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Judas and the Black Messiah directed by Shaka King: Review

By: 
Faline Bobier

March 4, 2021
 
Shaka King’s new movie Judas and the Black Messiah comes at a critical political moment in the US. It’s a kind of companion piece to recent Black-directed movies that also look at important moments in Black history, real or imagined, such as Regina King’s One Night in Miami, a fictional account of one incredible night where icons Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown gather, discussing their roles in the Civil Rights Movement and cultural upheaval of the 60s.
 
King’s movie, unlike One Night in Miami, is based in historical reality. It tells the story of Fred Hampton, chairperson of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, who was murdered by the FBI on the night of December 4, 1969. Police and FBI agents fired 99 shots that night, the Panthers only shot once. Mark Clark, another Black Panther leader, was killed at Hampton’s apartment at the same time. 
 
As the title implies, the Judas character, Bill O’Neal (strikingly played by American actor Lakeith Stanfield), who infiltrates the Chicago Black Panther chapter to eventually become their head of security, is tasked by the FBI with helping them to bring down the Black ‘messiah’, so feared at that time by FBI head J Edgar Hoover.
 
Hoover saw in the rising Civil Rights movement, figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and the militant Black Panther movement the possibility of a new Black messiah (Hoover’s phrase, not an epithet Hampton would ever have claimed for himself), with the potential to bring the status quo of racism and inequality crashing down.
 
Hoover is chillingly and effectively incarnated in the movie by Martin Sheen. His icy-eyed glare is enough to cow his subordinates into submission, whatever underhanded tactics he puts forward as a way to stop the Panthers.
 
The Panthers posed a threat to the whole edifice of white supremacy that Hoover defended as the ‘American’ way of life. Firstly, the Panthers claimed the right of Black people to arm themselves in self-defence (primarily against the racist police who were murdering Blacks in the streets) and acted on that right by bearing arms. Secondly, and perhaps even more of a threat to Hoover and the white power structure, the Panthers consciously attempted to organize not only Blacks, but also Latinos and poor whites against their own oppression and exploitation, in what Hampton refers to in the film as a ‘rainbow coalition’.
 
It’s made clear in the movie, and this is true to the politics of the Panthers and of Hampton himself, their politics had little in common with the politics of Black nationalism, as in this quote from one of Hampton’s speeches:
“We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor. That the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too.
“We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism—you fight capitalism with socialism.”
 
Daniel Kaluuya, the British actor who has appeared to great effect in other American movies, such Jordan Peele’s Get Out, is convincing and grounded here in the role of Fred Hampton. He gained some weight to do the part, since he thought it was important to physically embody the power of personality and conviction that Hampton carried in his organizing.
 
In the scenes where he’s addressing crowds who are chanting ‘Chairman Fred’ and hanging on his every word it’s hard to believe he could have such a presence at a young age, but then revolutions are often led by the young, as we are witnessing with the climate change movement today.
 
But the movie does the opposite of what the title might suggest – Hampton at every turn rejects the notion of himself as the centre of the struggle – as when the Panther headquarters in Chicago is firebombed and destroyed by the police while Hampton is in prison on trumped-up charges. 
 
It’s the people in the community – the kids, the grandmothers, the gang members – who offer to rebuild the centre. Which is why, when Hampton is released, in his first speech to followers, he says ‘You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution’ and ‘Power to the people’, as the antidote to hero-worship.
 
The caricature of the Panthers is often as purveyors of senseless violence, rather than the disciplined and dedicated activists they really were. In addition to arguing for the right to carry guns in self-defence (which is obviously still something necessary today when we look at the recent murders of unarmed Black men like George Floyd), the Panthers also organised a social programme. They set up centres that provided breakfasts for up to 250,000 children a week. They launched medical clinics and community-controlled schools.
 
Hoover and the FBI eventually broke the back of the Panthers through murder and the use of paid and/or coerced Black informants, like Bill O’Neal in this film. The film ends with footage of the real William O’Neal, who was interviewed shortly before his suicide in early 1990. 
 
O'Neal survived as a teenager by being a petty criminal in Chicago. In 1966, when he was about 17 years old, he was caught by FBI agent Roy Martin Mitchell, who tracked O'Neal down for stealing a car and driving it across state lines to Michigan. In exchange for having his felony charges dropped, O'Neal agreed to infiltrate the Panthers as a counterintelligence operative.
 
His story is a sad one and the interview segment where he claims, “I was in the struggle,” seems like an attempt to justify his actions. O’Neal himself seems like an indictment of the extremely limited choices for survival for Black people in the US at that time.
 
However, Judas and the Black Messiah can be seen, I think, as the revenge of history.
 
The reality of ugly racism and injustice which has continued since the time of the Panthers has been challenged recently by the eruptions of Black Lives Matter protests across the US among Black, Latinx, white protestors. 
 
A nationwide poll conducted for Time magazine in 1970 revealed that 9 percent of the black population—about two million people—considered themselves to be “revolutionaries”. This is the real reason Hoover and the establishment feared the Panthers so much – not because of their relatively small numbers – but because of the wide-spread sentiment of rage against racism and injustice that existed among millions.
 
The way that the Black Lives Matter protests spread last year from urban to rural settings and from the US to countries around the world gives hope that more revolutionaries will be following the inspiration of people like Fred Hampton. It makes Judas and the Black Messiah required viewing.
 
 
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