Oscar-winning Judas and the Black Messiah directed by Shaka King, a tragic true story of a brutal state assassination in the US starring LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya, is gripping, heart-wrenching and sadly still topical.
Just Another Black Assassinationby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Judas and the Black Messiah is a horrific movie about a terrible period in American history that resulted in the assassination of a Black Power leader in 1969. Though Fred Hampton was clearly influential enough to be seen as a threat by the FBI, his name is perhaps not as well-known here as other black murder victims such as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. It’s astonishing that he was still only 21, yet had already achieved so much, when he was assassinated. This film may redress the balance to us in the UK and it’s interesting that Hampton also appears, albeit fleetingly, in the courtroom scene with Bobby Seale in another Oscar-nominated film The Trial of the Chicago Seven.
The Judas of the title is William O’Neal (brilliantly played by LaKeith Stanfield), a black petty criminal fantasist. In fact, we first see him posing as an FBI officer raiding a black bar in order to commit a crime. He was, as a result, recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party to inform on its chairman Fred Hampton (an electric performance by Daniel Kaluuya).
O’Neal’s FBI handler, played by Jesse Piemons, is the ugly embodiment of white privilege dangling the possibility of inclusion in it, on top of the bait of avoiding prosecution for his petty crimes. It’s symbolised when he invites the deluded O’Neal to his home and unexpectedly offers him the best whisky in his drinks cabinet.
In reality, Hampton was merely preaching, like a biblical Messiah, a kind of socialism; organising breakfast clubs; and encouraging disparate minority groups to unite to help each other in a kind of rainbow coalition. Despite being non-militant, this and his connection to the Black Panthers was seen as dangerous.
Against the background of black activism, the film centres on the true story of the growing relationship between Hampton and O’Neal, who became his trusted driver. This makes his type of intimate betrayal even more heartbreaking. In award nomination terms, it was debatable who was the principal and who was the supporting actor. Both men are superb, Stanfield quieter and unsympathetic, and Kaluuya in the more showy part, which earned him his Oscar-winning Supporting Actor nomination.
Newcomer Dominique Fishback’s performance as Deborah Johnson, the student and poet who became Hampton’s partner and the mother of his son, has been critically acclaimed too, leading to her Bafta nomination. She was heavily pregnant, in bed with Hampton, when the FBI execution squad stormed into their bedroom in the middle of the night. After Judas and the Black Messiah, her next project is to team with her Project Power co-star Jamie Foxx to adapt her one-woman play Subverted into a new special. She plays an 18-year-old girl living in the inner city, and depicts “the destruction of Black identity” as seen through her eyes.
Deborah Johnson is now known as Akua Njeri, still a revolutionary, and her son, Fred Hampton Jr, is a political activist, the president and chairman of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee and the Black Panther Party Cubs. See their interview on CNN.
When a television documentary (Eyes on the Prize II) that revealed the extent of O’Neal’s betrayal was shown in 1989, allegedly he committed suicide the day after, torn apart by the knowledge of what he had done, though that it was suicide has since been disputed by Njeri.
Judas and the Black Messiah is gripping and heart-wrenching, particularly as its brutal, horrific ending is already known and inevitable. Sadly, in the light of recent events, it is still also extremely topical.
Judas and the Black Messiah has received numerous awards and is nominated for five Oscars, to be determined on 25 April 2021. The film is available to watch on demand on several UK platforms including Amazon Prime, Sky Store, Google Play, BFI Player and BT TV. Daniel Kaluuya won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Fred Hampton.