The movie Judas and the Black Messiah was the finest of the Best Picture nominees for this year’s Oscars. It presents a piece of American history that has either been forgotten or, more likely, heavily distorted.
Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and deputy chairman of the national BPP. In this capacity, he founded the Rainbow Coalition and “an alliance among major Chicago street gangs to help them end infighting and work for social change.”
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) considered Hampton a threat to decency in America and wanted him surveilled from the inside. Enter Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a con man captured by the feds. Under the direction of his FBI handler Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), Bill infiltrates the Panthers and gets close to Fred.
The two leads were nominated for Oscars, oddly both as supporting actors. They are excellent, as is the rest of the cast. Kaluuya imbues the charisma Hampton must have possessed at such a young age, 21 at the end of the film. Even though I knew how the story resolved, I was tense throughout.
It’s impossible to totally separate the movie from the events, not only of the late 1960s but the early 2020s. s one reviewer noted, “Although the events occurred so long ago, the ramifications that they led to are clearly still being felt in the US.”
Two months before I saw the movie, I read an article in Think Christian called Judas (Iscariot) and the Black Messiah. “The Bible’s Judas and history’s Bill O’Neal share more than a record of betrayal.”
The premise is this: “Eyes worn, bloodshot, and on the brink of tears, the disciple looks his teacher in the eye and performs his final act of betrayal.” It’s an emotional strain to be a rat in an organization built on loyalty and discipline.
“Though drawn from the final scene between Bill… and Fred…, the fact that this description could fit an imaginative retelling of Judas Iscariot and Jesus illustrates the unique impact of the film.
“A tense and stunning historical drama, Judas and the Black Messiah explores a neglected moment in our national history. At the same time, it presents a fresh angle on the complex weight of guilt, especially if we consider the interpretive interplay between Stanfield’s O’Neal and the biblical Judas.
“The film’s Judas figure—and the way Stanfield embodies guilt—help us think about the biblical Judas and vice versa, with a call to contemplate the Judas tendencies that lurk within us.” And I think Stanfield reflects that pain.
The story was written by identical twin brothers Kenny and Keith Lucas, along with Will Berson and Shaka King. Berson wrote the screenplay with King, who also directed.