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Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)


Judas and the Black Messiah was simultaneously released in theaters and on HBO Max; I watched it at home. I struggled to connect with the film and stay focused despite plenty of practice. The film involves three main characters: Fred Hampton, Bill O’Neal, and the FBI (Roy Mitchell). Fred Hampton is played by Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out fame. Fred was the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. Bill O’Neal is played by LaKeith Stanfield of Sorry to Bother You fame. Bill O’Neal was an FBI informant inside the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. Roy Mitchell is the FBI handler for Bill and played by Jesse Plemons. The cast does a great job, especially Kaluuya, he is an effervescing and charismatic leader just like all accounts of Fred Hampton.

The FBI was headed by J. Edgar Hoover, cake make-up-ed Martin Sheen, at the time. The FBI was investigating Martin Luther King Jr. as a domestic terrorist before his assassination. The FBI successfully infiltrated the Black Panthers. This film is based on the true story of Bill O’Neal and the FBI-sponsored assassination of Fred Hampton. Bill O’Neal revealed his involvement with the FBI in the 1989 PBS documentary ‘Eyes on the Prize II’. He committed suicide in 1990 after the documentary aired.

This movie shows bad cops, at the highest levels, doing bad cop things without repercussions. It is a story as old as law enforcement and I am tired of these films. There is always another story of the police breaking the law without repercussions. There is a turn in the film when the FBI goes comic-book supervillain bad that lost my attention about an hour in. This left me another full hour to sit through. At a similar time in the film, Bill starts feeling remorse.

The story of Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers is interesting, but I do not think it needed to focus on trauma. Fred tried to unite the various minority groups of Chicago to make a better city for all. The film shows this with a rival black organization, a Latin American group, and a group of poor white people uniting. Fred’s vision was for the downtrodden to band together to make a better future for everyone. The Black Panthers set up breakfast programs for youth to make sure they could all be fed alongside other community-focused efforts. Their message was based on socialism to raise the bottom rungs of society together.

Fred Hampton was a charismatic leader, and the Black Panthers were undermined by the FBI. Historical fiction dramatizations are often disappointing. Green Book is the worst example. These types of stories need to be told, but wide distribution treatments often leave me with more questions than answers. When I seek the answer to those questions I learn about the issue with the films and dislike them more. If you combine bad cops doing illegal things, the film is almost always going to disappoint me. This story is an important one to learn, but this did not seem like the right vessel for it.

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