I have been unsure whether I wanted to review this film or not, as I felt the concepts that came into play are somewhat an injustice to the intentions and space the Black Panther Party attempted to create. However, after a few weeks of research, I came around to a satisfied state to speak on it. A strong disposition I have carried throughout my reviews so far is the importance of Black work in a multitude of mediums. Whether it is a film about a Black family unit and the lifelong affirmations so relatable, or the wonder of fantasy in a marvellous setting, a short film shedding an understanding of an unstudied space, or a historical show built to recognise a dramatic yet realistic state. In each of the Black works I review, there is a strong disposition of alleviating our struggles. I want to articulate and honour our community, as such ideas and realities became the making of me. Nevertheless, Judas & The Black Messiah is a film that unsettled that disposition of necessity by creation within me. It hurt my heart to watch, dampening my hope and soaked my misery in doubt, that by the end of it, left me morally debunked and slumped in depressive thought.
The first thing brought to my attention was questioning whether the film should exist or not. Although the enticing cast paused any form of protest that rocked within me. I thought, with the likes of Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, the film being produced by Ryan Coogler, directed and written by a highly respected Shaka King, this is something I should see. I will never miss something Daniel Kaluuya is in, right now he is my favourite actor. Plus, I jump at any chance to learn more about the Black Panther Party. This was my enticement to the film. Judas & The Black Messiah is about the immoral endeavours of William O’Neal, an FBI informant, played by a dismayed Lakeith Stanfield, positioned in a Chicago branch of the Black Panther Party led by a young and aspiring Chairman Fred Hampton, played by the illustrious Daniel Kaluuya, who won a Golden Globe for the best supporting actor in a film with this performance. Daniel’s invested performance shines bright. He visited Hampton’s early homes, schools, speaking venues, and even discussed with students and former Panthers about the man’s life and legacy. Meeting Fred Hampton Jr and his mother Akua Njeri (Deborah Johnson) who is played by Dominique Fishback, added to his conception of Fred Hampton as a being. Jesse Plemons plays Roy Mitchell, the real FBI agent that facilitates the whole ordeal under the tutelage of J Edgar Hoover – the infamous FBI director that looms in that dark with sharp but lifechanging statements of action.
The film itself is a suspenseful and triggering piece, highlighting aspects of the great communal service and pride carried throughout the Black Panther Party. It shone a brief light on their political notions, the discipline carried out, the training and collective endeavours of people, as well as the networking Fred Hampton orchestrated between other disillusioned political groups that existed at the time. The score of the film is dark, looming, adding to the unease and enthusing aspect of the reality of the situation. Composed by Mark Isham and Craig Harris, the Jazz influence captures the sound of the times while adding to the entire aura of the films concept. It was such musical strings being pulled that lulled me into a rage at the situations at hand. It is mechanical, calculative, imposing, and exposing of a concerned heart. This was masterfully done. Although, alongside my building bitterness, it was in these moments of the films dialogue, intentions, situations and score blending together that prompted me to question its existence. Despite the tremendous job in summoning the emotions, inspiring a range of thoughts, its being unsettles me knowing there’s no happy ending in this story. The immorality of the situation bellows as if jabbing at history itself, that won’t change but can produce such historical thrillers such as these.
William O’Neal story as the Judas evokes no empathy within my heart despite the humanisation of the character. He is the centrepiece of the film, that studies his controlled relationship with the FBI and the tactics they utilised to undermine the party. It could be argued that due to the insidious nature of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, its Counterintelligence Programme that carried out covert and majorly illegal operations of surveillance, infiltration, discrediting, and generally destroying domestic American political organisations, that it was not entirely to the fault of the manipulated informants. Nevertheless, empathy can only go so far. Regardless of the realities Black people faced, William O’Neal allowed himself to be a pawn for the downfall of a Black community. The Civil Rights Movement, as well as Black Power Movements, were prime targets during the 60s and 70s of these endeavours. William O’Neal was, one of countless people who were subjects utilised in these tactics. Though that doesn’t erase the fact he was a snitch looking out for his own self. Speaking to film reviewers at the African American Film Critics Association, Lakeith Stanfield voice cracks a bit as he thanked a critic for asking him about how he felt during this whole film process – something almost totally ignored throughout the whole ordeal.
Lakeith highlighted the role ignited a depression within him, he suffered from panic attacks on set, sleepless nights, sheer confusion at becoming this character and questioned whether it was the right decision at all. He had to go to therapy in order to alleviate the stress accumulated in playing William O’Neal. When he first received the script, he was enthused at the idea of playing Fred Hampton – only to be informed it was William O’Neal he would perform. This was going to be a challenge, but as an actor it wasn’t an opportunity to shy way from. Joining him in this interview, Fred Hampton Jr and Daniel Kaluuya offered their insights to the reality behind the film – making a fantastic roundtable discussion of it. Jr went on to highlight, it was important such a film was created in order to show the reality behind FBI & Governance involvement in subjugating their efforts. People needed to heed the inhumane tactics of psychological warfare, manipulation and general undoing of them. Jr also added that these modern-day tactics and technologies have existed for so long, such as wiretapping, listening to conversations via phone, speakers that can allow you to hear conversations from within a building if just pointed at it, facial manipulation to change identities among other practices to ensure the destruction of such movements. He even noted the fact that when William O’Neal passed, he and his Mother, Deborah Johnson, renamed Akua Njeri, attended his funeral to pay their disrespects and ensure he was dead and buried. However, at the open casket – they came to realise that the body and face was not of the William O’Neal they remembered – adding to the mystery of the FBI and their practices.
I felt comforted at the idea that Fred Hampton Jr and his mother essentially gave their blessings to the creation of this film, and less fiery at its existence. However, another glaring issue I recognised was raised by Noname, a Chicago native rapper that has a passion for hands on community work. She is not merely an activist, but someone who is vocal in teaching and helping others learn a discourse to understanding politics and community. She denied the opportunity in being a part of a soundtrack, stating after she witnessed the film she decided to pull out of it. Which for many implied her politics doesn’t align with the creation or content of the film itself. Like with the fantastic film score, the film itself, the soundtrack also alienated me by being a product of the same system the Panthers fought against. The film and its ideas became a culture product to produce worth over political action. Recently, Noname raised a headquarters for her reading club that intends to provide political education classes, book & food drives, host a radically filled library, provide free art shows and film screenings. A wholesome and free space that doesn’t intend to wait for the same Government that orchestrated the downfall of such in the 60s and 70s to act. It is such political inclinations that the film lacked. Although some intentions were pointed toward, such as the equality of opportunity and respect by gender, the community watch and monitoring of policing, the cooperation between the Panthers and other political movements. Despite such, as a film – the political incantations can only be injected so far. If there was a film intending to flesh out the philosophy and political endeavours of the Black Panther Party, a film focused on the snitch wouldn’t be it. I do hold hope that, likewise with myself, such communal interests no matter how little detailed can inspire people to act within their own. We can share, educate, and work to each other’s benefit without needing a Government known for disenfranchising life itself.
To conclude, I would say Judas & The Black Messiah is a must-see film if you adore passionate performances of brightening dark moments within history. Although the reality behind its existence offers a shallow feeling. Hence, I’d also say, if you are not a fan of trauma and carry a heavy heart you do not need to rush to see it. The spectacle has seemingly been enlightening for the cast, studying crew, and filmmakers themselves. I hope such can shed onto others, like it has with myself, and the endeavours of the Black Panthers strike a chord within them to embark on something similar. It is a shame that Blackness embodies politics in most cultural products and serves as something we can utilise in a learning space. But I guess, this has become a tragic reality of Blackness in white societies.