Film Review: Judas and the Black Messiah
Finally: an Oscar-nominated film that combines drama and action while staying true to its radical politics
Shaka King’s new film ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’, expertly knits together the story of a vast web of revolutionaries, gang members, the local community, police and the FBI. It remains entertaining while also being educational, contributing to the discussion on the role of the police and the state as well as reform vs revolution today.
The film opens with archival footage of the Black Panther Party, the Free Huey campaign, an interview with William ‘Billy’ O’Neal and an introduction to Fred Hampton. With an outstanding performance from Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, amongst others, the first 20 minutes work hard to expose institutional racism, the violence of the state in the 1960s and the truth behind Chairman Fred Hampton’s politics – the politics of solidarity, revolution and the power of the people.
In fact, the first time we see Fred is during a presentation by then director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, who outlines the need to remove any ‘Black Messiah’ figure as a fundamental purpose of the secret Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro). When Fred is shown it is a snippet from one of his most famous speeches in which he declares:
“We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”
Fred Hampton was a charismatic, young revolutionary and leading Panther, only 21 years old when he was assassinated by the Cook County Police Department on the orders of the FBI, helped by his head of security and FBI informant Billy O’Neal.
To those already aware of Fred Hampton and his politics he is an icon, but this film also captures an evolution of his character. There are pivotal moments when we see him grow since at times it’s easy to forget how young he was, he was described as having the gravitas of a man twice his age. By the time he turned 21 he had already united historically rival gangs in Chicago under a Rainbow Coalition to resist police brutality and fight for all oppressed people. He was able to convince the Latinx ‘Young Lords’ and white ‘Young Patriots Organization’ that they had more in common with each other than the police who were oppressing them both.
In the film his character evolves through two pivotal moments. The first is during his incarceration for stealing $70 of ice cream to give to children, for which he was sentenced to between 2 and 5 years in prison. The second was a discussion with Mrs. Winters, the mother of Spurgeon ‘Jake’ Winters, a panther who was killed by the police. Both are incredibly important when seeing how the Chicago panthers continue to hold on without Fred around and how he was able to take responsibility and try to heal the wrongs of the state with direct solidarity. Later in the film, when Fred is on parole, he is given money by a local gang to go into hiding and escape his trial and the rest of his prison sentence but instead he uses the money to set up a free clinic in the name of Jake Winters so he would be remembered as a healer and not as the thug the newspapers labeled him as.
The film captures a sense of community in every aspect which is key in showing what the Black Panthers were really about. Fred is never really on his own, but always surrounded by his comrades.There may be key recognizable figures, but the Black Panthers were a party of the people, for the people. Their free breakfast programs for kids, free clinics and educational programs showed Black people that not only had the US state failed them, but that they themselves could do it better. They were also gaining support from and building connections with the anti-war movement and students.
This was too large a threat for the US government and why J. Edgar Hoover labelled them such an important target. The only element I think the film fails on is explaining what Cointelpro was along with all its secrecy and insidiousness. The whole organization was completely hidden in order to get away with the crimes they committed without the repercussions falling on the state. FBI agents and hired provocateurs operating under Cointelpro would incite gang violence, infiltrate Black, communist and civil rights organisations and assassinate leading figures, especially any potential Black leaders who Hoover referred to as the ‘Black Messiah’. If it wasn’t for the actions of a handful of anti-war activists who robbed an FBI building during the iconic Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fight, we might not even know about the existence of Cointelpro today.
Yet the film still offers a great insight into the manipulation of the state and the way the FBI used Billy O’Neal and others to do their dirty work and gather information. In O’Neal’s case, he was asked to draw a map of Fred’s apartment and slip something in his drink so the police would be able to enter and murder him efficiently on allegations of hoarding weapons.
There is an argument that the film focuses too much on O’Neal’s story which takes away from Fred’s politics however, I disagree with this. While O’Neal could have had less air time, the internal conflict over his identity and his role with the FBI speaks to many Black people today who may believe in the rule of law or that the police are there to protect them. It’s simply not true. It is made clear that O’Neal was used by the FBI no matter how much he wanted to be respected by them and he could be discarded at any moment. He is a complex character who represents the contradictory consciousness of people who on the one hand want to ignore the ills of society in order to live a ‘peaceful’ life while on the other they see that what is happening is wrong but feel powerless to change it. In this respect O’Neal’s relationship with the Panthers is a brilliant example of how active organisations can inspire and encourage change within all of us, with a clear goal and a sense of unity and solidarity even the most confused can see clearly what needs to be done. This, in essence, was Fred’s politics.
He wanted to build an organization which represented all oppressed people in a fight for a socialist society and this is not watered down. When Fred confronts the Young Patriots Organization and is initially met with hostility, he shows them that it is the ruling class and the state who are their common enemy. When he gives a speech to his supporters including gang members who were cautious of him before hand, he unites them all in a roar of ‘I am a revolutionary’. It is true the Black Panther Party were a Marxist-Leninist organization, and this was glossed over, however, in order to create a feature film which reaches audiences much further afield than the traditional Left I think it hits a great balance between drama, action and politics whilst staying true to who Fred was.
Fred wasn’t a perfectly made icon, he was a young man growing while leading, ultimately the film isn’t really about him, it’s about what he represents, revolution and socialism, backed up by the weight of a party behind him who could inspire the best in people. His journey is wrought with struggle, loss and confusion, yet he still manages to offer clarity through inspirational speeches of unity and understanding the common enemy. Judas and the Black Messiah is not just something to watch, it is a call to action to fight for the legacy Fred left behind.