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‘Judas and the Black Messiah:’ Bill O’Neal’s Moral Dilemma in the Assassination of Fred Hampton

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“Judas and the Black Messiah,” a historical drama and political tragedy directed by Shaka King that depicts the end of Fred Hampton’s life, was released on HBO Max on Feb. 12. 

Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the Black Panther Party (BPP) Illinois chapter leader and national deputy chairman, was slain at just 21 years old by the FBI. Hampton’s assassination is history, but like most Black history, only the white perspective is disseminated and the benevolent and tender story behind Hampton and the Black Panther Party’s motivations is erased. 

“Judas and the Black Messiah” fills in those gaps, following the perspective of Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). A petty criminal, O’Neal was given the choice to work as an FBI informant on the Black Panther party, or face years in prison for hijacking cars and impersonating a federal officer. It is his inside information and FBI undercover work that directly led to the assassination of Hampton, the death of activist Mark Clark and the arrests and injuries of multiple other Panthers. 

Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), Hampton’s fiance — nine months pregnant at the time of the raid — was dragged out of the room and heard as officers shot Hampton in the head point-blank, then reaffirmed “he’s good and dead now.” 

Photo provided by Warner Bros. Pictures @wbpictures/Instagram

Lawrence Ware of the New York Times poses the question: “Is this the most radical film ever produced by Hollywood?” 

Perhaps it just did something rarely ever done before: recall history as it was, unfiltered by a white lens or savior character. 

The Black Panther Party itself was and is radical, unabashedly charged with revolutionary fervor and passion for the people.

“Yeah we’re armed, we’re an armed propaganda unit,” a BPP spokesperson said at a free Fred Hampton rally. 

Lex Pryor of The Ringer claims the film is “a type of subversive art that is dependent on its ability to balance the demands of mainstream commercialism with the commitments of anti-establishment politics. Its commitment … is to heighten the contradictions.”

Radical thought is presented in a thriller aimed at satisfying mainstream audiences, in a medium that is typically “un-radical.” 

Photos provided by Warner Bros. Pictures @wbpictures/Instagram

The film opens up on an interview with Stanfield as O’Neal, taking place on March 3, 1989, about two decades after the assassination of Hampton. O’Neal is clearly uneasy and his forehead is covered in sweat. 

The interviewer asks, “Looking back on your activities in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. What would you tell your son about what you did then?” 

The scene is then intercut with historical footage of BPP rallies and powerful speeches from Panther leaders such as Bob Lee and Angela Davis. 

“No individual creates a rebellion. It’s created out of the conditions,” Lee says, followed by the Watts Prophets singing “Revolution is the Only Solution.” The film also imbeds footage of the free services the BPP provided the community including a free medical clinic, a breakfast program for children, legal aid and education. 

Finally, we hear former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s proclamation, “The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security. More than the Chinese. Even more than the Russians. Our counter-intelligence program must prevent the rise of a Black Messiah from among their midst. One with a potential to unite the Communist, the anti-war and the New Left movements.” Hence, the title “Judas and the Black Messiah” formed. 

Stanfield, known for his performances in Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” and Donald Glover’s television series “Atlanta,” delivers a stunning performance in his portrayal of O’Neal, the “Judas” of the Illinois BPP chapter. 

Throughout the film, the FBI informant and BPP security captain faces a deep moral dilemma: an inner battle of his consciousness between his obligation to sell out Black Panther Party members and his fear of threatened imprisonment. He forms intimate relationships with other BPP members, especially Hampton. After a police raid and bombing of their headquarters, O’Neal spearheads a rebuilding effort, dedicating much of his time and energy to the cause. 

In the beginning, FBI Agent Roy Mitchell repeatedly justifies O’Neal’s continued cooperation with the federal bureau by telling him that the Black Panther Party is no different from the KKK. When it comes down to Mitchel’s request for O’Neal to slip a sleeping agent into Hampton’s drink to prime him for the FBI’s raid and subsequent assassination, O’Neal indicates hesitation. The FBI agent coldly retorts, rhetorically asking him what violent, torturous pains the BPP will enact on O’Neal once they find out that he’s a “f**king rat.” 

There is no way out for O’Neal. This anxiety build-up continues throughout the film, up until the final moments in which the audience, already aware of history and O’Neal’s contribution to Hampton’s assassination, stares in disbelief as O’Neal unwillingly carries out the FBI’s plan to drug and murder Fred Hampton. 

At the end of the film, the interviewer repeats the question, “What would you tell your son about what you did then?” Rather than Stanfield portraying his character, this final scene is actual footage of Bill O’Neal’s March 3, 1989 interview. 

“I don’t know what I’d tell other than […] I was part of the struggle. That’s the bottom line,” O’Neal finally said. 

This Fred Hampton biopic is a thrilling watch, filled with historical footage, tragic depictions of the BPP’s struggle, inspiring revolutionaries and even a tender Black Panther love story between Hampton and Deborah Johnson. 

No film portraying the life and death of Fred Hampton has ever been released in mainstream Hollywood before. The release of “Judas and the Black Messiah” hopefully indicates the changing tides of media, focusing more on Black narratives and perspectives and the injection of unconventional thought. 

Jacqueline Lee is an Entertainment Intern for the winter 2021 quarter. She can be reached at jacqusl4@uci.edu.