Judas and the black messiah

dir. by Shaka King ; screenplay by Will Berson, Shaka King

Even in the most politically engaged Hollywood movies, the thoroughly racist legacies of American law enforcement are rarely shown unvarnished. So the fact that Judas and the Black Messiah even exists – a major studio film about the assassination in 1969 of the 21-year-old Fred Hampton, charismatic deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party – is in itself remarkable. Writer-director Shaka King’s film lays bare the dirty war that the FBI and American police have waged for years against Black Americans. King tells the story behind Hampton’s murder – as he lay sleeping next to his pregnant fiancée – from the point-of-view of William O’Neal, an FBI informant who infiltrated the Illinois Black Panthers and shared the floor plans of Hampton’s home with the authorities. He’s a snitch, a spy, a mole – It was a car theft that got O’Neal entangled with FBI agent Roy Mitchell and faced him with the choice between going to prison and infiltrating the Panthers. O’Neal only ever gave one onscreen interview in his life, in the 1987 PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize 2, parts of which are re-enacted and excerpted in the film. He comes off as a slippery, confused figure in that interview, his later actions (revealed in the film’s gut-wrenching postscript) belying his blasé answers.

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