A terrifying cabal of well dressed white men headed by J. Edgar Hoover is assembled. They are discussing how to deal with the problems of 1960s America. One such problem is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuyah) the Illinois chairman of the Black Panthers. After all the Black Panthers are a dangerous group to the American dream and Hampton is an incredibly individual himself. Cut to young Billy O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) trying to steal a car by passing himself off as an FBI agent. It doesn’t go well and Billy is arrested. Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) sees an opportunity with Billy. Utilise Billy’s impressive skills to infiltrate the Black Panthers and potentially bring them down from the inside. This is a simple plan, but what happens is anything but simple. This is Judas and the Black Messiah.
When I realised what the narrative of Judas and the Black Messiah was I found myself dumbstruck. And I’m not sure how others will read this, but I have never thought there would be people like Billy O’Neal. You can disagree with the actions of the Black Panthers, after all, they are considered quite an extreme group in history. However, I never thought that someone would go against their people for their own selfish needs. Throughout the film as we learn about Fred Hampton and the struggles he endured to help his community and others at large, we see Billy giving the FBI all kinds of information to undermine Fred and the Black Panthers.
Billy even profited quite nicely off it all. It left a sick feeling in my stomach and I’d say that was due to the impressive acting on show from the cast. Daniel Kaluuyah as Fred Hampton is a force of nature. He commands every room he enters. It’s impressive, he has an inescapable will.
There is one particular scene where he and some members of the Black Panthers enter a meeting of what looks like insanely conservative white people. These people even have a Confederate Flag hanging up. The dynamite is lit and ready to explode, but Fred diffuses the situation. He explains how they are all disenfranchised. This brings them all together and it’s phenomenal to watch such a person get through so many barriers. It’s a powerful scene. Between how it is shot and how Kaluuyah presents himself to everyone. It’s easy to see why the government, in particular J. Edgar Hoover was so frightened of this individual.
Understanding Judas and the Black Messiah
Complimenting this story is an equally striking score. The score is at times to the beat of a drum. A war drum to be precise. They’re at war, constantly and there are many casualties. Judas and the Black Messiah is a visceral experience and the score enhanced it considerably.
Not everything is war councils, meetings behind closed doors to undermine the man though. Judas and the Black Messiah also has some beautifully tender moments that punctuate the intensity of the rest of the film. This comes in the shape of Dominique Fishback’s Deborah Johnson. Deborah is Fred’s girlfriend and their scenes together are tender and sweet, these further add humanity to Fred Hampton.
If there are any negatives from my watching of Judas and the Black Messiah is that I never quite understood Billy’s motivations. He never openly states why he did what he did. The film makes it out that he just doesn’t want to go to jail, but as you watch the film he revels in living the life that the FBI is offering him when they pay him for his services. Now he has moments where he seems to worry, but they’re fleeting and mainly come from the fact that he’s also put in a lot of dangerous situations. Now, this is based on a documentary that he was involved with and it’s troubling to see because, to me, I don’t think he understood what he did.
Coming away from Judas and the Black Messiah
When I came away from this film I was infuriated. It mainly came from the actions of Billy and the outcome with Fred Hampton. It’s an emotional film, it’s a powerful story and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a story that will really engage you.
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