‘Judas and the Black Messiah’: Shaka King’s Movie Wrestles With the History of Black Power
In December 1968, almost exactly a year before the murder of Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton by the FBI, Paramount Pictures released what remains one of the most curious artifacts in the history of Hollywood — hardly a hotbed for radical views of black politics. It is a film titled Uptight. Its subject: a black former steel-mill worker played by Julian Mayfield, now an unreliable alcoholic who, in his desperation, in the confused ideological haze that besets him upon the death of Martin Luther King Jr., does an extraordinary thing. He sells out his own friends and neighbors, people who belong to a group called “the Committee,” whose politics, though altogether vague, have an obvious analogue in the real-life political circumstances of the film’s own moment: the Black Panthers.
The film is set in Cleveland and, only a few months before it wrapped, King — the real King — was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Hence the Uptight’s opening: Documentary images of Cleveland’s black residents taking to the streets with grief, shock, and anger, in real time, and the fictional characters at the film’s center watching these images on television and becoming, by turns, rattled, terrified, stalwart, and confused. And hence much of the film’s rejiggering, at the level of the script, by (among others) it’s co-star and co-producer Ruby Dee, the great activist and actor, who helped take what began as a black remake of a 1935 John Ford film titled The Informer — which tells the same story, only set in 1922, in Ireland, with the IRA instead of the Black Panthers — and made it a live, immediate text, the kind of film about living history that gets bound to that history through tragedy. Which is also to say, a dangerous text: one whose intention was, notably, neither to demonize black radicalism nor to flesh it out but rather to call out the sellout, to give him a view of himself as a man unmoored, set adrift — rendered practically carnivalesque with inner torment — and, in the end, dead because of it.
Underline the word “dangerous.” Director Jules Dassin, who was white and well-known for his crime and heist thrillers, such as Rififi, had only in the previous decade been a member of the Hollywood blacklist for his ties to communism. The crew of Uptight, meanwhile, was littered with FBI informants — courtesy of J. Edgar himself.
Cut to 1990, Chicago — rather than Cleveland — and real life rather than a movie. A man named William O’Neal has recently been interviewed by the crew of the series Eyes on the Prize for his role in the FBI’s murder of Fred Hampton — the role being that of an informant. Among the intel he provided: the floor plan of Hampton’s apartment, where the raid that would claim the chairman’s life would take place. In 1990, O’Neal is 40 years old. In the years between 1969 and his death, he lived in the shadow of his choice to work as an informant, made when he was only a teenager. He was banished to California, in federal witness protection, after his role in the Hampton murder was revealed in 1973. He returned in 1984. He would give the impression, in his Eyes on the Prize interview, that these were choices he was able to live with — and that history would have its say.
On the night of his death, after a night of drinking, O’Neal tried to jump out of a window but was thwarted by his uncle. Later, he ran outside, onto the Eisenhower Expressway, into oncoming traffic. He was killed. The date was January 15th, 1990. Martin Luther King Day — the day that the new season of Eyes on the Prize was scheduled to premiere on television.
Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is another studio picture wrestling with the history of Black Power and — not unlike Uptight, or even Spike Lee’s Malcolm X — taking the substantial risk of being at odds with itself, beginning and ending with its Judas: William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). It begins, uncannily, with O’Neal on camera before the Eyes on the Prize crew, eyes furtive and uncomfortable as he prepares to give the interview which, in one perhaps neat interpretation of his life, would seal the guilt that would end that life. At this stage, unlike Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) — the film’s tragic messiah, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers and founder of the multicultural political organization known as the Rainbow Coalition — O’Neal is not a (black) household name, to the extent that he ever became one.
An early step toward broader public knowledge of the man is the very interview King’s film restages — O’Neal’s first and only. In the interview, as staged by Judas, O’Neal will tell the story of how he, a teenage car thief and longtime criminal (despite his few years), would become a member of the Black Panther party in Chicago and, quickly falling into Hampton’s good graces, become the head of the extraordinary young political figure’s security. And from the start of that story, he will embed another: how he became an informant for the FBI and how the raid that would claim Hampton’s life was the direct result of that collaboration and the agency.
The story O’Neal tells is the story King’s film thrillingly — though not flawlessly — and with unusual political complexity, illuminates in Judas and the Black Messiah. The film is, wisely, not a biopic. It does not attempt to trace the full lives, the rises and falls, of these men from beginning to end. Nor is it a robust history of the Black Panther Party in itself — though, because of the period the film is most concerned with, it does provide a good gloss on the formation of Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition — and, parallel to that, the FBI’s insistence on the specific dangers Hampton poses and its efforts, with O’Neal playing wingman, to infiltrate the group and take him down.
The conceptual difficulty of a picture such as this — so vast in its implications, so tangled in the very idea of its making — is felt in the film itself. The formation of the Rainbow Coalition, for example, almost feels too easy: Hampton walks into a gathering of poor white residents of the city, their Confederate flag hanging proud, and wins them over within (in movie time) minutes; conflict is minimized. Similarly, the true extent of O’Neal’s crimes before being caught by the FBI is intriguingly minimized, in ways that make it easier, perhaps too easy, to feel something for the man. Or perhaps it achieves the opposite: whittling O’Neal’s record down to a single dramatic incident — a bit of car theft in which, of all things, O’Neal pretends to be an FBI agent — in order to obscure the utter weight of the errors the FBI was hanging over his head, errors that might have made him more malleable, more susceptible to a way out, even if that way out was predicated on the betrayal of other black people.
Films aren’t history. But they have a funny way, for the public, of standing in for history, to the point of being treated like textbooks by the incautious. When they engage with that history, much — but hardly all — of their truth is in fact in what they leave unspoken. It’s in the ellipses and absences, undepicted. Yet we also have to allow that movies are movies; that intentions, subtexts are often a deliberate matter of artistic intention and creative license. The best political films are often the ones that bend history to their own ends, to make jagged, damning, or heroic arguments about the people therein. And this is closer to the spectrum on which Judas and the Black Messiah sits, for, though its absences are notable, its argument is razor-sharp and frequently convincing.
This movie is, like Uptight before it, a film about the crisis of the sellout. It’s a better film on the subject of the Panthers themselves, as community activists driven by radical ideology, and its finest depictions come with that sense of community flooding into the picture: in Hampton’s speeches, during a communal effort to rebuild the party’s headquarters after a firebombing, and so on. Still, the film is most pressingly concerned with the period of O’Neal’s double duty on this particular — which is to say, Hampton’s life. (O’Neal himself would remain an informant for some years after Hampton’s killing.) On this tragic canvas, the film paints a complex picture full of happenings: carefully deployed but brutal encounters with police, resulting in the deaths of young Panthers as well as cops, full of Hampton’s levitating rhetoric — which Kaluuya, stocky and sensational, delivers with power and aplomb) — all of it with care taken to weave a sense of the Panthers’ purpose and politics into the action, like some magnificent collage that nevertheless barrels ahead toward the inevitable. When Hampton falls in love with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), even this thread — what in so many films about great men would serve as a mere context of a public figure’s private relationships — occasions rich considerations of the value of black lives, a question on Deborah’s mind that gets even more pointed once she gets pregnant.
Deborah, rightly, sees Hampton for the poet and rhetorician that he very much was. She and others in the film draw out the facets of the man, who, as characterized here, is by contrast adamant that he should not be the focus of the movement. Black lives, the lives of the race and class proletariat broadly, should be the focus. O’Neal, meanwhile, is rendered in terms of his double-dealing. Stanfield nails the tragic uncertainty of the man, which humanizes him, but King’s co-writers (Will Berson and Kenny and Keith Lucas) are also very careful to assert the man’s inherent selfishness. It’s a selfishness that, in their depiction, seems to eat him alive from the inside. A sleight of hand at the end of the film, swinging us back around to the frame narrative of O’Neal’s Eyes on the Prize interview, only underlines this point.
The appeal and achievement of King’s film is in these undercurrents: the ideas it explores as all of these things are happening, the contexts that manifest themselves through, not dry exposition, but a galvanizing sense of action. It’s compelling in what it dredges up, along the way, about the men of its title and the ideas embodied in those men. King and his collaborators take care, when they have room, to give insight into Hampton’s politics and lifestyle (which, as the film deftly illustrates, cannot be disentangled: the man lived his beliefs), into the Panthers’ community work, and into the police state’s utter resistance to that work.
And, yes, its own angle on all of this, its backbone, can be summed up in the title. Judas. Messiah. With a title like that, who needs plot? King’s muscular and eventful film is built on contrasts like these: between the FBI (populated by G-Men played by the likes of Jesse Plemons, as O’Neal’s central FBI contact and manipulator, and Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover himself) and the Panthers, between full-bodied belief and the mere performance of it, between a world in which black lives have a value worth risking one’s life for and a world in which the fight for those lives is itself valueless.
As I watched this movie, I felt a great deal of anxiety on behalf of both the men at its center, though for very different reasons. Anxiety is, it should be said, not the same thing as sympathy; the film’s angle is not that we ought to forgive O’Neal, nor even really that we owe it to him or ourselves to “understand” him. It’s a depiction whose central idea is his inevitable soul-rot — hence my being drawn back to Uptight, whose black sellout is practically driven mad, in a film whose crime-world aesthetics (befitting director Dassin’s interests and style) give way to a veritable funhouse, a spooky, neurotically lensed affair that so uncannily seems to evoke William O’Neal’s own last night that it was a shock, to me, to learn that the film was released before Hampton was even murdered.
Stanfield, however — who, like Kaluuya, offers a standout performance — pushes O’Neal less toward madness, à la Mayfield, than toward a jittering anxiety, a sense that the position he occupies is untenable, tragic from the start. Both stars’ performances would be much less compelling without the broad and extraordinary cast of supporting actors drawing out their tensions and differences. What a bench: Ashton Sanders, Dominique Thorne, Algee Smith, Robert Longstreet, Terayle Hill, a brief but extraordinary bit from Lil Rel Howery, whose own identity is made just subtle enough that, considered with the man he plays, I got chills. A shortcoming, of which King has expressed awareness, is that though the roles for women here are mighty (we need more films starring Dominique Thorne, immediately, no excuses), they aren’t as numerous or robust as the real Panthers’ politics would suggest.
That may be the central shortcoming of King’s effort: It does so much, so tightly and so well, that one ironically only becomes more aware of the nuances and essences it necessarily overlooks. Is this the dilemma of black filmmaking, specifically about radicalism, in Hollywood? O’Neal’s selfishness makes sense as a cinematic idea, fulfilling the arc of a character whose status is necessarily, sympathy or not, that of the villain and whose actions — self-serving, secretive, a malignant double consciousness manifest as a double life — must stand in stark contradiction to the politics of collectivity and cooperation that Hampton promotes. It isn’t enough, the movie says, for the man to be a traitor; the premise of that traitorousness must be rent in political terms, such that the choices he makes, the lifestyle he lives, is a complete counter ethic to what the Panthers stood for.
Does it matter that, according to O’Neal’s uncle, the young man could hear someone else being tortured into collaboration with the FBI as he, himself, was being urged to become an informant? Does it matter that O’Neal was a mere 17 years old when conscripted by the FBI and Hampton, though preternaturally wise in thought and demeanor, only 22 when he was murdered? Inevitably, these things matter — they color our impressions of the lives onscreen. Imagine a version of this film in which, rather than being played by an actor in his thirties, Hampton is played by an actor in his early twenties, or O’Neal by an actor more akin to Ashton Sanders — a version in which youth, the youth of the movement writ large, in the context of the power of that youth to incite a legible, actionable movement in this country, is brought to the fore. The film feels aware of this version of its story, for what it’s worth, and is wiser for it; its depiction of the violence wrought by police on other young members of the party, played by the younger actors (including Sanders), goes some way toward making these points.
Perhaps King’s real accomplishment is in the care taken by choices such as these — a care that shows that he’s aware of the negotiations inherent in a project such as this and who is nevertheless invested in threading something complicated through a near-invisible needle. (The presence of Ryan Coogler, who undoubtedly has more than a little wisdom to impart about negotiating Hollywood’s politics — whose own Black Panther threaded a Malcolm vs. Martin-esque political story through not only franchise loopholes but a seemingly Marvel Studios-inherent friendliness to the C.I.A. — is telling.) Judas and the Black Messiah can’t do everything. What it accomplishes is nevertheless quite something. It is a bittersweet compliment to what’s here that we end the film wishing it’d done even more.