(Movie Review) Judas and the Black Messiah
Fred Hampton was assassinated on December 4, 1969, while he was sleeping at his home, during a raid by the Cook County State's Attorney's office which was aided by both the Chicago Police Department and the FBI. The 21-year-old leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party was deemed a dangerous threat to the dominant racist culture who had to be eliminated. It was eventually revealed that law enforcement was helped by an informant named William O'Neal. Hampton's story deserves much more attention in our schools, particularly given the current tensions regarding the police and racism. For that reason, it's good to see it presented in the new movie, Judas and the Black Messiah (now showing in theaters and on HBO Max), although the film comes up short in some ways.
The movie is "inspired by true events," so let's acknowledge right from the beginning that it's not a documentary. It can still convey powerful messages in broad strokes.
Fred Hampton is played by Daniel Kaluuya, who was nominated for an Oscar for "Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role," for his work in the 2017 film, Get Out. Others may recognize him as W'Kabi from Black Panther. Kaluuya brings an intensity and charisma to the screen that makes it easy to understand how people would follow Hampton, and how he could reach out to other groups to form the multi-cultural Rainbow Coalition. It just would have been nice to see more of his organizing work in action, because the film seems to rush through most of it. A sense of Hampton's childhood as a gifted student also would have helped to paint a fuller picture of the man.
William O'Neal is played by LaKeith Lee Stanfield, who many will also know for Get Out, as well as Atlanta, and BoJack Horseman. Arrested for stealing a car and impersonating a FBI officer, O'Neal is given the opportunity to avoid 6 1/2 years in prison if he helps the FBI take down Hampton, thus making him the "Judas." It's easy to see where the movie is trying to go with this, but O'Neal never really clicks on-screen. Originally describing himself as not that political, it seems easy for him to get into Hampton's inner circle. O'Neal is supposed to show his inner conflict over his role, but he seems pretty at ease with his FBI handler agent Roy Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons) until right near the end of the movie. Footage of the actual O'Neal in 1989 is shown at the end of the movie. It's a revealing clip, as he discusses his actions, but he comes across as a completely different guy than the one we just watched for the last two hours.
Another issue is that Hampton was 21 years old when he was killed and O'Neal was 20 at the time. However, Kaluuya is just about to turn 32, and Stanfield is 29. Something is lost by not making it clear that both characters were young kids during the time period covered by this movie. There's a lost innocence that doesn't get addressed, and that would have helped the overall impact of the movie.
The ongoing debate throughout the film about what freedom for Black Americans should look like felt similar to the discussion in the recent One Night in Miami. It's a conversation that's as timely today as it was 50 years ago. The police officers in this movie could easily be the fathers or grandfathers of the officers who killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a flawed but important movie. The story may be set in 1968-1969, but it resonates today. It's also helpful for Hollywood to see there's an audience for these kinds of films. However, this should be seen as the beginning of understanding Fred Hampton's life, not a full overview of a man killed for fighting for freedom.
More people should know about Fred Hampton. (pic via variety.com)
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