Judas and the Black Messiah Maximises the Weight of the True Story

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Many recent cinematic stories have delved deep into black history’s myriad aspects. A proportion of those successes have resulted from the direction, writing or production of the incomparable Jordan Peele. Get Out (2017), BlacKkKlansman (2018), Us (2019) and Candyman (2021) are thought-provoking, symbolic explorations of black oppression, simultaneously critiquing and resonating with audiences.

Allegorical productions have found their way into the public consciousness, but there is rarely anything less shocking to the heart than the impactful reproductions of the essential, biographical and untold stories that lie throughout black history.  2013’s 12 Years a Slave and 2014’s Selma are two renowned entries, focusing on the events and actions relating to the lives of Solomon Northrup and Martin Luther King Jr. respectively.

Ignorance of Martin Luther King’s influence on not just black history but modern social history is thankfully rare these days. His unique status and legacy meant effective suppression of his gospel remains an impossibility, yet there remain many outlets of historical resistance that have been quietened over time. Events tipexed from the history books.

The re-exposure of these missing truths feels transcendent – it is not just a piece of cinema, but a gratefully accepted public service. One of 2021’s best pictures achieved just that. We are, of course, talking about Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, which retells the story of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and his betrayal at the hands of an FBI informant, a black man named William O’Neal.

Biographical films are always risky, especially when they have absolute duties to the truth. But by keeping it’s pace and hard-hits throughout, King really sells the tragedy of the unfolding narrative, though it is undoubtedly through its stars, Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, that the grim horrors of Hampton and O’Neal’s exploitation and subjugation by the authorities are conferred. Ironically, both actors were, like their characters, subdued by an authoritative power, as the Academy decided on the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ category as a worthy placement, despite either having a strong claim to the award for leading men. It was a travesty to see just one of them collect the accolade.

Meanwhile, Shaka King, with only his second feature film, inspires a dark, uncomfortable and foreboding atmosphere that refuses to evaporate. As such, Stanfield’s fidgety depiction of a guilty FBI informant is set amongst a lurking sense of fear and exposure, and Kaluuya’s barnstorming turn as the party leader is enshadowed by the inevitable spectre of betrayal.

But to call his death a betrayal at the hands of a fellow black man feels itself like a betrayal of the piece and history’s truth. It was the objective of the authorities that constructed the Machiavellian web, to spread the lie that it was simply another case of black-on-black violence. A smokescreen deployed while the real intricacies of the case are brushed under the carpet.

King provides us with a direct line of sight at the truth to negate this. Stanfield’s O’Neal is as much of a victim of the system as Kaluuya’s Hampton. O’Neal’s role as an informant is brought about through coercion, as the FBI blackmail him into agreeing to spy on the Black Panthers, hanging his previous criminal convictions over his head like the Sword of Damocles.

O’Neal joins the Black Panther Party, and his respect for Hampton is clear throughout as they strike up a bond. But his innate goodwill is ripe to be exploited, as his FBI handler continues to force him into increasingly dangerous situations. Their actions have intendedly drastic consequences for the party – O’Neal’s information ends up in the lap of the nefarious J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Director, who explicitly wants Hampton assassinated.

Unfortunately, he got his way. O’Neal drugged Hampton on the night of his death, but it was the subsequent police raid (later confirmed to be an assassination) that killed him. Reported as a gun battle, with the blame laid firmly at the Panthers’ door, it was later revealed after an enquiry that police had fired up to 90 rounds, compared to the Panthers’ 1. Hampton was already stricken but was shot twice more in the head at point-blank range.

“Looks like he’s gonna make it.”, says one officer. Two shots ring out. “He’s good as dead now”, is King’s interpretation of the event. It’s hard to believe the truth was very different.

King offers harsh and brutal dramatization for the audience to digest, but, as always, the real emotional weight comes crashing down with the confirmation of each event’s veracity. The end credits explain the stark facts. Hampton was just 21 when he was murdered, leaving his pregnant wife a widow. O’Neal retired as an informant in 1970 and gave his only interview on the job in a documentary that aired on Martin Luther King day, 1990.

He killed himself later that evening.

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