How did the framing narrative of Judas and the Black Messiah affect the story?
Fair warning—there are spoilers for the movie Judas and the Black Messiah to follow. Since the movie is based on real, historical events, we urge you to look up the actual events depicted in this story and do your research as the filmmakers did.
One of the more interesting movies to come out recently was Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah. It was the story of William O'Neal going undercover for the FBI to avoid jail time by helping them spy on and ultimately assassinate Fred Hampton.
The movie was a stirring look at Hampton, Chicago, the Black Panthers, the police, and American history.
One of the hotly debated topics inside the movie is how it's centered on O'Neal's character and not Hampton. In fact, the whole story is told with bookends of the only interview O'Neal gave, to PBS' Eyes On The Prize Part 2, where he talked about working with the FBI and the results of his actions.
These bookends serve to show us who O'Neill was but never work to describe why committed the acts. Instead, the audience is left to make their own assumptions about the character.
We know he feels something because the epitaphs after the film let us know he committed suicide after the interview aired. But it's never explicitly discussed in the movie. Of course, this really mimics the Biblical story of Judas, who sold Jesus out for fifty pieces of silver, and then hanged himself after Jesus was convicted.
Today, I wanted to discuss how the bookends work with and against the story, both selling the narrative and pushing the audience to do some work on their own.
Let's get started.
How the Framing Narrative of Judas and the Black Messiah Shapes the Movie
The movie opens and closes with an interview scene where we see an older William O'Neal talking with a documentary crew about his fateful actions. We call scenes like these bookends because they don't occur during the main narrative thrust of the movie, though sometimes we cut back to them to mark the "chapters" in what we're watching. Lots of movies do this, most notably Titanic, which uses the bookend to provide context for the story Rose tells.
The bookends in Judas and the Black Messiah serve a similar purpose. They show us that William "Wild Bill" O'Neal is going to survive the story ahead of us. Through flashbacks, we learn about O'Neal's recruitment into the FBI after being busted for robbing people and lying about being a federal officer.
We see how he became one of Hampton's most trusted advisors and how he continued to feed intelligence to the FBI for cash.
By starting the movie showing us O'Neal is a survivor, we get the sense he's a hustler and in it for the money. He's selling his Messiah up the river for what comes out to around $200,000.
We're confronted with a character who's nervous, worried about both being caught and being hurt himself. But we never dig deep into the ideological concerns or decisions he might have for doing this—mostly because he never says anything in the doc aside from wanting to save his own skin. Sure, by his own admission in the interview cutaways, he saw the FBI as mentors and father-figures, but we never really understand what he felt about Hampton or the mission.
That's because we're too busy judging him as he looks back, instead of experiencing the world with him as it happens.
It was hard for me to watch with empathy for his situation. Since O'Neal is our main character, we're always trying to figure out what drives him. We're also trying to figure out his narrative arc. Does he arc from informant to accessory? It's hard to tell. With the bookended interview, we know he was more pragmatic. But with knowing that he killed himself, we know he was more conflicted.
That makes the movie very rewatchable—you want to go back and see if LaKeith Stanfield or King alluded to these tendencies when all this was happening. While in the meat of the movie, I was constantly guessing if O'Neal's character was truthfully sorry for any of his actions since he seemed so callous in the interview when the movie began.
To their credit, King and Stanfield make the character interesting. We see him hesitate and carry the choices he makes and deal with them.
When we get to the final bookend and learn of his suicide, the movie seems to provide what feels like his admission of guilt—it validates all the thoughts and feelings we saw in his character, but since that emotion isn't in the bookend, but only in the epitaphs that occur on screen after, it kind of renders his interview moot.
Or does it?
The interview is proof that O'Neal's character did feel bad about what he did. He says as much. It justifies the scenes where he feels sad and guilty. And it makes the movie engage with our own perception of this man's actions. The bookends may not be necessary, but they are influencing us.
You have to look back on what you've seen and wondered if he actually felt guilty. The words and actions would say that he did. But did he realize it then or not until later? I think the big question becomes, when did O'Neal realize Hampton was actually his Messiah? I wonder if it's only in the looking back, which spurned the suicide years later.
I think that's a really smart and subversive way to use an interview. It makes us wrestle with the complicated story, motives, and people at the center.
You can watch the real interview below. Let me know what you think in the comments.
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