September 25, 2023

I reached the age of 21 in 1997. My heaviest burden was being carded while trying to purchase my first legal drink. Coming from a sheltered life, I wanted to be grown and do all the things I thought grown people did. I ran out and got my first tattoo. I partied hard and had a good time doing it.

I was not the voice of a revolution. I was not a galvanizing force that prompted people to action. I was not assassinated in my bed where I lay in a drug-induced sleep, while the mother of my unborn child was handcuffed in the next room. I was not martyred because I dared speak truth to power, or because I ventured to bring Black folks, poor Whites, and Latinos together against a system that was (and still is) detrimental to all of us.

Sure, 1997 and 1969 were much different times. By ’97 we’d been fooled into thinking conditions for us were better, so my fights for justice weren’t about freeing political prisoners, but rappers. I cannot imagine the weight that rested upon the shoulders of Fred Hampton. It was weight that he took on willingly and proudly at such a young age. On December 4, 1969, the FBI — operating outside its bounds using the illegal program COINTELPRO — chose to murder 21-year-old Hampton in one of the most harrowing assassinations of our time.

Everybody Hates A Rat

Fred Hampton’s story is one that isn’t necessarily well known. Even lesser known is the story of William O’Neal, the informant sent into the Chicago chapter of The Black Panther Party to gather intel and befriend the party’s Chairman, Fred Hampton. O’Neal’s cooperation with the FBI and participation in drugging Hampton ultimately led to Hampton’s death. Judas and the Black Messiah focuses on the lives and choices of both of these men. O’Neal’s character, played by Lakeith Stanfield, was equally as important to driving the story as Hampton’s character.

Many people have questioned the choice of centering O’Neal’s story. I may have questioned that choice myself if the role hadn’t been so brilliantly played by Stanfield. Stanfield’s performance allowed viewers to see the nuance of O’Neal’s condition. Though we may still hold ill feelings toward the real O’Neal, this film forces us to deal with how his betrayal can be a reality under the auspices of such a flawed system. This is one case in which I truly wish the old adage “snitches get stitches” were true; however many believe O’Neal to have been haunted by his deceit. He ultimately committed suicide in 1990, 21 years after Hampton’s assassination.

What I Appreciated About The Film

The movie was shot beautifully and the story was well-paced. Hampton’s family, along with other key Black Panthers from that time, were included in weaving together this narrative and it showed. The film was powerful and left me in silence with my thoughts for some time after its conclusion.

The acting was phenomenal. Daniel Kaluuya (Hampton) and Stanfield are powerhouses in this film. Kaluuya takes on a persona different from any we’ve seen out of him before, demonstrating his range as an actor. Stanfield became O’Neal. So much so, he admittedly struggled with the role and needed therapy after filming. Dominique Fishback portrays Hampton’s fiancee, Deborah Johnson. She gives an endearing performance of a woman who seeks to find her place in a powerful movement while loving a man whose life is dedicated to the empowerment of his people.

A Stark Reminder

While times have changed, they aren’t really that different. The Black Panther Party, though troubled at times, was made to be villainous through the use of propaganda. They were quickly and violently extinguished by our own government. The same thing is happening to grass roots movements today. I urge you to make this a family film within the appropriate age groups. Many of today’s youth remain woefully uninformed of the costs of their “colorless” friendships. They are clueless as to the struggle of getting a movement off the ground without the use of social media. They have no idea of how our progress as a people was effectively castrated by the murdering of our most effective leaders. This film gives us fertile ground to grow conversations that must continue to occur in our homes and in our communities.

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