Bill O’Neal was no cop. He just pretended to be one.
It worked, too. He’d roam the streets of Chicago, looking for a car he liked. And when he found one, he’d track down the owner, flash a badge and say the vehicle had been reported stolen. Didn’t matter if the car’s owner had owned the car for years: In Chicago in the late 1960s, you didn’t argue with the police. Not if you were black, anyway.
Maybe it was only a matter of time before the real police caught Bill. Sure enough, they did—still sitting in a stolen car. FBI Agent Roy Mitchell told him that he was looking at a nice, long stint in jail: 18 months for the car, another five years for impersonating a police officer.
Or, Agent Mitchell says, it could all go away.
All Bill has to do is infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, which is led by the charismatic firebrand Fred Hampton. Called the Chairman by his flock, Fred preaches a message of equality, socialism and violence. “Political power flow from the barrel of a gun!” he yells, and the FBI is pretty sure he means it.
The Feds want eyes and ears in closer proximity to Fred and his crew: What are they planning? What are they plotting? Just how far are Fred’s Black Panthers willing to go?
Bill’s not thrilled about the gig, of course. It comes with its own serious dangers, given how the Chairman and the Panthers feel about law enforcement. But choosing between that and seven years of prison? No contest.
And that makes Bill something of a real cop now. More than that: He’s a guy working for the suits in Washington, D.C., and J. Edgar Hoover himself.
Bill’s no Black Panther. He just pretends to be one. Thing is, this pretense just might get himself—or someone else—killed.
So, let’s sidestep the question of who the real Fred Hampton was—the terrorist leader the FBI painted him as in the late 1960s, the righteous crusader that this movie paints him to be today, or somewhere in between. Given that is a movie review, let’s deal with the movie’s version of the Chairman.
Judas and the Black Messiah’s Fred Hampton is an angry young man, and he has plenty of reason to be. He’s an unapologetic revolutionary, but one (the movie suggests) more in keeping with the nation’s own revolutionaries, circa 1776.
He’s all about people power—democracy in sometimes frightening action. “The people can decide whether to overthrow the government,” he says. “Or not.” And, as if illustrating that central point, Fred works to unite Chicago’s disparate street gangs and disenfranchised citizens into what he calls a “Rainbow Coalition.” Through friendship and persuasion, he brings a violent rival gang called the Crowns into his orbit, pulls in the Puerto Rican gang Young Lords, and even makes friends with a group called the Young Patriots Organization—poor, white folks who hang a huge Confederate flag up during their meetings.
“We can heal this whole city,” Fred tells the Crowns’ gang leader as he extends an olive branch. And the Chairman seems sincere. He talks occasionally about feeding the city’s hungry and creating a health clinic for its poor. And indeed, when he’s given an envelope full of money—money intended to get him out of the country for his own safety—he instead suggests that the cash should be used to start that clinic, thinking about other people before himself.
His organization has some strict rules about behavior, too. When Bill’s caught leering at a woman in a classroom, he’s forced to do pushups as punishment. “These mother—-ers aren’t no terrorists,” he later tells his FBI contact. “They’re terrorizing me.”
That contact, Agent Mitchell, initially seems like a man of honor, telling Bill that he was involved in a high-profile KKK bust down south. He insists to Bill that the Black Panthers are just “the other side of the [KKK] coin.”
“I’m all for Civil Rights,” he says. “But you can’t cheat your way to equality, and you certainly can’t shoot your way to it.” (He’s also pretty shocked, at least at first, at some of the morally questionable—or bankrupt—moves that his superiors make.)
Deborah Johnson, Fred’s pregnant girlfriend, supports Fred and his revolutionary goals, but she’s also aware of the risks it brings. In a poem, she wonders whether the “power to the people worth the ransom.” She’s deeply concerned with her baby’s safety, just as a mother should be, and she’s equally aware of the potential dangers to herself and her man.
The title’s term “Black Messiah” was taken directly from the real-life J. Edgar Hoover, who worked to stop the rise of someone who could “unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.” The film leans into that term, painting Fred as a secular Messiah figure and Bill as a complex character who betrays his would-be savior for, metaphorically, 30 pieces of silver. It’s perhaps no coincidence that some of the Chairman’s most powerful speeches take place in church: At least one features a cross prominently suspended on the wall behind Fred as he speaks. He sometimes invokes biblical allusions in his speeches and letters.
But make no mistake, Fred is in reality a secular “messiah” who seems to have little passion for Christianity or religion of any kind. In one speech, he namechecks “pushers and preachers” in the same line, telling his audience he has no use for their charity (or charity at all). He’s aiming for a country that embraces secular socialism.
We hear a story about a child needing to pass gas in church.
Fred and Deborah spark their sexual relationship while working late and drinking coffee. We see the two of them cuddle and kiss. And while the camera doesn’t linger on the scene, we know (and see) that their relationship eventually produces a pregnancy. (Deborah tries to keep it a secret for a while, but another female member of the Black Panthers—one who may suggest she’s also known Fred rather intimately—subtly tells Deborah that she knows, and that any choices Deborah makes must take into consideration the child, too.)
As mentioned, Bill’s forced to do pushups after leering at a woman. In a meeting with Agent Mitchell, J. Edgar Hoover invokes the agent’s eight-month-old daughter. “What will you do when she brings home a negro?” he asks. He insists that will happen unless the FBI is successful in silencing Fred and those like him. A man makes a pass at a woman in a bar, telling her that they should continue the conversation in his bed.
The Black Panthers weren’t big into pacifism or nonviolent resistance. They saw their fight against racism (and the government they believed both allowed and fostered it) as a war. And in one speech, Fred seems to call for the disenfranchised to take the war directly to the police.
“Kill a few pigs, get a little satisfaction,” he says. “Kill some more pigs and get some more satisfaction.”
Privately, Fred suggests that such statements are hyperbole, and when a fellow member shows him a trunk full of C4 with which to blow up a government building, Fred’s shocked and appalled, and the two nearly get into a fistfight on the spot. The film suggests that the authorities were more guilty of violence than the Panthers—either directly instigating it or egging it on.
Case in point: Chicago police (in uniform, but possibly off-duty and drinking beer) surround the Black Panther headquarters, with one of them hurling racial slurs and jokes via a bullhorn and demanding that the members inside come down or else. Those inside begin shooting, and several people (both police and Panthers) are injured. Once the Panthers surrender, one (a female) is beaten, while police rush into the headquarters with gasoline and set the place on fire.
A Panther, seeing several black men being frisked by white police officers in a business, barges in and demands to know what’s going on. The Panther eventually pulls a gun and shoots. The police shoot back, and again people are injured on both sides. The Panther later dies in the hospital, and his compatriots believe he was murdered.
A guy named Jake Winters, in an effort to get some answers regarding that death, goes to question someone and drops a massive gun as he does so. The man (reasonably alarmed) calls police. Several policemen are shot during the ensuing hunt, and one injured officer, begging for his life, is essentially executed by Jake with a point-blank shot to the head. Police then close in and kill Jake. (History tells us that two officers and Winters died in the shootout.)
Bill hears how a Black Panther chapter dealt with an undercover lawman in their midst—pouring boiling water over the man (especially his privates) and eventually killing him and throwing him in the river, “with the rest of the trash.” (We later learned that the murdered man was actually innocent—fingered by the real informant—and the FBI hoped the informant would be able to repeat the process elsewhere, essentially giving their stamps of approval on torture and murder.)
Guns are toted and brandished. Bill threatens several people with a pool cue. A man in prison—apparently abused and/or tortured by guards—is shown with his chest bloodily carved up. Threats are made. Bill runs for his life from people trying to keep him from stealing someone else’s car, and a knife blade slashes through the car’s convertible top. We hear about the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Very violent language is used in conversation, speeches and propaganda fliers. We hear that someone committed suicide.
[Spoiler Warning] The movie tells us that Fred Hampton was executed by police with help from Bill and the FBI. During an early-morning raid, police burst into the home where Fred and several Black Panther members are staying, opening fire. One man is killed in the initial assault, while others are seriously hurt. (We see bloody, injured people on the floor.) The police enter the room where Fred—heavily drugged—is sleeping. “Looks like he’s going to make it,” one officer says. Then we hear two gunshots, with an officer saying he won’t anymore. A closing slide tells us that the Panthers apparently fired one shot, while the police fired 99.
Nearly 120 f-words and 40 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n” and “h—,” along with several uses of the word “n—er” and the slur “cracker.” Characters regularly refer to police as “pigs.” God’s name is misused more than 20 times, most of those with the word “d–n.”
Fred, Bill and others smoke. Agent Mitchell gives Bill top-shelf liquor at times—even telling the man where he can find a bottle of the “good stuff” while Bill visits the agent at home. Bill drugs someone’s drink.
People, especially those representing the law, lie and mislead. We hear loads of racist remarks and see evidence of racism.
Judas and the Black Messiah is, on one level, a historical drama. On another, it’s a movie very much of the moment. At the time of its release, our society is grappling with questions of race and systematic racism on levels not seen since the ‘60s, and many would say this difficult conversation is long overdue.
So it’s little surprise that the film has been greeted warmly by secular movie critics and pundits. Sporting a strong screenplay and boasting two incredible performances (by Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal), the film is one of this year’s awards season’s most-mentioned contenders.
Still, I can’t help but wonder whether the movie’s depiction of Fred Hampton as an unabashed, surprisingly two-dimensional salvific figure will itself stand the test of time—whether the narrative here will transcend the movie’s of-the-now statement. Such statements are inherently a product of their own time, while the culture that gave them voice and body constantly changes. Some films that have carried a message to awards-season glory can come off as dated now, and perhaps even a little naïve.
The movie itself, of course, will last on streaming platforms and Blu-ray discs … and it will have the same issues that it has today. The nearly 120 f-words, for starters. The violence for another. While not particularly graphic or gory, Judas and the Black Messiah is predicated on violence, just as the players in the movie itself (on both sides of the fence) use that violence to get what they want.
Power, Fred Hampton tells us here, comes at the end of the gun. This film’s makers know that power comes in other forms, too—like on a screen. But that sort of power, as we all know, can come with its own form of recoil.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.