Prior to seeing Judas and the Black Messiah, I had never heard about Fred Hampton, his assassination by the FBI in 1969 or the informant, Willaim O’Neal. For reference, I’m a white woman who grew up in white suburbia. I and others like me need to see and hear these stories and broaden our understanding of Hampton’s era in history. Director Shaka King stated he wanted to make this film to help introduce Hampton’s story to “a great segment of the world who is unaware of who he was, and is highly unaware of the Panthers’ politics and ideology.” King does an amazing job bringing this story to life, painting Hampton not just as an revolutionary activist, but a man trying to improve his community and an expecting father. On the other side of the coin, O’Neal is not simply a traitor, a rat or even a puppet of the FBI, but a man with his back against the wall, his freedom and his morality hanging in the balance.
In Chicago in the late 1960s, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was a young activist, rising up in the ranks and became leader of the local Black Panther chapter. At the same time, a young man named Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield)) is arrested for impersonating an FBI agent to steal a car. The feds give O’Neal a choice, jail or help them infiltrate the Black Panther party. O’Neal becomes the FBI’s informant, working closely with Hampton, earning his trust and becomes the key to his assassination.
One of the most poignant scenes for me was when Deb (Dominique Fishback) reads a poem about her and Hampton’s baby she’s carrying. The images and concerns she conjures with her words cut deep. She worries about her baby’s future, if this revolution will be worth it or bring the child more grief. She wonders aloud if Hampton will be there for his child. It’s a sad, heartfelt beautiful ode that all mothers will identify with.
Judas and the Black Messiah is currently nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, best cinematography, best original screenplay. Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are both nominated for best supporting actor. And up for best original song is Fight for you by H.E.R., a powerful number that captures the sound and spirit of the story.
Part of me would like to give this film another watch, just to find and dissect the biblical references and undertones that the title so blatantly alludes to. The evening before Hampton’s assassination has a great hopeful, yet heavy atmosphere as would the last supper. Is Hampton’s time in jail to be equated to Jesus’s wandering in the desert? Is Hoover Pontius Pilot, the police Roman soldiers? Or am I just stuck in my white, suburban Sunday school upbringing and making it all that too simple when I should be focusing on the condemnation of racial injustice? Perhaps I should not focus on the similarities this story has to the biblical past, but to the similarities to recent events here in America. King is showing us that the fight for freedom and justice is not over. More people, of all races, colors and creeds need to be informed of that and willing to stand up against injustice.
“America’s on fire right now and until the fire is extinguished don’t nothin’ else mean a goddamn thing.”