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“Judas and the Black Messiah”—A Harrowing Tale on a Fallen Revolutionary

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at U Mass Amherst chapter.

Judas and the Black Messiah, a historical drama directed by Shaka King, retells the story of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers chapter and the betrayal he faced from William O’Neal, an FBI informant. The film is Hollywood in its most radical form, presenting the dark side of the FBI and other constituents of the system. Although the real Fred Hampton was assassinated in 1969 at his apartment after Chicago Police and the FBI engaged in a shootout, firing their weapons 90-99 times, the drama has much to say about the charged world we’re living in today.


If you haven’t already watched the movie, be warned, there will be spoilers below! However, much of the film is based on real events that you may be familiar with.

The scene opens by giving us a look into William O’Neal (who is Judas in the movie’s title) and his unique hustle where he poses as an FBI agent. He tells his victims that they’ve stolen a car, and takes their keys to go on a joyride. However, this time, O’Neal gets caught in the act and stands eye to eye with an actual FBI agent. As blood drips down O’Neal’s solemn face and hits the tainted floors, he quietly realizes that there’s no way this will end well. The FBI agent gives O’Neal two options: jail time for impersonating a police officer or to pay his dues by operating as an informant, thereby infiltrating the Black Panthers to gain key information on their leader.

Daniel Kaluuya brilliantly channels O’Neil’s persona from the beginning to the very end. Additionally, Fred Hampton’s charisma, energy, and tremendous amount of responsibility make it hard to imagine he was merely 21 while gripping at this revolution of the 1960s. Meanwhile, LaKeith Stanfield fills the nuance of his character in all the right places. While Fred Hampton was certain in his feat, O’Neal is hesitant and unknowing of his position in society as well as his voice as a poor Black man in America. Because of this disposition, it felt as if Bill was easily exploited into encapsulating the soul of a callous traitor, but his heart wavers in both directions.

The film reaches a climactic peak after the chairman is framed for stealing $70 worth of ice cream (yeah, I know). Even in a jail cell, Fred manages to see the potential of the inmates sitting it out alongside him. Many of them are just products of a broken system that no one cares enough to fix. These people, with something to believe in and a cause to fight for, can be extraordinary. Even as Fred learned his headquarters had been burned down through a newspaper headline, he was filled with ammunition to fight harder. When he returns to the outside world, he shouts to a beaming crowd, “I am a revolutionary!” One of the real Fred Hampton’s greatest strengths was his voice. Overcoming a speech impediment in childhood, he memorized the everlasting speeches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. to practice. He spoke quickly, but carefully, having the powerful ability to organize people from diverse walks of life. 

LeeAnn Cline via Unsplash

Despite all of its greatness, the film certainly still has some weak points. Judas and the Black Messiah glosses over Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition, a multicultural alliance that included several radical socialist groups, such as the Young Lords which was a Puerto Rican turf gang-turned civil rights organization, and the Young Patriots, a working-class white Appalachian labor group. These organizations congregated disadvantaged people from a variety of backgrounds, all with a common vision of a more equitable society. 

While some may disagree, the movie also does not develop the romance between the chairman and Deborah enough in order to make it believable. As the FBI murders Hampton in his sleep and Deborah cries over his almost lifeless body, it’s as if we now must be convinced that this romance was so profound. However, we don’t get to see much of that unfold, partly because of the focus on Bill. Bill, our enigmatic protagonist, does not have much to say about politics or the revolution. When asked about his opinion on the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. King, he admits he’d “never thought about all that.” Bill avoids thinking about the consequences of his actions throughout the whole film. When he is finally made aware that the FBI director’s goal is to kill the chairman, Bill only succumbs to a blank stare with an ounce of regret. The fictional version of Bill remains a sympathetic character, but the amount of uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding his thoughts are frustrating, to say the least.

The film tries to put together the parts in the epilogue, showcasing a brief section of an interview with the real William O’Neal in 1990. The interviewer asked him what he wanted his son to know about his role in the fallout. He responded, “I was part of the struggle, I wasn’t one of those armchair revolutionaries … at least I had a point of view [and] put it on the line.” He did not like speaking out about the events that occurred, and that was one of his only public appearances. Shockingly enough, he committed suicide shortly after filming it, and there’s some conspiracy surrounding the manner which you can read about here.

Despite Fred Hampton’s short life, his triumphant words, brilliant organizing, and revolutionist thought, impacted so many in the city of Chicago and the rest of America. In his own words, “you can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom. “ And you’d better believe it.

Sources: 1, 2

Nadyah is a Philosophy and Microbiology major at the University of Massachusetts. She loves listening to the sound of rain, taking afternoon naps, and sipping hot chocolate on a chilly evening.
Contributors from the University of Massachusetts Amherst