Why Judas And The Black Messiah Makes You Feel Uneasy

Scene Judas and The Black Messiah
Image Source: Variety

Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the most beloved and successful movies of 2021. It shows us the history of the Black Panther Party, and also explores the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It is a powerfully dark movie and describes the relationship between Fred Hampton and undercover FBI informant William O'Neal. O'Neal tries to set Fred Hampton up and is eventually responsible for his death at the hands of the FBI.

The score, composed by Mark Isham and Craig Harris is a stressful and dark creation. It allows us to follow Stanfield's character on his treacherous road to betraying Chairman Fred Hampton. The film currently holds a 96% rating on Rottentomatoes. 

Judas and the Black Messiah, is a 2021 film about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton which stars Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. The film features stressful overtones and an anxious soundtrack which makes the viewer feel scared like Stanfield's character, traitor William O'Neal.

Poster for Judas And The Black Messiah
Image Source: USD

The Cast Of Judas and the Black Messiah

The cast of Judas and the Black Messiah is diverse who’s who of today’s best actors and actresses. Daniel Kaluuya, of "Get Out fame" plays Fred Hampton, the revolutionary Black Panther leader.

His Get Out costars Lakeith Stanfield and Lil Rel Howery return as well, as William O’Neal and Wayne the pimp respectively. The film has an extremely dark and sinister undertone and Lakeith and Daniel play off of each other nicely. Lakeith literally unravels on-screen as O’Neal, and even though he is the villain, we sympathize with him deeply.

Dominique Fishback, perhaps best known for her working girl role on The Deuce, delivers a fantastic performance as Fred Hampton’s companion, Deborah Johnson. She is pregnant with his child at the time of his death, and she portrays herself in a very moving and real manner.

Here is the cast of Judas and the Black Messiah:

  • Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton
  • Lakeith Stanfield as William "Bill" O'Neal
  • Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell
  • Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson
  • Ashton Sanders as Jimmy Palmer
  • Algee Smith as Jake Winters
  • Darrell Britt-Gibson as Bobby Rush
  • Lil Rel Howery as Wayne
  • Dominique Thorne as Judy Harmon
  • Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover
  • Amari Cheatom as Rod Collins
  • Nick Fink as Fesperman
  • Khris Davis as Steel, a Crowns member
  • Ian Duff as Doc Stachel
  • Caleb Eberhardt as Bob Lee
  • Robert Longstreet as Special Agent Carlyle
  • Amber Chardae Robinson as Betty Coachman
  • Nicholas Velez as José Cha Cha Jiménez
  • Terayle Hill as George Sams
  • Jermaine Fowler as Mark Clark
Black Panther Rally in Judas and the Black Messiah
Image Source: The New Yorker

Stream Judas and the Black Messiah on HBO Max

HBO Max has had a big year. Due to COVID shutting down movie theaters temporarily, most big films have sought a digital release. Consequently, HBO Max has stepped in to fill that position.

Judas and the Black Messiah premiered on HBO Max on February 12th, 2021, and immediately made an impact on the cinema landscape of this COVID-era. Heavily lauded for its performances as well as its historical realism, the film can be streamed with a membership or 30 days trial on HBO Max.

poster for Judas and the Black Messiah
Image Source: WSJ

The True Story Behind Judas and the Black Messiah 

This film is dark and gritty. It shows us how corruption can destroy a human being from the inside. Judas and the Black Messiah gives us another side to the story of the struggle of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. For a long time, history has been kept by the FBI and other police agencies that have been accused of using illegal practices to get rid of the Black Panther Party.

Indeed, the killing of Chairman Fred at the hands of the FBI, if the movie's version is to be believed, is actually a murder. After all, it is these very agents who empty their weapons on the Black Panthers inside the apartment. 

Still, we may never fully know the truth about William O'Neal and his relationship with the FBI. Despite O'Neal participating in "Eyes on the Prize 2", his interview can not be taken at face value without some sort of corroboration. As far as the death of Fred Hampton goes, responsibility can reasonably be laid at the feet of the FBI.

This American police agency is shown as malevolent, tricky, and reckless when it comes to covert operations. The position of this film is that the Black Panthers were justified, at least in some of the interactions between their party and American police forces. 

In reality, we do know that the city of Chicago, and Cook County, did pay out $1.85 million to 9 plaintiffs related to Fred Hampton. Revelations from COINTELPRO operations as well as misuse of power allowed the proper leverage for the court to tacitly take responsibility.

However, in the film, there is no question about guilt or responsibility. We know that Fred and the company participated in violent interactions with the police before. We know that shots are fired on both sides. However, the film shows us that Fred was not only shot down without a care, he was drugged prior to the police's invasion of the place he was staying at. 

This is where William O'Neal comes in. An FBI informant, who was only under the thumb of the FBI for an outstanding grand theft auto warrant, was forced into committing far worse acts on behalf of the government. Compensation was poor for William O'Neal. 

At the time though, O'Neal thought correctly that if he did not agree to participate, he would have been dealt with or sent somewhere extremely unpleasant. It is reasonable to assume that O'Neal was friends with the men he spied on. He felt he was on the right side, due to the government agents' influence on him.

The movie uses real footage from Fred Hampton's speeches as well as turning us on to an important resource as far as the murder is considered. The interview of William O'Neal on "Eyes on the Prize 2", a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement, shows us the truth. 

This interview below shows us O'Neal's true feelings regarding his treachery on the orders of the FBI. O'Neal speaks about his participation in the plot. The end of the video shows us that there really is only one record of the FBI ever paying this man for his services as a mole inside the Black Panther Party. They reportedly gave him $300 for "uniquely valuable services rendered" right after the murder of Hampton was completed. This is supported by an FBI receipt for payment to the informant.

Where To Watch Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the many films that was released through HBO Max this year instead of the theater. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, movies had to be streamed rather than experienced directly. 

Indeed, there are benefits to this type of release. Being able to enjoy a movie, and a new one at that, from the comfort of your home, is a major plus especially when you factor in inconvenience. 

With that in mind, many people were making their own movie nights during the quarantine. My wife and I enjoyed many films through streaming that otherwise would have only been available through the actual movie theatre. After we knew we’d be staying home for a considerable amount of time we decided to make the most of it.

Prior to quarantine, our date night spot was the movie theatre, and we made it a point to see all the talked about and critically acclaimed films. Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the films we were able to experience through streaming, and we enjoyed it thoroughly. It is a remarkable piece of history and brings to light the true struggle of the Civil Rights Movement. 

However, it was only available through HBO Max for a limited time. After that, it is only available through paid rental via Amazon, Hulu, or Sling. You can watch it on whichever platform you prefer, but it will cost you $19.99.

Lakeith Stanfield as William O'Neal in Judas and the Black Messiah
Image Source: Newsweek

Lakeith Stanfield’s Iconic Performance as William O’Neal

Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the tensest and vibrantly dark movies that has been released in the past decade. It owes a large part of this to its musical score, its dark subject matter, and the performance of Lakeith Stanfield as the traitor William O’Neal.

Since Lakeith was given a difficult hand when he got the role of William O’Neal, his skilled and vulnerable performance is to be praised. In an interview, Stanfield mentioned his disappointment at drawing the role of O’Neal, when he originally had auditioned for the lead role of Fred Hampton.

Asked about the casting directors, Stanfield said, "Ultimately, those decisions are made by people who have a better understanding about casting and their relation to the story than I do." He was certainly a good sport throughout the movie and then put all of his efforts into bringing William O'Neal to life.

In addition to playing a prolific traitor in William O’Neal, this character also has a specific toxic place in African-American culture. Fred Hampton, a bonafide man of the people, was beloved in his time and revered when he, unfortunately, passed at the young age of 21. 

The specific role of William O’Neal, the man who was undercover for the FBI and complicit in the shooting death of Fred Hampton, is understandably one of the most hated roles you could cast in our era of social justice. With that in mind, the level of effectiveness with which Lakeith Stanfield played O’Neal will go down in history.

Stanfield’s performance makes us believe that he really is a man unraveling under the pressure of being pulled in two very distinctly opposite and diametrically opposed directions.  The stress in his portrayal is projected through the screen into the very soul of the viewer.

Since he is always on the verge of being caught, and trying to live his two lives in peace, his anxiety is terribly high. Throughout the film, even though we know O’Neal will betray the young Fred Hampton, we still feel sympathy for him. Afraid that he will be caught, his emotions and his thoughts are cast into our minds as we try to imagine what it would be like to be an informant in an armed militant political faction.

What’s perhaps worse is that his natural inclination is to be on the side of the Black Panthers. He sympathizes with their struggle, identifies with their members as brothers and friends, and later on, recalls his time with the group fondly. The duplicity with which he must perform his job is enough to make anyone sick.

Similar to other confidential informant roles in crime films, many of which we are familiar with, such as Henry Hill in Goodfellas, we as the audience feel bad for the situation our character has gotten themselves into. For Stanfield’s O’Neal, we see the lead-up to his forced treachery. We see the FBI use O’Neal’s said petty crimes as leverage to force him to betray his would-be allies in the Black Panthers. 

Still, Lakeith’s iconic performance as William O’Neal is only one facet of this extremely dark feeling that pervades the entire film. The musical score as well as the cadence of the film puts the audience on the edge of their seats as well.

The Sounds of Judas and the Black Messiah 

The film owes a major part of its vibe to its sonic background. The score of the movie was created by Mark Isham and Craig Harris, with contributions from Quelle Chris and Chris Keys. It features shadowy overtones as well as obviously depressing chords. 

This atmosphere is tense and full of angst, exactly the way our characters feel. Similar to Lakeith Stanfield’s O’Neal, the character of Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is a man who lives a stressful life. When he isn’t trying to uplift his fellow Americans, he is spending time on the run from the police and white supremacists, as well as doing a pretty long stint in jail.

While we go through the story and see the Black Panthers' battle against the police, the music, and the background drives home just how dire this situation is. 

The soundtrack features some hip-hip heavyweights including Jay Z, Nas, A$AP Rocky, and the late great Nipsey Hussle. These songs all feature a type of protest energy, and since this film is in the era following the tragic death of George Floyd, everyone involved with this project brought their best possible energy.

Indeed, these songs are a massive boost to the film. The sounds and actions are extremely cohesive and because of this, the film comes together like a depressing patchwork of historical accuracy. 

Fred Hampton portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya
Image Source: The Independent

The Betrayal Of Fred Hampton

The facts of Fred Hampton’s death were always available to anyone who wished to consult the people who knew him and his struggle with the US government. Still, the unpleasant true nature of his final moments was not known or at least believed by the majority of US citizens.

The truth of Fred Hampton's death is a little more disturbing than most people would like to admit. In the movie, and in real life, William O'Neal was not just complicit in giving the layout of the apartment that Fred Hampton was in. He also poisoned the man's drink with some kind of sedative which knocked him out and rendered him an easy target for the shooters.

When performing the necessary motions for the scene, Stanfield recalled the mental stress involved with it: "With somebody like Daniel, who I just respect as a human and an artist, as Fred Hampton, it felt like I was actually poisoning Chairman Fred Hampton." After that, Stanfield went on to say, "It’s no wonder I’ve been feeling so stressed out and having panic attacks."

As Lakeith says, this is the kind of stress that this film induces. The audience is inside William O'Neal's mind, given his special perspective, and we feel his pain as well. In addition to extremely sad content, the film holds special gateways into the viewer's psyche.

Indeed, this moment in the film is one of the darkest and most sad. At this point, O'Neal has taken stock of his situation and accepted the bleak outlook for his future. The FBI has leveraged him into a corner in which he cannot get out of, and so the only way to go is forward. Unfortunately for Fred Hampton, that direction will end in his death.

It is important to note just how important William O'Neal was to the Black Panthers. For the Chicago chapter, he was the leader of security. He was in charge of protection for the group. It was this prominent role that allowed him to get close enough to Hampton to play a major role in his downfall.

Throughout the movie, we see how both William O'Neal and Fred Hampton interact. The two men, while trusting each other and relying on one another in political activities, also butt heads on occasion. When an angry O'Neal recommends a more violent approach, possibly a bombing on an FBI or police location, Hampton is angry and tells him to get the weapons away from him.

Hampton believed in peace. He thought that fighting white capitalism with black capitalism would be futile. For Fred, socialism was the only way to get rid of the white overlords of the US government. As such, he thought that non-violence as a social and political revolution was the answer to ridding the world of racism and unequal practices amongst Americans.

For his part, William O'Neal was a believer in more violent practices. Given his backstory, prior to his entering a relationship with the FBI, he would engage in dangerous crimes. On his "thrill-seeking" behavior, Lakeith Stanfield said, "He might get fun out of creating imbalance. He steals cars — he wasn’t very afraid to put himself in a line of fire..."

O'Neal, as shown in the beginning portion of the movie, was stealing a car from a local bar, when he was arrested pending grand theft auto charges and offered a "way to work it off". 

O'Neal, a young African American man, in the clutches of the local police, staring down the barrel at a possible 10-year sentence, was understandably shaken. Consequently, he was already softened up and vulnerable to the pitch made by the FBI. They asked if he would mind ingratiating himself within the Black Panthers, at the right hand of Fred Hampton.

When it started, the FBI made it clear they only wanted information to protect the American people. The Panthers had proven to be dangerous in the sense that they would protect themselves and their people from police. It is also well known that the Panthers could deal with informants and rivals within the organization in a violent fashion.

This added to the level of stress that William O'Neal had to deal with. George Sams, a high-ranking member of the Black Panthers, was one such man he feared. Sams, a west coast native, came to Chicago to help organize the Black Panthers and strengthen their resolve. When a fellow Panther named Alex Rackley came under the suspicion of the senior Panthers, he was kidnapped, tortured, and killed by Sams. 

After the killing, Sams bragged openly about his part in the vicious plot. O'Neal was later told by his FBI handler, that Sams himself was an informant as well.

He was a necessary evil that the FBI was willing to deal with. O'Neal expected gratitude from exposing an unsolved murder, but in the film, we are led to believe that one black man murdering another was not something that concerned the FBI.

However, this murder, in real life, would later be used in the New Haven, Connecticut Black Panther Trials. Sams would turn state's evidence to have his charges reduced to second-degree murder.

Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah
Image Source: Shadow & Act

Why Judas and the Black Messiah Makes You Feel Uneasy

When you factor in all the various devices at work in this film, it is important to keep a tally of what is evoking this strange scared feeling out of the viewer. Whether it's the dankly dark soundtrack, the eclectic and riveting performances, or the historically tragic subject matter, you feel what the film wants you to. 

It isn't limited to just the viewer, however. In a recent interview, lead actor Daniel Kaluuya told a funny story about costar Lakeith Stanfield, in which the sound guy thought he made a mistake when applying a mic to Lakeith's car: "He’s looking everywhere, thinking he fed up. Then he realizes it’s LaKeith’s heart. Because in the scene, he had to get away."

With scenes like this and reactions from the actors themselves, it is no wonder why this film moves the viewer to such anguish and psychic despair. After all, that is what a good tragedy does. It puts you into the position of the person witnessing the said tragedy. As such, you become a part of the tragedy, and the downfall of Chairman Fred Hampton is one of the most tragic stories in recent American history.

Joseph Poulos is a freelance writer from Michigan.

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