2 March 2024

A life is sacrificed to bring power to the people

By Wendy Knowlton

09 April 2021

Fear is a strong motivator in Judas and the Black Messiah. This tense film immediately immerses its audience into the warzone of Chicago, 1969. Petty thief, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is caught impersonating an FBI officer but Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) offers him an alternative to prison. He must infiltrate the local arm of the Black Panthers and report back on charismatic Chairman Fred Hampton. (Daniel Kaluuya) O’Neal takes the deal. A desire for self-preservation trumps political idealism or racial loyalty and he rises quickly within the organisation, never beyond suspicion, but trusted enough to provide what Mitchell requires.

The contrast between Hampton and O’Neal is stark. Both Kaluuya and LaKeith have been nominated for Oscars and their performances are mesmerising. Hampton is an orator, a poet and an inspiration. Driven and committed to the Panthers’ stated mission of liberating the oppressed – whatever colour they might be – he is above fear – truly prepared to die for the people. O’Neal, on the other hand, is terrified by the twin threats of incarceration and the torture that would come with discovery. There are moments however when something other than self-interest flits across his face. LaKeith makes us wonder if this performance ever becomes his reality. He begs to be released from the deal on several occasions, but is fear or remorse the driving force behind his desire?

Mitchell seems similarly conflicted. Whilst clearly committed to his world view, his discomfort at hearing of an FBI-facilitated murder leads a reptilian J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) to drip poison into his ear, evoking scenarios of his daughter “bringing home a negro”, or visions of rape and pillage. Hoover is the true villain of the piece. He wields fear as a weapon and sees prison as a “temporary solution” that only creates heroes. The sudden death of Panther, Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders) – on the road to recovery after being shot by police – or the fact that Hampton’s flat was sprayed with bullets with only one shot being fired in return, are Hoover’s means to an end.

Hampton’s rhetoric can be confronting, but the film humanises him. “It’s not a question of violence or non-violence but of resistance to fascism” he says and calmly walks into hostile situations keen to unite warring groups for the greater good. His tender relationship with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) and his involvement with setting up free healthcare and a breakfast program for children emphasise why Hoover fears this “Black Messiah”. Ultimately facing entrapment, Hampton rejects offers of escape. He sees himself as there to serve the community, not draw focus from its needs.

When those with badges decide the threat needs to be “neutralised”, O’Neal is reluctant, but complies. The final meal at Hampton’s flat and the drugged drink O’Neal offers him are laden with symbolism. In the aftermath, Mitchell tells his informer, “You’re free”. As much a victim as a villain, O’Neal’s haunted face and subsequent fate suggest something quite different.

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