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Less than a year before his death, William O’Neal was interviewed for what would become an iconic PBS documentary about civil rights called Eyes on the Prize. Lakeith Stanfield plays O’Neal, the informant who ultimately led to the death of Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers, in Judas and the Black Messiah. The full text of O’Neal’s interview is worth reading, but the most critical piece is this, which he gave as an answer to what he’d tell his son about what he did:
I think I’ll let your documentary put a cap on that story. I don’t know what I’d tell him other than I was part of the struggle. That’s the bottom line. I wasn’t one of those armchair revolutionaries. One of those people that want to sit back now and judge the actions or inactions of people when they sit back on the sideline and did nothing. At least I had a point of view. I was dedicated. And then I had the courage to get out there and put it on the line. And I did. I think I’ll let hi–let history speak for me.
William O’Neal was arrested for stealing a car and the FBI cut a deal with him by asking him to infiltrate the Black Panthers. The film portrays O’Neal as an opportunist who is conflicted, but not that conflicted, and follows the standard blueprint to some degree for informants. History has spoken for O’Neal, who died in an accident that was ruled a suicide but might not have been, but this may not be a story you know. Fred Hampton has a minor role in The Trial of the Chicago 7, and both that movie and this one have added relevance as America slowly, somewhat, starts to have conversations about race and police.
Both films present the reality that the government and the police feared the civil rights movement and sought to infiltrate it to discredit and destroy it. O’Neal drew a distinction between the FBI and “the police,” saying the former is dignified and positive and the latter is more complicated, but I don’t think most people feel this way or have this complication in their mind. O’Neal’s mind is important, however, especially where it doesn’t match what the viewer would feel. We’re seeing a betrayal, but we must understand William O’Neal to know what he’s betraying.
Daniel Kaluuya won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, which is true madness. It’s an amazing performance, arguably the best of the year, and it’s a movie about Fred Hampton, who he plays. The Academy is really bad at this distinction between the acting categories. Recent winners Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Mahershala Ali for Green Book are leads, certainly, but probably were slotted into the supporting category to assure their victory for strong performances. My favorite bit of trivia about the category is that Sylvia Miles was nominated for a single scene in Midnight Cowboy where she is on screen for less than ten minutes. Her “support” in that film is a few lines and a joke, albeit a good one. According to the Oscars, that’s about what Kaluuya did here. We should get back to the topic at hand, but it’s important to note how strong his performance is and how strong Stanfield’s is, as well. Them winning both categories wouldn’t be unthinkable, but slotting them both into supporting would be strange if it weren’t the kind of nonsense the Academy does every year.
Judas and the Black Messiah presents William O’Neal as apolitical, which seems to match how he saw himself. He infiltrates the Black Panthers because the FBI asks him to do so and pays him to keep doing it. Where he is conflicted it’s generally because he realizes the FBI isn’t really protecting him. During a shootout with police, he has to appear to the Panthers to be on their side but can’t risk anything that would actually get him hurt. The police don’t care that he’s a “good” Panther. O’Neal wants to quit, but he doesn’t want to quit because he’s actually being swayed by Hampton’s politics. There is some suggestion that he feels remorse, which the real O’Neal certainly did, but it’s mostly around the brutality of the FBI’s intentions. I think the suggestion of the film and O’Neal’s legacy, at least as he tells it, is that he wasn’t a true believer but that doesn’t mean they should kill Fred Hampton.
Fred Hampton, on the other hand, believes. Our introduction to Hampton shows him speaking to a group and demanding that true power requires force and sacrifice. He turns off an audience member by insulting religion and passive resistance as a viable option. As the story progresses and more people take to the streets with guns, we see this put into action. Hampton says in a speech that he knows how his life will end. There’s a powerful inevitability to this story from the very start, both from the title’s insistence that one will betray the other and deliver death and from just the way these things work. The powerful stay powerful and despite the song, the times are not necessarily changing.
Kaluuya really is incredible as Fred Hampton. His speeches are rousing and his slumped, exhausted portrayal “behind the scenes” of his very public life tell us that this is all taking a serious toll. During a meeting with a Chicago gang, Hampton responds immediately to what he knows will be the takedowns of his approach. This kind of writing feels stilted in The Trial of the Chicago 7, but here we see Hampton playing revolutionary speeches over and over again and honing his rhetoric. We have reason to expect he would act this way, which is a small thing but the kind of thing that makes the character feel lived rather than written.
O’Neal is written as an opportunist, as we’ve established, but Stanfield plays him scared. This is a great choice, as it shies away from the bluster that is the defining element of a similar relationship in The Departed. Jesse Plemons continues his career of playing terrifying characters as nice guys as the FBI agent. The real O’Neal looked up to this agent and insisted until his death that he thought the FBI were the good guys, but the film complicates this and offers a slightly more sympathetic view. There’s a case to be made that O’Neal said that because he saw that the FBI could and would kill him for saying otherwise, so it gets a little complicated to say if this choice is a true one or not. It serves the film to show us the FBI agent as a little unsure and O’Neal as a lot more unsure, but we have to accept this as something we can’t know in the real version.
This story is a tragedy, which the film never hides from. Obviously it’s a man’s death, but it’s a million other small tragedies. O’Neal is a complicated figure who saw himself as part of the revolution despite doing more to hurt it than help it, but even that is a statement that needs some unpacking. Judas and the Black Messiah has a point of view, but it does a great job presenting a complicated subject with only a small finger on the scale. It is possible to walk away from this with a true picture of what happened but to also have feelings about how the central figures may have felt. That should be table stakes in a true story, but so many films feel the need to demand one “maybe” was the definite fact that it makes this a revelation.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes, it’s better than The Trial of the Chicago 7, another historical film that was up for awards this year. Both films show the government’s attempt to crush a reasonable, necessary revolution for civil rights, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 is far too cute. Judas and the Black Messiah has more space to develop the leads, who are so obviously leads, again, and a more complicated view of what happened. There’s a moment in The Trial of the Chicago 7 where a similar opportunity arises and Aaron Sorkin bulldozes it. This is the better script and the better film because of the time it takes to breathe and sit with something complicated.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, we will stick with the iconic Persona, but I do think it probably should have done better at the Oscars. Nomadland is, I think, an easier to execute story and maybe a better movie, but the more I sit with Judas and the Black Messiah the more I am persuaded. Both look at parts of modern America that we don’t want to admit are part of modern America. I think years from now this will still feel like something great from this year and the performances, especially, will ring out for a long time. The Academy has bigger problems to address than how it organizes the award categories, but man, if you watch this and feel like Daniel Kaluuya is “supporting” one really must ask what a “lead” in this movie would look like.
You can watch Judas and the Black Messiah on YouTube ($19.99 at the time of this writing) or Amazon Prime ($19.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.