“Judas and the Black Messiah,” a new film starring LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya, was supposed to be released in August of 2020. Knowing what we know about last summer, the release date would have been perfect. It’s one of the first mainstream films to tell the story of the Black Panther Party, a Black political organization created in the 1960s. Kaluuya co-stars as Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the Chicago chapter — a young man murdered by the government at the height of his influence. Stanfield stars as William O’Neal, the man who betrays Hampton and the Panthers and directly aids in Hampton’s death.
It’s important to remember that “Judas and the Black Messiah” is more about Bill O’Neal than Fred Hampton. And it does a good job at making sure you understand just how determined the FBI was to assassinate Hampton. O’Neal is a career criminal who impersonates FBI agents as a way to steal cars. He agrees to infiltrate the Black Panther Party as a way to avoid jail time. I don’t know, but after watching the film, the jail time would have probably been better. He makes himself indispensable to Hampton using an FBI issued car to drive members around. Several times early on, his identity and devotion to the Party are questioned, but he quickly wins everyone over. It’s hard to know for sure if he ever truly believed in the Party’s mission. They do a good job at not giving too much away.
I am admittedly not religious and know very little about Christianity. But I do know a little about how Judas betrayed Jesus (shout out to Andrew Lloyd Webber). And the framing of O’Neal as the Judas to Hampton’s Jesus is spot on. He gains Hampton’s trust, only to hand him over to the authorities on a silver platter. But instead of kissing Hampton on both cheeks, he draws the FBI a blueprint of his apartment. Then he hightails it out before the police enter with a hellfire of bullets. Fred Hampton died asleep in his bed without a chance to even defend himself.
For those who are not familiar with this part of history, “Judas and the Black Messiah” will raise one question. Just who was Fred Hampton, and why would FBI director J. Edgar Hoover call him “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country?”
So often, when we talk about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, we hear the same two names over and over. There’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the nonviolent preacher who appealed to the masses. And then there’s Malcolm X, the anti-Martin who called people “white devils” and was the far more “radical” choice. But there were many others who took hold in the fight. The Black Panther Party was about far more than making the Black community equal to white people. They were the true radicals if I’m being honest. Their mission wasn’t solely assimilation or succession. Empowering Black people and uplifting the Black community was their entire goal. Known for their free breakfast program and medical programs, they were about the community. But they didn’t stand at a pulpit and preach; they got into the community and made shit happen.
Fred Hampton was the Chairman of the Chicago chapter of the BPP. He was a revolutionary, and a brilliant one at that. Fred Hampton knew that the path to freedom went beyond the Black community — he understood that all marginalized groups needed to work together to achieve freedom. “Judas and the Black Messiah” does a really great job at capturing what Hampton was truly about. They had to, or else no one would truly understand why the FBI wanted him dead. He was a socialist and an anti-capitalist. Socialism is a word we hear thrown around a lot, especially in the last year. But Hampton was truly a Marxist/Leninist socialist. He believed that the only true way forward was for the people to usurp the wealthy and powerful in charge to achieve true American democracy. And if anyone could have made such things happen, it would be Fred Hampton.
Not only was Fred Hampton incredibly intelligent, he was also charismatic and eloquent. After joining the BPP at the age of 20, he quickly rose through the ranks. Hampton had a way of using not only his words, but his delivery to really hook in an audience. You can see that in archival footage, and Daniel Kaluuya does an incredible job of conveying his gravity, but also that occasional spark of youth. It was that ability to captivate and move people that made the FBI see him as a threat. During his time as Chairman, he was able to bring together the BPP, the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang turned political organization, and the Young Patriots, a group of poor, migrant whites from Appalachia.
The scenes of Hampton and the BPP in “Judas and the Black Messiah” are intercut with scenes with Hoover and the FBI agents assigned to target him. Much like Malcolm X and Dr. King before him, Fred Hampton was on the FBIs watchlist because of his radicalism and militancy. The United States government saw the Black Panthers as a terrorist organization, afraid that their growing popularity would lead to some sort of radical overthrowing of the government. Through their COINTELPRO (counterintelligence) program, they were able to infiltrate “radical” organizations like the Panthers and use their plants, like O’Neal, to eradicate the most powerful members.
Even though the FBI worked with the Chicago police to arrest Hampton, it wasn’t enough for Hoover. In a scene, he confronts the two agents assigned to Hampton, making it clear he will not stop until Hampton is dead. He asks the main agent what he will do when his infant daughter brings home a Black boyfriend one day. “She wouldn’t,” the man responds, but you see him in the next scene demanding O’Neal draw them the blueprint of the apartment Hampton and other Panthers were living in. It’s clear that no one has a choice in this — you don’t go against the U.S. government and survive.
In the early hours of December 4th, 1969, 14 armed Chicago police officers stormed the apartment with guns blazing. While almost every Panther in the apartment is wounded, only two are dead: Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, a prominent member from Peoria, Illinois. Hampton, who had been drugged by O’Neal so he’d sleep through the whole thing, was gunned down in his bed while he slept next to his fiancee, Deborah Johnson, who was 38 weeks pregnant with the couple’s son. Watching the scene in “Judas and the Black Messiah” is striking for a variety of reasons. Mainly because of the face of Dominique Fishback, who plays Johnson. She never sheds a tear, even as a police officer points a gun at her stomach. Fred Hampton died at the age of 21. He never got to meet his son, Fred Hampton Jr.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” does an incredible job at telling the story it sets out to tell. Bill O’Neal is an unsympathetic lead, and you never once feel bad for him. In a clip at the end of the film, we see the real O’Neal try to justify his role in Hampton’s murder in the only interview he ever gave, for the documentary “Eyes on the Prize 2.” We find out he died by suicide the day the documentary aired. Its portrayal of Fred Hampton and other members of the Black Panther Party is amazing because they were able to have access to Hampton’s widow and son, whose sole purpose is to uphold his legacy properly. You do get a taste of who he was, and why he was so good at what he did.
Hopefully, this film is a jumping off point for people to educate themselves on who the Black Panthers were. They are an incredibly integral part of how Black people are currently fighting things like police brutality. Fred Hampton, just like other important members of the fight for Black power, should still be here. His story deserves to be told, and this film is a great first step.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is streaming on HBO Max until March 14th
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