“Judas and the Black Messiah”: The Anatomy of Betrayal

 Kailah Lee | Staff Writer

Warning: This movie review contains spoilers for “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

What drives the act of betrayal? There is no one answer because it is layered. Motives can be crafted in experiences, while foundational beliefs make others. The act of committing betrayal is almost unforgivable and low, but also irresistible in dire circumstances. 

The question of “why?” arises in hindsight when the committer loses more than he or she intended to gain, but one thing is for sure: The betrayer is often selfish.

Amid civil unrest, the Black Panther Party fueled a surge for Black progression. Members challenged the fundamental beliefs of American society while protecting their own.

According to Britannica, the party was founded in 1966 and grew over subsequent years through powerful leadership. It became a staple for Black power. 

For every Black Panther Party member’s life changed, a non-affiliate’s life felt threatened.

In Shaka King’s new film, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” King epitomizes the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party through the main characters. King takes the audience through the life of protagonist Fred Hampton (portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya) as chairman of the party while peeling back the layers of the antagonist, William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), an FBI informant who infiltrated the party. 

Stanfield personifies the tragic nature of O’Neal’s actions in a way that makes his character seem more human. O’Neal’s predicament is formed out of desperate circumstances.

At the beginning of the film, O’Neal is involved in a crime that leads to him getting pulled over and arrested. He faces time in prison for stealing a car and impersonating a federal officer. At this point in the film, audience members are not seeing a criminal or a rat. They are seeing a man battered from prior conflict.  

The FBI agent asks O’Neal if he “…was mad when MLK and Malcolm X died,” to which O’Neal responds, “I never thought about it.” O’Neal’s lack of passion toward Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X may have initiated the FBI agent’s comfort to offer O’Neal the deal. O’Neal then is in a position to avoid jail time and be reimbursed as an informant.  

Viewers see a man coerced into his decision and partially naive. Some might sympathize with O’Neal because of the severity of his predicament. Throughout the film, O’Neal struggles with internal conflict as he becomes integrated within the organization. As he grows to appreciate the Black Panther Party, audiences could wonder if he will have a change of heart.

Warner Bros. Entertainment held a virtual summit, “The Anatomy of Betrayal,” on Feb. 2 to deconstruct the elements of O’Neal’s character. 

“You don’t meet a lot of Fred Hamptons,” writer-producer-director Keith Lucas said. “You don’t meet a lot of people who are willing to die for their beliefs, but you do meet people who make pragmatic choices all the time.” 

O’Neal was a troubled man before coming into contact with the FBI agent. If he had made better decisions, he might have avoided the deal altogether, but a person can be consumed by the choices they choose to make. 

The act of committing betrayal doesn’t suddenly occur. It’s premeditated. Thoughts marinate and grow stronger through incentives. His actions may be understandable to some. 

“I know a lot of brothers who when they watch this movie, they’re probably going to see themselves more like Will than like Fred,” Lucas said.

Human nature is imperfect. It’s full of mistakes and poor decisions, and although O’Neal is the bad guy, one begins to understand his “why.”

“We have to give ourselves a chance to tell stories,” Stanfield said. “We have to see perspectives that we are uncomfortable with. This is the only way we expand.”


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