The Rat in the Panther’s Den: “Judas and the Black Messiah” Tells a Poignantly Tragic Story of Betrayal

by Sam Acosta

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is one of the best films I have seen in a long time. Not only is it a beautiful piece of cinema, but it also tells a story that deserves to be heard. Specifically, it is the story of how one of the most prominent leaders of the Black Panther Party was betrayed by one of his closest supporters. More broadly, it is a story about impossible choices, government corruption, and the fight for freedom. 

We follow William “Bill” O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield), a native Chicagoan who is arrested for impersonating an FBI agent and stealing a car. FBI Agent Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) presents him with a choice: go to jail for years or become an informant. He chooses the latter and is tasked with infiltrating the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, eventually becoming close with its chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). 

As O’Neil rises through the ranks, his connection with Hampton gets stronger, and they become good friends. The party also becomes stronger as it gains support from other groups in the city, with people of all races joining to fight for justice and freedom. But Mitchell keeps asking for more and more information that the FBI uses to work against the interests of the party. As fear spreads that there is a rat amongst them, O’Neil becomes increasingly paranoid about being found out. 

Hampton ends up in jail, which hampers the party’s activity. Despite his split allegiance, O’Neil pours himself into the party’s mission, doing everything he can to keep it afloat. Eventually, the FBI is no longer content with Hampton being in jail. They want him dead, and they ask O’Neil to help them. With much pain, he betrays his close friend, and Fred Hampton is murdered in his apartment while out on appeal. Following this tragedy, the Black Panther Party is left in shambles, and William O’Neil starts his new life with the ill-gotten profits of his “good work.”

This movie had me engrossed from start to finish. I am a huge fan of Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, and they absolutely nail it here. Daniel gives such a strong performance that I felt like I was watching the real-life Hampton. The way that he delivers Hampton’s rousing speeches made me want to stand up and shout “I am a revolutionary.” I felt so invested in his cause as I listened to him pour his heart out to his followers.

That said, Lakeith absolutely steals the show, giving the most emotionally raw performance in the film. I felt genuine heartbreak as I watched him struggle with the dilemma he found himself in. His love for others conflicting with his sense of self-preservation made for a compelling character arc. 

When he is forced to drug Hampton so that the feds can kill him, he is clearly choking back tears and barely able to hold himself together. Not knowing the history of the situation, I thought he was going to change his mind, but he ultimately doesn’t. It broke my heart because I could see how much it broke his. It was a beautiful and gut-wrenching performance that I truly felt privileged to watch. 

I also want to take a moment to talk about how aptly titled this movie is. When I first watched the trailer, the title struck me as odd. For some Christians, it might feel a little sacrilegious and might even be enough for them to write off this movie entirely. After watching it, however, I understand the brilliance behind it. Multiple times, the FBI agents refer to Hampton as a potential “Black Messiah” who will bring about a civil uprising. While O’Neil is never explicitly referred to as Judas, the parallels are immediately obvious, making the title a perfect fit for this story.

I did some research after the film and discovered that this movie is fairly historically accurate. While a few liberties have inevitably been taken, it is much more faithful to what truly happened than most historical films. That accuracy made the movie much more impactful for me, as I could know that almost everything I was watching actually happened. 

I highly recommend this movie to everyone. I have a strong feeling that despite it being the beginning of the year, this is going to stand out as one of this year’s best films. It is a beautifully crafted historical piece that will make you reflect not only on our history but on the state of our world today as well. 

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. 

Sam Acosta is a sophomore Theatre Comprehensive Major and an A&E writer for Cedars. He likes spending his time watching movies, drinking Dr. Pepper, and writing plays.

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