(Call): I am…a revolutionary.
(Response): I am…a revolutionary.
(Call): I am…a revolutionary.
(Response): I am…a revolutionary.
The clarion call for a revolution rings throughout Shaka King’s movie, Judas and the Black Messiah. The call intensifies and spreads out beyond invitation. It questions the nature of revolutions; whose revolution, and why; what is lost with revolutions, who pays for it; how do you sabotage a revolution, or, better put, who do you use? Enter Judas, the harbinger of doom to the Black Messiah.
Starring LaKeith Stanfield (Bill O’Neil) as Judas and Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hamtpon) as the Black Messiah, this is a movie set-up on paper for deep character reflection—what goes on in the mind of the one who betrays the people’s messiah? Lakeith shines with his depiction of what he has been given, but it can’t be helped, more focus should have been placed on Bill O’Neil, aka Judas.
Bill used to be an F.B.I-impersonating car thief until he was arrested, and while in custody, was visited by an F.B.I agent, Roy Mitchell. Roy offers Bill a deal; he either infiltrates the Black Panther Party, Illinois Branch, and report back to him with information, or be imprisoned for six years. Bill takes the easy choice, and by the end of the movie, Fred Hampton, Black Panther chairman, Illinois chapter, the messiah of the people, is shot dead.
The attention Judas and the Black Messiah places on Fred Hampton and his Back Panther instead of Bill automatically points to the film’s core interest, a statement on revolution. And the film succeeds at this. It highlights and humanizes the Black Panther beyond the violent radicalism it has been portrayed in; the group’s Free Breakfast Program, the neighbourhood watch, the community clinic it tried to build. By humanizing the group, it humanizes its cause and its mercurial chairman, Fred Hampton.
Fred Hampton is the charismatic messiah with a fateful end. Fred Hampton is brilliant. Fred Hampton is a leader. Fred Hampton quotes Mao, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Fred Hampton unites gangs, white leftists, Hispanics, and apolitical blacks under one coalition to battle white supremacy and the capitalist structure put in place to maintain its longevity. For these reasons and the fact that he is black in a racist country and in a racist period, Fred Hampton dies. But the shocking truth is this: Fred Hampton is just 19, and at the time of his death, shot in his sleep while his wife, Deborah Johnson was held by police officers, Fred Hampton is 21.
It is too easy to humanize this black messiah. But the film persists at this and focuses on diverse aspects of Fred Hampton’s person. This is important. All of history is politicized speech regardless of who is telling it, thus it is important that numerous parties tell a particular history from various angles. The Black Panther Party should be represented in this new light. Yet, something, or someone important, is missing: Judas. The messiah thrives at the expense of Judas, and, unfortunately, this movie is meant to be about Judas.
Bill O’Neil is Judas. He was 17 when he met F.B.I Agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who helped him infiltrate the Black Panther Party, and, eventually, facilitate Fred Hampton’s assassination. This means Bill O’Neil was 20 at the time Fred Hampton, 21, was murdered in his sleep. Contextually, it means that at the time Bill O’Neil was forced to choose between a six-year-old prison term and infiltrating the Black Panther Party, he was a scared 17-year-old teenager who had made a mistake. The movie should have highlighted this to humanise Judas as well.
In various scenes, LaKeith Stanfield does his best to portray Bill as a conflicted young man in an insurmountable dilemma. But while the script, the cinematography, and all other technical elements are capable, none of them adequately help LaKeith show the true trouble Bill goes through.
There is nothing on his backstory to show why he does this, nothing portrayed on his ambition beyond the F.B.I pay for his espionage services. This is the fate of all Judases: They must be dehumanised for the messiah to shine. The fate of the first Judas was death and eternal damnation; that, too, is Bill O’Neil’s fate. Years later, in 1990, a documentary titled Eyes on the Prize, premiered on PBS. Therein, Bill O’Neil revealed what transpired in those years that led up to Fred Hampton’s death. That evening after the documentary premiered, Bill O’Neil committed suicide. What Bill O’Neil did was wrong. But he was a 17-year-old black kid in a racist country. Justice, or, in this case, history, should have been tempered with more mercy by Shaka King in his version of events. But this is the strength and failure of narrating history—no version can be absolute.
Transcript from Eyes on the Prize (1990):
Interviewer: What would you tell your son about what you did then?
Bill O’Neil: I think I will let your documentary put a cap on that story. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll tell him other than… I was part of the struggle. That’s the bottom line… At least I had a point of view. I think I will let history speak for me.
Be careful what you wish for, Bill O’Neil.
note on the nigerian revolution
Revolutions, by their nature, usually don’t end well for their propagators. You lose something important while at it; your way of life, your money, your loved ones, your time, or worse, your humanity. And once the revolution is over, what do you do with the remains of the country, especially in one as divided as this. The temptation to return to the ethnical and tribalistic status quo will be near irresistible.
And where is the character in a characterless country to lead a revolution. It appears that we might lack the intellectual/humane character to oversee a revolution. A revolution can be perfect only when it is planned from start to post-revolution. Yet the idea of a planned revolution negates the spontaneous essence of revolutions. Yet, it is as obvious as hands raised to a face, this country needs a revolution.
- A scene towards the end of the movie. Fred Hampton’s five-year prison sentence appeal has been overturned by the Supreme Court, and the political coalition Fred formed earlier in the movie gathers a large sum of money for him and Deborah to escape. Fred collects the money and hands it to the Black Panther Party doctor for it to be put into the construction of a community hospital. Fred Hampton asks his helpers, “Is the party about me or is it about the people? It is a five-year-bid. You know how many people we could save in five years?”
One can only wonder what he could have done if he had lived.
- Music From a Protest After Fred Hampton’s Assassination:
(Call): Our Brother Fred Hampton.
(Response): Our Brother Fred Hampton.
(Call): Was a great Black Panther.
(Response): Was a great Black Panther.
(Call): He was the deputy chairman.
(Response): He was the deputy chairman.
(Call): of the Illinois Panthers.
(Response): of the Illinois Panthers.
(Call): He was shot through the head.
(Response): He was shot through the head.
(Call): While asleep in his bed.
(Response): While asleep in his bed.
(Call): Cause he loved the people.
(Response): Cause he loved the people.
(Call): And he served the people.
(Response): And he served the people.
(Call): Power to the people.
(Response): Power of the people.
I have fallen into my own argumentative loop by ending on this note because, whoever you are, wherever you are from, no matter how logical you may seem, it is difficult to sympathise with a Judas.
Judas and the Black Messiah is currently showing in select theatres and on HBO Max.