The Anatomy of Betrayal

 Kailah Lee | Staff Writer

What drives the act of betrayal? There is no one answer because it is layered. Motives can be crafted in experiences, while some are made by foundational beliefs. 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.

In the midst of 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, another non-affiliate’s life was threatened. Like Martin Luther King and Malcom X before the party, enemies lurked in the shadows. Ergo, the assainations that followed each legacy.

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 you through the life of the protagonist Fred Hampton as his role as chairman while peeling back the layers of the antagonist, William O’Neal as his role as an FBI informant who infiltrated the party. 

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

In the beginning of the film, O’Neal was involved in a crime that led to him getting pulled over and arrested. He faced up to six years in prison for stealing a car and impersonating a federal officer. At this point in the film, you’re not seeing a criminal or a rat. You’re seeing a man battered from prior conflict.  

The FBI agent asks O’Neal if he “was mad when MLK and Malcom X died,” to which O’Neal responds, “I never thought about it.” O’Neal’s lack of passion toward MLK and Malcom X may have initiated comfortability for the FBI agent to offer O’Neal the deal.

O’Neal’s theft is indicative of an economic struggle to which the FBI chooses to capitalize off of. O’Neal is now in a position to avoid jail time and be reimbursed as an informant.  

“O’Neal was a token black man to do the FBI’s dirty work. He wasn’t heavily involved in black matters and he already had a criminal mind, ” said Darrell Lee, a Richmond, Virginia resident.

Now you see a man, coerced into his decision and partially naive. You almost sympathize with O’Neal  because you see his impulsion and the severity of his predicament.  Throughout the movie O’Neal struggles with internal conflict as he becomes integrated with the organization. As he grows to appreciate the Black Panther Party, you almost hope he’ll have a change of heart, but O’Neal was consumed from within.

Warner Bros. Entertainment held a virtual summit, “The Anatomy of Betrayal” to deconstruct the elements of William O’Neal’s (Lakeith Standfield) character. 

“You don’t meet a lot of Fred Hamptons; 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,” said twin actor and writer  Keith Lucas.

O’Neal was a troubled man prior to coming into contact with the FBI agent. If he had made better decisions, he would have avoided the deal all together. You really see how a person can be consumed by their choices they choose to make. 

The act of committing betrayal just doesn’t happen; it’s premeditated. Thoughts marinate and grow stronger through incentives. It’s unnatural to go against your morals, there’s always some kind of personal gain.

In O’Neal’s case, he received today’s equivalent of $200,000 dollars, which back in the 60’s was worth a whole lot more, and freedom. Yes, he is wrong, but his actions are understandable. 

“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,” said Lucas.

It’s truly because human nature is imperfect. It’s full of mistakes and poor decisions and although William O’Neal was the bad guy, you see his “why?”

“We have to give ourselves…a chance to tell stories, we have to see perspectives that we are uncomfortable with, this is the only way we expand,” said Actor Lakeith Stanfied. 

The conflict in history and in stories is what people learn from. Like the biblical reference, Judas betrayed Jesus for monetary gain just as O’Neal did Fred Hampton. 

Whether the betrayal happens in B.C or in 1967, you learn that selfish or sinful acts never end well. Both Fred Hampton and Jesus Christ were killed because of an act of betrayal.

The real William O’Neal would later commit suicide and Judas’ acts would lead to blasphemy.

So, the question stands.  What does one truly gain from betraying?

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

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