Judas and the Black Messiah follows the story of Fred Hampton, the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, told through the eyes of William O’Neill, an FBI informant who ultimately became responsible for Fred’s tragic death in 1969. Not only is this another example of an important film about Black History, but it also brings to light another prominent figure in the fight for racial equality, a name who might be lost amongst Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but a name that should hold just as much awe and importance. With Daniel Kaluuya in the titular role supported by Lakeith Stanfield, an immense amount of life is breathed into this vitally important story, right up until is final, heart-stopping moments.
After being caught by the cops trying to steal a car, William O’Neill, ‘Bill’ (Stanfield) is offered a deal with the FBI, his guaranteed 6 and a half year stint in prison for his crimes will be waived if he acts as an informant and infiltrates the Illinois Black Panthers. Bill, who appears to have no allegiances in the fight for racial equality admits to feeling non-plussed about the the deaths of Malcom X or Martin Luther King and doesn’t hesitate to help the FBI out. Roy Mitchell (Plemmons) of the FBI acts as a friend to Bill, taking him under his wing a bit, taking him out for fancy dinners and inviting him to drink the ‘good scotch’ at his house and Bill admits to seeing him as something of a role model. Which is a strange thing, but Bill’s values are in possessions, money and status so it sort of makes sense. Bill joins the panthers and provides Mitchell and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) with all the information they ask for until he decides he wants out, but with the threat of a hefty prison stint, he complies one last time for it to prove fatal to the renowned leader.
Government officials and authorities were threatened by Fred Hampton and his growing status in the black community. He united several political groups into the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ as a way of fight back against the police who would liberally kill black people without much, if any, of a cause. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Except that this was over 50 years ago and America is still standing in the same spot. Anyway. This coalition was a good thing and the Black Panthers not only stood up for inequality but also fed the homeless, served their community and educated their young but any kind of uprising, even a good one, was a threat. The FBI saw only one answer which was an assassination and in the dead of the night on December 4th 1969 14 police officers violently raided the headquarters where Fred was unknowingly passed out from barbiturates given to him by O’Neill and was shot dead in his sleep. His 9-month pregnant fiancé, Debbie Johnson, who is now known as Akua Njeri played by Dominique Fishback (of HBO’s The Deuce), stoically watched as the love of her life was dragged out of the room into the corridor, all while a gun was pressed to her belly.
Kaluuya who was recently a guest on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast spoke of his well deserved Academy Award win for his incredible performance as Fred Hampton and said that while he was pleased he won, he doesn’t do his work for the accolades. He does it to tell the stories and to challenge himself as an actor. He goes on to say how that he had a very intense 8-hour meeting with the real Akua Njeri and her son, Fred Hampton Jr who questioned their motives for the film; they wanted to understand him, his purpose and what he wanted to achieve by playing his father. This only further cements the absolute monumentally brilliant performance from Kaluuya, who was supported by the equally outstanding Stanfield.
This film is a must-watch for everyone. An important story, about an important man and one that we must all watch, listen and learn from.
Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming now on HBO & HBO Max.