Judas (Iscariot) and the Black Messiah

Claude Atcho

Eyes worn, bloodshot, and on the brink of tears, the disciple looks his teacher in the eye and performs his finale act of betrayal.

Though drawn from the final scene between Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) and Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) in Judas and the Black Messiah, the fact that this description could fit an imaginative retelling of Judas Iscariot and Jesus illustrates the unique impact of the film.

A tense and stunning historical drama, Judas and the Black Messiah explores a neglected moment in our national history. At the same time, it presents a fresh angle on the complex weight of guilt, especially if we consider the interpretive interplay between Stanfield’s O’Neal and the biblical Judas. The film’s Judas figure—and the way Stanfield embodies guilt—help us think about the biblical Judas and vice versa, with a call to contemplate the Judas tendencies that lurk within us.

Judas and the Black Messiah sets us in the world of 1960s Chicago, where the Black Panther party, led by Fred Hampton, educates, feeds, and protects their community against the forces of racism in the form of poverty and police brutality. Hampton, played majestically by Daniel Kuuyla, possesses messianic mettle: he’s charismatic and selfless, building a rainbow coalition of followers—including Whites and Latinos—for the cause of justice.

While the film recounts Hampton’s ascension and assassination, its emotional center is Bill O’Neal, the Judas to Hampton’s messiah. To escape imprisonment for car theft, O’Neal agrees to infiltrate the Black Panthers as an FBI informant, supplying the information that leads to Hampton’s assassination. As viewers we observe Hampton’s labor, as he embraces a messianic willingness to “die for the people,” while we also witness O’Neal’s emotional descent into Judas-like guilt and greed.

Both O’Neal and the biblical Judas seem at times truly engaged in the agenda of their teacher. Both commit acts of betrayal leading to death. For Christians, Judas is synonymous with betrayal and apostasy. He is, as Karl Barth said “the man for whom Jesus is for sale.” We easily recall how Judas was tempted by Satan. We forget, it seems, how deeply Judas was crushed by guilt.

Judas and the Black Messiah leads with guilt; rather than opening with Hampton, the movie presents Stanfield, as O’Neal, reenacting a rare on-camera interview given by the historical O’Neal for the 1989 PBS series, Eyes on the Prize II. O’Neal is asked what he would say to his son about his activities in the late 1960s. Without speaking a word, Stanfield’s O’Neal shows the weight of guilt with quivering lips and evasive eyes. The story of O’Neal as a Judas figure is not simply about betrayal, but the complexities of guilt and self-preservation.

Self-preservation for O’Neal is the direct result of covetousness. In a breathtaking sequence that follows this opening, O’Neal—trench coat fluttering in the wind—paces around a stylish red car outside of a bar before attempting a particularly deceptive form of car theft by posing as a law-enforcement officer. Once arrested, FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) offers O’Neal a role as an informant and O’Neal begins the path of betrayal in order to save himself. When we pledge our life’s allegiance to self and self-preservation, guilt and shame will not be far behind. Allegiance to self always requires that we sacrifice something else—whether truth, goodness, or even people.

The complexities of guilt, desire, and self-preservation are most explicitly traced in the string of scenes where O’Neal meets with Mitchell, his FBI handler. Like Judas selling out Jesus for a bag of silver, O’Neal soon sees his betrayal as means to profit. Self-preservation is now lucrative. When Mitchell ups the stakes and asks for specific information on Hampton, O’Neal—eyes steady and confident—attempts a small power play: “If you want me to get close to Fred, give me a car.” The disordered desire that landed O’Neal in informant purgatory remains his singular focus. Greed, idolatry, and self-preservation mix, driving him deeper into betrayal and deeper into the mire of guilt.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a call to contemplate the Judas tendencies that lurk within us.

As the film progresses, O’Neal’s anguish intensifies. He is truly engaged in the work of the Panthers while also truly betraying trust with deadly consequences. Pressured by the weight of guilt, O’Neal spews violent threats to fellow Panthers about what he’d do if he found a snitch among them. When he comes to his final meeting with Mitchell, supplying the information that will cement Hampton’s death, O’Neal sports flamboyant attire and hides his eyes behind designer sunglasses—modern fig leaves, which only thinly cover his guilt and shame.

In these ways, Stanfield’s performance demonstrates a clear sense of guilt and by extension offers a fuller picture of Judas as a biblical character. If we see Judas only through the lens of betrayal, we not only flatten the biblical text, we fail to learn how to deal with the guilt and shame we ourselves experience.

In Matthew’s gospel, Judas is not just a cautionary tale of a disciple turned traitor. Judas, like Stanfield’s O’Neal, is one cannibalized from within by guilt once he realizes the chain of events he initiated:

“When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’

‘What is that to us?’ they replied. ‘That’s your responsibility.’

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.”

There’s debate over whether “he was seized with remorse” is better rendered “he repented,” but the relevant point is that Judas, driven by guilt and remorse, stumbles and staggers, however incomplete, toward an attempted repentance. When his attempt fails, Judas kills himself.

Though much debated, Dale Bruner, in his brilliant Matthew commentary, argues that Judas actually meets the required conditions—contrition, confession, restitution—for priests to absolve one’s sin. Judas appears contrite and confesses without blame-shifting (“I have sinned”). The problem, according to Bruner, is that Judas confessed to religious leaders who failed in their duty. Judas, as New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg notes, “confesses to the wrong group of people and then simply gives up on life.”

The final scene of Judas and the Black Messiah is a revealing one. (Spoilers ahead.) Bookending how the movie began, director Shaka King features the actual archival footage of Bill O’Neal’s PBS interview. It is gut-wrenching to watch as the real O’Neal speaks like a man laboring to lift the burden of guilt off his own conscience. If Judas turned to the wrong people for absolution and forgiveness, it seems that O’Neal—who stayed with the Panthers as an FBI informant after Hampton’s death—had no place to turn.

Our moralist instincts make it easy to peer at O’Neal and Judas from higher moral ground. But deep down, we know better. Whether it’s for political expediency, social capital, or self-exaltation, we too have been those for whom Jesus is for sale. The good news is that when we turn—in our guilt, shame, and stumbling repentance—to Christ, whom we have betrayed, we also turn to him who is faithful and just and will forgive. He will wipe every tear from our eyes, even those tears of guilt and shame.

Topics: Movies