackley. Sams said he was acting under orders from Black Panther Party leaders higher up, but Black Panther Party members say that Sams was himself an informant who did all of this as part of a FBI conspiracy to paint the Black Panther Party as murderers and terrorists. Whether or not Sams was a FBI informant has never been truly confirmed. Yet, this film treats it as if it were gospel.
Given that Bill is part of a FBI conspiracy to take down the Black Panthers, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Bill wasn’t the only informant. Given that the documentary MLK/FBI (2021) was just released two weeks prior, which details the FBI conspiracy to take down Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s again not unreasonable to assume that Sams being an informant was real. Yet, it wasn’t really confirmed, so for this film to treat it like it had been does two things. It further paints the FBI as this racist and corrupt organization, which is fair, and it takes some of the stain off the Black Panther Party, underscoring its victim-hood.
Don’t be mistaken. Fred Hampton was a victim. In fact, his death in 1969 can be seen as one that has a direct connection to the deaths that have been occurring over the past years, labeled under the rubric of Black Lives Matter. That movement wasn’t officially organized until 2013 and has been documenting police brutality and the extrajudicial killings of Black people. Specifically, it’s been the extrajudicial killings of unarmed Black men, unarmed at the time of their deaths. Hampton’s death over 40 years ago would qualify, given that he was shot at point-blank range while he was asleep, totally unconscious in his bed. Though the details aren’t exactly the same, Hampton’s death is reminiscent of the 2020 death of Breonna Taylor whose murder has become an example of police misconduct.
The police in the Breonna Taylor case thought they were entering into a drug den and dealing with drug dealers, which obviously wasn’t the case. The reputation preceding the Black Panther Party was arguably worse. There is a scene that underlines and actually depicts a party member murdering a police officer, so Shaka King doesn’t necessarily pull punches or put the Black Panther Party on a pedestal, but it’s still clear that there is a preference to the party here.
An argument could be made about the rhetoric from Fred Hampton, played by Kaluuya. In fact, an argument is made. Dominique Fishback (Project Power and Night Comes On) plays Deborah Johnson, a poet who is reminiscent of Amanda Gorman, the Black female poet at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Deborah becomes the love interest to Fred Hampton and the mother to his child. Yet, she’s the first person to criticize him on his rhetoric, specifically the first speech that he makes.
Later, Bill confronts Fred on his rhetoric, implying that it was his rhetoric that is to blame for the violence that has occurred and that could occur. It was interesting that this film is released the same week as the 2nd Impeachment trial of Donald Trump, which is about his rhetoric resulting in violence, specifically the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. Obviously, Fred Hampton is nowhere near Donald Trump. Fred wasn’t perpetuating lies. Fred’s cause was righteous and justifiable, but, his rhetoric did push violence. I’m not sure the film truly reckons with that. It does show that Fred led things like food programs for poor people and the building of a medical clinic, but encouraging Black people to carry guns and use them against police were things he also pushed.
The film is like BlackKklansman (2018). That Oscar-winning Spike Lee joint is about a Black man pretending to be something he’s not in order to infiltrate a political group. This film does the same thing. Spike Lee’s film is about the Ku Klux Klan. This one is about the Black Panther Party. This film has a FBI agent named Roy Mitchell, played by Jesse Plemons (Fargo and Friday Night Lights). Roy makes the case that the KKK and the Black Panther Party are the same, in terms of being terrorist groups. The film is good at disillusioning him of that idea, but still backing him into a corner of still having to treat them the same, if not the Black Panther Party worse, even though that’s not the case.
Theme-wise, this film is also like Driven (2019), which is about how the FBI used James T. Hoffman to take down John DeLorean. The FBI pursued DeLorean, not for racial reasons or cultural ones. The case against DeLorean was more one of entrapment. However, that film by Nick Hamm did a better job of developing the relationship between Hoffman and DeLorean. I don’t think that this film does as good a job of developing the relationship between Bill and Fred. It feels like the two barely have any dialogue together.
If nothing else, Lil Rel Howery appears for one scene in this film. With Howery along with Stanfield and Kaluuya, this film is just a reunion of the actors from Get Out, minus all the white people.
Rated R for violence and pervasive language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 5 mins.
In select theaters and HBO Max.