#FrancisOnFilm: Judas and the Black Messiah

08 March 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah bears its theme in the title: betrayal. The film tells the story of the FBI murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton, aided by the undercover activities of William O’Neal, an informant for the FBI paid with ownership of a gas station. Both Akua Njeri, Fred Hampton’s partner, and Fred Hampton, Jr, his son born just weeks after the murder, consulted on the film. 

The film premiered at Sundance, where I had the privilege to see it virtually and hear the Q&A. Far more than a gripping biopic or a straightforward indictment of the Chicago police and the FBI, Judas raises important questions about the meaning and impact of betrayal. 

Last month I wrote about trust. This month, I want to think about betrayal, and why it is more than a mere violation of trust. Interestingly, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has no separate entry for betrayal; “betrayal” instead appears in entries on trust, loyalty, and promises. From these SEP entries, it would seem, betrayal is the negative of each of these, perhaps in a particularly intense form. But Judas shows how it can be far more.

If you see the film, think about who—or what—O’Neal betrayed. There are many overlapping possibilities: Fred Hampton, who trusted O’Neal as his driver; the local Black Panther party, which allowed O’Neal access to its activities and plans; people on the South Side of Chicago served by the Panthers; all Black people in Chicago or the United States, who remain at risk of violence; the cause of anti-racism; honesty and responsibility in policing; O’Neal himself; or even the country itself. And think, too, about who—or what—was the betrayer. The possibilities include O’Neal, the Chicago police, the FBI, and someone—or something—else.

The film raises all of these possibilities. According to Shaka King, the film’s director and co-writer, the initial plan for the film was the story of Fred Hampton’s life and death. King became convinced to make a far more morally complex movie, focusing on the interplay between Hampton and O’Neal and what it represented. 

In his “spotlight” at Sundance, King said that without that focus, it would have been too easy for viewers to fail to recognize the political import of their actions. The betrayal was not just that O’Neal led Hampton and others to believe that he was committed to them and to the cause of racial justice, or that he took the keys to a gas station in exchange for telling the FBI where Hampton could be found. It was embedded in a context of structural injustice and law enforcement misuse of power that remain to this day.

Betrayal is not merely an action that occurs between individuals. Betrayal is also social and political, and this dimension of betrayal matters morally. So after watching the film, I found myself rereading the SEP entries on promises, trust, and loyalty. Each of these entries is built around construing its topic as a special moral relationship between individuals. Difficulties then arise about how the relationship can be justified or what its limits might be.  

Promises, for example, are special obligations, voluntarily undertaken by one person to another. As Allen Habib notes, however, this individual-to-individual account presents justificatory difficulties for both contractarian and consequentialist ethical views. 

For contractarians who seek to ground obligation in agreement, the source of the obligation to keep agreements remains unexplained. Self-interest is a possibility: we are all better off if we can coordinate through mutual agreement. Hobbes pointed out that we need more to assure that it will not be in our self-interest to violate trust: the threat of enforcement by a powerful sovereign. 

Utilitarian theorists also call on broader social contexts to justify the obligation to keep promises: the overall good consequences of institutions that enable people to trust one another. If promises were inconsequential utterances—more like “maybe I won’t tell on you to the police” than “I commit myself to not telling on you to the police unless they torture me”—the assurance value they give would gradually fade. 

Both contractarianism and utilitarianism call on broader social contexts for accounts of why promises create obligations, albeit in different ways. In so doing, they raise the possibility that promise-breaking is not just a harm to an individual but also a social harm.

Now consider the entry on trust. Carolyn McLeod takes interpersonal trust as the dominant form of trust. Then, the moral problem is explaining what more there is to trust than mere reliance. On some accounts—Annette Baier’s “Trust and Antitrust” is an example—trust is warranted by the good will of the trusted individual. Non-motivational views locate the warrant for trust in something other than the motivations of the trustee, such as that the trustor holds the trustee responsible for acting in trustworthy fashion. Neither of these accounts, however, provides a fully satisfactory account of the special obligations of the trustee to the person who trusts.

Loyalty meets a similar fate. On John Kleinig’s account, loyalty is the virtue of maintaining an associational attachment, with a commitment not to jeopardize the interests of the object of attachment. Thus seen, loyalty poses questions of limits:  what if the object of loyalty has interests or makes demands that are morally problematic? Does loyalty have value in itself or to create obligations? Here, too, the social echoes faintly. Loyalty goes beyond individual relationships, Kleinig says, especially when it is rooted in identities that reach beyond the individual such as to family or country.

To be a bit Hegelian for a moment, Judas’s betrayal of Christ was a world-historical moment, a moment whose significance becomes understood through time. Fred Hampton’s betrayal and murder are treated in Judas and the Black Messiah as such a moment, too: a moment with unfolding and continuing significance. But to be very un-Hegelian, the moment must be understood in contexts of social and political injustice—a point that discussions of obligations like promising, trust, or loyalty should also appreciate.

Comments (6)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, March 11, 2021 -- 8:32 AM

This was a gut wrenching

This was a gut-wrenching movie to watch and not an easy write-up. Thanks for doing this film.

Suppose I have to choose betrayal, trust, loyalty and promises to interpret this story. In that case, I have to mention Roy Mitchell, the FBI handler in Judas's role to his country, duty, life work, and friend/informant William O'Neal.

Bill O'Neal is tragic, for sure, but no Judas. That he is black is not ever a concern so much as a subterfuge to infiltrate the world of Fred Hampton. Maybe you could interpret his struggle to come to terms with his actions as a moral play. It is not. He is in it for himself. Retrospectively he might have had regrets in that respect, but he never waivers in his actions. Despite his overt protest, he is forced to carry out his contractual duty to Mitchell and the FBI against his will and sympathy.

On the other hand, Roy Mitchell is a combat war veteran and already celebrated agent for his role in solving murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi. He has moral direction and tosses it aside when asked to compromise his integrity first to imprison and then plan the movie's final act. The roles of Mitchell and O'Neal are juxtaposed artfully with the play on FBI badges and their use. There are several scenes that I could call out and depths to explore, but this is fresh material, and I don't want to leave too many spoilers.

Though Roy is the Judas, Bill strikes the tragic figure due to the social norms of his race and the consequence of his action. Poor Bill. His country betrayed him. He lost sense of himself as his role and life are made public. That is a lesson for us all; to think hard on the issues of our time, take our punishment for our moral actions, and not lose control of our lives and moral center.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, March 15, 2021 -- 3:52 PM

Have heard about this film.

Have heard about this film. And am certain it is all it is represented to be. I do not follow such productions, having trouble, not only with life imitating art, but with art imitating life. My bigger problem arises when, throughout all which has happened in the last forty years and more, all advances made, in behalf of minorities and women, remain unacceptable to both. My life is, in any practical sense, over. Here it is: IMHO: progress is never enough. Look. I get it.
There was more than one time, in my career, where things could have gone better. 1. Had I gotten more education. 2. Had I been more willing to 'kiss ass' 3. Had I been of a better political persuasion, at the right time in the winds of change. But, you can't do this, you see. When one is hired by an official of one party, one falls out of favor, immediately, when the opposing party attains power. Not fully understanding this,like ignorance of the law, has no defense. So, I took my chances when accepting such a job. Which I needed. And which seemed to offer career potential. A black female got the job I might have been considered for, all else being equal. She was pre-positioned. Years before her selection was made. So, go ahead. Call me an angry white man. Damned right! I would do it again. But not in government where there is no longer a level field. This is what is called politics, with a small 'p'.

Life imitating art is one thing. Art imitating life is quite something else.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, March 15, 2021 -- 10:47 PM



You don't sound angry, and you may be white. Instead, you sound bitter and wizened. Most importantly, you seem pointed toward race and gender.

This movie may not speak directly to the small 'p' politics you mention. Fred Hampton did, however. Unlike the other black organization 'The Crowns,' the Chicago Black Panthers – led by Hampton, reach out to a white power group held in a poor enclave. This reaching out speaks to the poorly educated, ass-kissing politic that oppresses us all. This outreach is what drew Hoover's ire to Fred Hampton that he could speak across race and gender lines.

I'm old, off the mark, and white. Sometimes, maybe a bit bitter. Philosophy is not the place to salve that bitterness. There are principles of ethics and morality that can heal, however.

It sounds like you didn't get the promotion you wanted. You seem not to have the will to read and react. I encourage you to see this movie and think about Roy Mitchell kissing Hoover's ass. At least you are not Roy or worse, Bill. Philosophy can save us that fate.

I'm not a fan of reparative advancement. In my experience, this only favors marginal cases from fortunate sons. I do, however, favor forward reparation to the young in terms of race and gender.

Fred Hampton was Jesus-like and Ceasar-like in that way. Take a look. You'll see your life in the art somewhere, I think. If you can't find the movie, then have you read 'The Color Purple? I would discuss that book or this movie with you here. These are the gems of age – to critique, find commonality and perhaps wax a bit while all other things wane.

Don't get me started. But let's give that a go. Harold, I say to you again, you don't sound angry, and you may be white. Instead, you sound bitter and wizened. Let's bend your wit to this movie or the OP. The art of others is worthy of our waning contemplations even if they strike a personal cord.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, March 16, 2021 -- 5:57 AM

All well taken, Tim. You are,

All well taken, Tim. You are, of course, more than 90% right. Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic, given the environment in which I was employed. It did not seem so at the time because I had been given much encouragement. But, things are volatile in government. Truth be told, I knew about that. Plus, I was always swimming against the current. Opportunity is never equal in politically-charged organizations. Government is about as charged as it gets. I'll check out the film. Thanks.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, March 17, 2021 -- 8:35 PM

I've never worked in

I've never worked in government, but my current company is the industry standard in equal opportunity hiring and development. I see the issues, but we need people so badly that there are no limits on opportunity.

This is not an easy movie to watch. I might go to other stuff unless your taking in all the award-worthy films (which is my annual plan.)

Best to you Harold

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, April 10, 2021 -- 3:50 PM

Thanks. Friends and

Thanks. Friends and associates are with me, I think. Find a clam, Mirugai. My friends in Ecuador have found crabs: beyond belief. Yet, they do not quite get their fortune. You can't,always get what you want. You don't always want what you get. And just so...