Judas and the Black Messiah: Power and Lobster
Writer-director Shaka King enlivens the true story of Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. As played by LaKeith Stanfield, FBI informant William “Bill” O’Neal infiltrates the organization and betrays Hampton. King, however, manages to humanize O’Neal with his cinematic reimagination of the events that lead up to Hampton’s death. William O’Neal’s relationship with his Special Agent handler Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) in the film reveals how the FBI seduces O’Neal into action. The temptation of goods, both material and incorporeal, motivate O’Neal to betray Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
From the first moments of Judas and the Black Messiah, O’Neal (Stanfield) wields power as his own physical weapon. As a con artist and car thief, he plays into the fears of fellow Black individuals with a fake police badge. The badge, as an emblem of the oppressive, white establishment in America, becomes O’Neal’s weapon and shield; the moment the men find out O’Neal is a fraudulent agent, he is rendered defenseless. O’Neal elucidates the power of the badge to Agent Mitchell in one sentence: “The badge is scarier than a gun.” The badge evokes more fear out of Black people than a weapon, because no physical power can topple the systemic persecution the badge represents.
Agent Roy Mitchell offers O’Neal gifts unknown to Black Americans at that time to entice him: power and respect. In the earlier sequences of the film, Mitchell treats O’Neal as equals with feigned interest as he even states he is ‘all for equality’ while the two drink at his sophisticated home. Power, as personified through the badge and O’Neal’s relationship with Agent Mitchell, delineates a dichotomy in O’Neal’s life.
Power offers a semblance of dominance but also anchors O’Neal in a subservient position to the FBI. The concept of power galvanizes William O’Neal to take drastic action, but also deprives him of basic perception. O’Neal, in his quest for power, becomes a helpless puppet that almost derives pity.
Material rewards facilitate O’Neal’s decision to help murder Fred Hampton. Materialism propels O’Neal to betray his own intuition, as captured by the meticulous decisions Stanfield makes as an actor to embody his character. Stanfield often stutters his lines, casts his eyes downward, and fidgets with his body to communicate O’Neal’s unease with the situation. But, whether it be food, money, or cigars, the temptation of material goods supersedes any discomfort.
In fact, O’Neal often swallows his words with a pull from a cigar or a bite to eat off a fancy dinner plate when he talks with Agent Mitchell, as if to quell his own internal acrimony with his involvement. However, O’Neal was no diffident victim and was committed to his role as an informant. Stanfield underscores his character’s avarice and awareness through dramatic, yet subtle flair; O’Neal licks the lobster butter off each, individual finger as he accepts the money and job from Agent Mitchell.
As the film progresses and O’Neal acclimates to the privilege of life outside his narrow Black experience, his outfits even become more sophisticated. O’Neal believes money, or a slick blazer, turtleneck, and sunglasses, will insulate him from maltreatment and make him equal with his white counterparts.
Money exposes a sharp contrast between the virtues of both William O’Neal and Fred Hampton. In the film, money makes O’Neal susceptible to the FBI’s bait while Fred Hampton’s relationship with money made him “the greatest threat to national security”. Fred Hampton’s distaste for money and capitalism threatened the fabric of American society and united a surplus of various supporters behind a common goal against greed.
Fred Hampton’s ambitious agenda of socials programs undermined an economic and political system that continues to sustain white supremacy. For that reason, America decided his soup kitchens demanded more attention than organized crime rings.
Themes of alienation and betrayal in Judas and the Black Messiah reflect similar messages addressed in Melina Matsoukas’ 2019 film Queen & Slim, also starring Daniel Kaluuya in the titular role. The death of Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah occurs because of the immediate decisions of two Black informants, which calls into question the nature of Black allegiance against the magnetism of material goods and power. Even Spurgeon “Jake” Winters’ (Algee Smith) death happens on account of a spiteful Black man who calls the cops on him, after letting Jake know “I ain’t your brother!”
In Queen & Slim, the protagonists are sold out to the authorities by a Black man who sought new, diamond encrusted grillz and a sum of money. The evident similarities between Judas and the Black Messiah and Queen & Slim make profound social commentary that dates back to the slave trade and insidious practices among African tribes that forced thousands into physical subjugation... at the right price. The portrayal of specific Black characters in both films demonstrate the victimization of Black people at the hands of capitalism. Money and power propel people to betray those they respect, including themselves.