“Inspired by a true events” always sends up a red flag, and Judas and the Black Messiah is no different. The Decider gives its point of view but I’d rather trust The Smithsonian or History vs. Hollywood. Fast Company writes that informant Bill O’Neill (O’Neal) was so despicable that some of his activities are excluded from the film. So that makes his disclosures in the 1990 documentaries more credible? Still, in an effort to be neither pro- nor anti-Black Panther, Judas portrays “Hampton’s historic animosity toward the police, which included advocating violence against them.”
In the first minutes of Judas and the Black Messiah, the stage is set. “Revolution is the only solution. We will set up a non-capitalist state with free medical clinics, free breakfast for children program, inter-communal institute in liberation schools, free legal aid, and free education for the community.” The motto of the Black Panthers is “we are going to fight capitalism with socialism.”
J. Edgar Hoover responds with “the Black Panthers are the greatest single threat to our national security, more than the Chinese, more than the Russians. We must prevent a Black Messiah from uniting the Communists, anti-war activists and the New Left.” (Note: At no point does Fred Hampton, nor anyone else, explain how they will pay for the free stuff, nor why Hoover worried about the Chinese in 1968.) In any case, the well-acted Judas gets 3.5 Gavels and it receives a 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating with a 7.8/10 IMDb score.
Bill O’Neal avoids prosecution for Impersonating an FBI officer and Grand Theft by working as an informant inside the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers. His handler, Agent Roy Mitchell, wants him to shadow and report on Fred Hampton, Chairman. Fred meets with the gangs of Chicago, the Crowns, the Stones, and the Disciples. He talks with the Hispanics and poor whites. The “Rainbow Coalition” is coming together. “There will be no more pigs in our community.” In response, Hoover demands that Hampton be neutralized, by any means necessary.
As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya (Widows, Queen and Slim) is charismatic. His “shy” love-life seems hard to rationalize with his radical persona, but who knows? In trying to make Bill O’Neal somewhat sympathetic, the writers do Judas a disservice. That aside, Lakeith Stanfield (Knives Out, The Photograph) provides a vivid portrait. Finally, Jesse Plemons (The Irishman) plays the quintessential FBI handler, turning the screws just enough to get what he wants.
A film like Judas is never fun to watch, unless you like your government to be immoral and your endings to be predictably murderous. Interestingly, while Hollywood loves to take on bad cops, it never explores when “rebellions become riots.” In Judas, are the writers saying that there’s a little good in everybody (Hampton), unless you are a cop?
“The movie mourns what might have been and nags with what we’ll never know.” Boston Globe
“King’s dual focus and stylish cinematic approach makes for a biopic that is at once rousing, maddening and desperately tragic.” Tribune News Service
Like The Trial of the Chicago 7, the events of the ’60’s need remembering. Let’s hope we don’t repeat the violence of the 60’s in the 2020’s. We’re not off to a good start.