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Judas and the Black Messiah

A petty criminal in sent by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panther Party in . William O'Neal () is a small-time criminal, who is caught attempting to hijack a car while pretending to be a federal officer. FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell () approaches William and offers to drop the charges if he would become an undercover FBI informant within the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, headed up by Fred Hampton (). William rises up the ranks of the Black Panthers, getting close with Hampton, all while reluctantly giving information to the FBI.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a biographical drama co-written and directed Shaka King and produced by Ryan Coogler (Creed) and Charles D. King (Mudbound). The film kicks off with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover () warning that the Black Panthers are the single greatest to national security and that everything must be done to “prevent the rise of a Black Messiah from among their midst.” This leads to FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell recruiting small-time criminal William O'Neal to infiltrate the ranks of the Black Panthers and help stop the rise of Fred Hampton.

It almost doesn't feel right for me to review Judas and the Black Messiah, since this is undoubtedly a film that is told from the African American perspective. As a white Irish-Italian Canadian, I am sure that some of the messages that this film is trying to convey flew right over my head. However, one interpretation I did make about Judas and the Black Messiah is how the film tries to contrast the FBI's view of the Black Panthers, which Roy Mitchell at one point describes as “no better than Ku Klux Klan,” to how William O'Neal experiences them to be. Indeed, William is a man who is only an informant for the FBI to avoid jail time and he is in constant fear of the retaliation that may happen if the Black Panthers find out that he is a rat.

It is also interesting how Judas and the Black Messiah illustrates systemic racism by casting predominantly white actors as law enforcement, including having the “whitest of white actors” Jesse Plemons play William O'Neal's FBI handler Roy Mitchell. The FBI, and law enforcement in general, is very much depicted as “the other” and one of the goals of the film is to reveal the hypocrisy of the war J. Edgar Hoover, played briefly by a heavily made-up Martin Sheen, starts against the Black Panther. As, as per the title, Judas and the Black Messiah also strike up some biblical parallels, as Willliam has to betray someone who becomes a confidant and friend.

Once again, I'll admit that I am probably not the target audience of Judas and the Black Messiah, but I will still say that it is a film that's worth checking out.

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Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly is a freelance film critic and blogger based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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