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Judas and the Black Messiah [Movie Review]

Summary

Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of William O’Neal (LaKieth Stanfield) a street hustler who gets picked up after impersonating an FBI agent while trying to steal a car. Once arrested, FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) gives him a choice between facing jail time or cooperating. A young local revolutionary with a growing presence and following, Fred Hampton leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers is viewed as a possible emerging “Black Messiah”. Fearing this, the FBI gives O’Neal the task of becoming a Judas, infiltrating the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and getting close to Fred Hampton. (Judas was a disciple of Jesus Christ, believed to be the Messiah, who in exchange for personal gain betrayed Jesus to the people that would crucify him.)

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One of the major issues that I saw in Judas and the Black Messiah was the casting and this began with the opening scene of the film. I did not buy Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover or Daniel Kaaluya as Fred Hampton. It hadn’t been an issue in the previews but was rather glaring in the full film. These are not fictional characters and being quite familiar with the story of the Black Panthers these are two people of whom I’ve at least seen photos if not video clips. So I went into the film with images of these two people in mind and Martin Sheen and Daniel Kaaluya did not fit those images.

Don’t get me wrong, the problem was not necessarily the acting but rather that instead of seeing J. Edgar Hoover and Fred Hampton, I saw Martin Sheen and Daniel Kaaluya. They were respectively the guys from The West Wing and Get Out or Queen & Slim. Granted, Martin Sheen only makes a few brief appearances as Hoover but when he made his first appearance onscreen early in the film, I didn’t know who he was supposed to be. I thought he might have been just some random higher-up within the FBI but had a feeling he might have been Hoover when he began speaking about a “Black Messiah”. It wasn’t until later in the film that I became certain that he was portraying Hoover.

Danial Kaaluya does a good job with regards to Hampton’s voice and manner of speaking but aside from a similar beard and haircut does not resemble the man at all. And to be quite honest, he looks a bit too old to be Fred Hampton. That’s not to say that Kaaluya looks old in general because he does not. He just doesn’t look like he’s in his late teens or early twenties or at least not in this film. I’ve seen him look younger in other movies where he has a more athletic build with little to no facial hair. But having a less athletic build here along with a full beard makes him look older.

Granted, many of the other actors and actresses either look nothing like or bear only a passing resemblance to the people they are portraying. But images of those people are less circulated so some liberties can be taken because the audience is less likely to have an image in mind. Martin Sheen wasn’t on screen that much so he was easy enough to forget about but I thought Daniel Kaaluya’s appearance was extremely distracting and kept pulling my attention from the story.

Judas and the Black Messiah begins with clips of various members and affiliates of the Black Panthers speaking. I’d primarily seen black and white photos of the Panthers so it was pretty cool to see them in color and motion through videos. A minor side note is that I also realized that while I’d read the words of Huey P. Newton, I don’t think I’d heard his voice before. It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. It’s kind of like how talkies ended the careers of some silent-era actors and film did a number on radio stars.

This is a visually appealing film. From the start, the film is beautifully shot with colors that are warm and vibrant. Sometimes when you watch television shows or movies, especially from the past, Black people would have an unnatural appearance. Thankfully it’s becoming less of an issue as time goes on. Everyone, whether Black, White, or Hispanic is shown in a variety of shades and I appreciated how good everyone looked.

The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover’s leadership was bent on preventing the rise of a “Black Messiah”. The motivations and theories behind this can be argued but on a basic level, this led to the FBI’s heavy surveillance of various civil rights leaders and organizations. The opening minutes of Judas and the Black Messiah set the stage for the rest of the movie in the sense that there’s this inaccurate but prevailing idea that the Black Panthers’ mission and ideology were on par with that of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

There is a stubborn misconception that calls for Black Power or even just basic equality for Black people is a call for black Supremacy. Whether through a genuine misunderstanding of the history of these movements or purposely being obtuse pushes for Black self-determination and equality for Black people are often compared to white supremacy. This idea is repeated throughout Judas and the Black Messiah where the establishment, in this case the government and its law enforcement agencies, are operating under the idea that the Black Panthers are promoting an ideology of hate. That isn’t the case. What they’re fighting against is change. They are firmly committed to society and life as they know it remaining the same.

It’s pointed out that the Black Panthers state, or at least Fred Hampton does, that if the system is built on inequality and its agencies work to uphold the system of inequality then the system needs to be rebuilt. With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves if a system and the agencies within it are found to be unjust and corrupt can that system then be trusted to regulate and reform itself? It would be in that systems’ best interest to disrupt and dismantle any outside forces that might pose a threat to the status quo. Thus it shouldn’t be a surprise that if the government and its law enforcement agencies are believed to be corrupt and not properly serving their people that those entities might seek to destroy any individuals or organizations trying to bring about change.

Through this lens, we get a glimpse into the various programs implemented and operated by the Black Panther Party. They intended to provide services and resources that the government was either not providing or what was being provided was of low quality. The Black Panthers began as an organization focused on providing self-defense for Black communities and thus members carried firearms. That is often where the focus is placed so the mission and history of the Black Panther Party are simplified to that of a violent organization where the members dressed in black and carried guns.

But Judas and the Black Messiah does a good job of showing that while that was indeed a part of the Black Panther Party’s identity it was not the entire scope of their ideology. Guns are as American as apple pie but make people uncomfortable when Black people are the ones carrying them. The Black Panthers carrying guns was viewed as aggressive and controversial and therefore garnered the most attention. But I liked that the film also gave a glimpse into their breakfast program, healthcare clinics, and alliances with other organizations. It showed that the Black Panthers were certainly about defending the lives and rights of Black people. But was also dedicated to improving the quality of life and access to resources for Black people.

The organization also pushed past the simplified issues of racial inequality to expose the reality that the system was built to exploit poor people. Hierarchical groupings based on flawed rhetoric around race, ethnicity, and gender were simply tools used to divide poor people. These groupings keep poor people fighting amongst themselves for scraps while a few at the top enjoy easy access to an abundance of resources.

There are multiple scenes in Judas and the Black Messiah where Fred Hampton and the Panthers are serving the community but not in the typical sense that we usually see with some other organizations. It was fitting that Hampton pointed out the difference between serving and uplifting the community versus charity. Taking from a community all year and showing up around the holidays to hand out turkeys is a form of manipulation. Instead, the Panthers used food and healthcare, resources that poor citizens in Chicago needed, to build relationships with members of the community.

When children participate in the breakfast program they come into contact with members of the Black Panther Party. While serving the kids they also educate and have them repeat mantras aimed at building pride and self-confidence. They help people but not from the traditional position of some stately person descended from on high to dole out pity and handouts. Instead, their approach is from a position of empowerment where they nourish the body with food and healthcare while at the same time nourishing the mind.

Hampton doesn’t just limit his outreach to the Black community. He makes it a point to reach out and form relationships with other organizations and communities. Under normal circumstances or within the purview of the established order they would be regarded as enemies or competitors. We first see this when he and a few other Panthers visit a pool hall to speak with members of the Crowns, a fictitious amalgamation of local gangs. Hampton has the Panthers humble themselves by going into what might be deemed hostile territory unarmed. They extend an offer to meet at a later date to have a conversation about how the two groups can collaborate and be more effective.

Judas and the Black Messiah touches on the reality that the FBI attempted to sow discord between the Chicago gangs. They tried to keep them separated by distributing fraudulent letters and insulting propaganda materials pretending to be one organization disparaging another. Realizing this ploy though not necessarily knowing the details, Hampton and the other leaders still made some effort to give each other the benefit of the doubt. They worked together towards a higher purpose instead of allowing their egos to get in the way.

Seeing all of what are normally disparate groups come together in what’s termed a “rainbow coalition” makes you wonder what could have been had these relationships been allowed to mature without negative interference. Imagine what could have been if all of these groups of oppressed people had continued to work together to fight against the capitalist system that was (and still is) oppressing them.

Often when we look back at people and events from the past our perspective is skewed, especially if we weren’t present to bear witness first-hand. In this case, I think sometimes looking back at Black people in the past we might romanticize and sanitize the character of people. But the reality is that as there are good and bad people now as there were good and bad people then and as always most people will fall somewhere in between.

There are Black people, people in general, who only think of themselves and their gain with no regard for others. Think of people who make business decisions that are financially profitable but put lives at risk, damage the environment, cause financial collapses, etc. Is it any surprise that a criminal who is already taking advantage of other Black people under the guise of pretending to be an FBI agent is willing to work for the FBI in exchange for skating on charges and financial gain?

Bill O’Neal betrayed Fred Hampton at the urging of the FBI, the details might differ but it has also been alleged that members of the Nation of Islam assassinated Malcolm X. As some leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and even modern-day religious figures, activists, and politicians betray the people and communities that they claim to serve and represent. Going back to slavery and before that going back to Africa, there have always been Black people willing to sell others into bondage and willing to fight tooth and nail to keep them there if they can benefit or profit in some way.

One of the greatest lies ever told is that you have to be White to support and perpetuate white supremacy. And in watching the story of O’Neal and his betrayal of Hampton I couldn’t help but think that the more things change the more they stay the same. In the present, you have these Black far-right people, not even conservatives because it’s not about them having conservative views as much as it is about them co-signing and repeating racist rhetoric for a pat on the head and crumbs off the table. And then you have the other side of the same coin which strives to destroy the Black community from within by perpetuating dysfunctional and antisocial criminal behavior as modern Black culture.

There’s a clip at the end of the movie where the real O’Neal is speaking about his taking pride in his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s so ridiculous that knowing what this man’s actions did to Fred Hampton specifically and the Black Panthers more broadly, I would not have believed it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. That while not personally pulling the trigger, you can admit to playing a role in the murder of a man and then claim to have been a boots-on-the-ground activist is delusional.

But, then it points back to two moments earlier in the film.

Following O’Neal’s arrest, while Mitchell is trying to feel him out, he asks him what he thinks about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X to which O’Neal replies nothing. Later during a recreated clip from an interview, O’Neal explains that he came to admire and trust Mitchell because at the time there were only a few role models such as MLK, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali.

There’s then a flashback to O’Neal sitting in Mitchell’s living room where Mitchell tells him about the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi about which O’Neal seems to know nothing or at least isn’t interested. This guy is ignorant of or at least willing to ignore what’s going on in the world around him. Instead, he notices that Mitchell seems to be living comfortably and is impressed. O’Neal wants some of that for himself and is thus willing to be a pawn in the overthrow of the Chicago Black Panthers.

During the conversation at Mitchell’s house, he compares the Black Panthers to the Ku Klux Klan in the sense of them both looking to cause trouble and divide people. He described the FBI as being not just a steadfast supporter but an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement. To a degree, it’s true as the federal government dating back to the Grant administration had at times made efforts to weaken if not eliminate the KKK. But Mitchell overstates things in the sense that the government’s motivation and handling of the two organizations is different.

The KKK had a decades-long history of individual and large-scale acts of domestic terrorism. The Black Panthers was a few years old and aside from a few alleged incidents that were tied to individuals, it was not primarily focused on terrorist activities. Yet, attempts to bring the KKK to heel mostly took place through prosecution, and often investigations and charges were not vigorously pursued, especially not at the state or local levels. The Panthers, on the other hand, were constantly being arrested and dragged into court. Some leaders were victims of entrapment by way of FBI informants instigating or committing acts of violence which would then be blamed on the Panthers. Or as in the case of Hampton, they might be set up to be murdered.

O’Neal infiltrating the Panthers was able to pass information back to the FBI but his presence also offers some insight into the FBI’s practices. Once inside the Panthers, O’Neal realizes that they aren’t perfect but they also aren’t terrorists as described. Hampton as the leader of the Chicago chapter was demanding of members and expected them to exhibit self-control, discipline, and respect when dealing with others. The Panthers live up to at least some of the ideals that they claim.

It’s also made apparent that the FBI had multiple informants within the Panther chapters. There are multiple instances of hit dogs hollering where O’Neal, insecure and on the verge of exposure, would accuse someone else of being an informant. Other informants also practice this habit which shows how the FBI was able to sow discord and fuel paranoia within the Black Panthers. Judas and the Black Messiah focuses on one chapter of the Black Panther Party and thus never leaves Chicago but even from that limited view it still offers some insight into the members and activities of other chapters.

I read “The Assassination of Fred Hampton” a few years ago and remember that the shootout at the Black Panther office was covered though I no longer remember the details. Yet, while watching the film, there is a scene where the police are watching the office and making rude remarks to passersby. After some dialogue between the Panthers within the office, some members leave and others stay, a shootout then takes place.

It was cool that members of the community came together to help the Panthers rebuild their office. I think it paints an important picture about helping others because we never know when we might need help. That’s not to say that you should do things for others with the expectation that you’ll get something in return. But, rather that often the effort and energy we put out into the world come back to us. The office wasn’t perfect after it was rebuilt but the point is that the community came together to get it done. Imagine harnessing that kind of energy to help improve the community itself.

Hampton and his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), discuss his legacy and the future. In a type of foreshadowing, Deborah is visibly uncomfortable because this man that she has come to love is giving a speech calling on death for not just the police but also himself. I agreed with Deborah and saw this as being irresponsible. The couple is expecting their first child which is typically a part of how many people define their legacy. To be clear, Hampton is happy about the baby. But he has made up his mind that if necessary he would be willing to sacrifice his life for the organization and the movement which he views as his true calling and legacy.

Later, Hampton goes to visit the mother of a Panther who has died and she speaks about her son’s legacy being boiled down and simplified to the last moments of his life. I think this happens when some people die suddenly, especially if the death is violent. Their life and legacy can be overshadowed by the moments and circumstances surrounding their death. Judas and the Black Messiah shows that to some degree this would become the case with Fred Hampton as much of his legacy or what has become his public story is that one fateful night on December 4, 1969, when he and Mark Clark were murdered. But I think the movie also does a fair job of showing some other facets of his life as an activist and also as a person.

We get a fairly good overview of the Chicago Black Panthers beyond them being Black people who carried guns. There’s also a peek into them as individuals with feelings and vulnerabilities like everyone else. Though while the film focuses on Hampton, I think we get more well-rounded and stirring portrayals from O’Neal and some of the supporting characters such as Deborah, Jake Winters (Algee Smith), and Bobby Rush (Darrell Britt-Gibson).

With about a year of anticipation and a story in which I was very interested, I had high hopes for Judas and the Black Messiah. In some ways, the movie lived up to my expectations but fell short in others. I thought it did a fair and balanced job of telling part of the story of Fred Hampton and the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers but didn’t quite reach the level of being the definitive film on the subject. The film covers 1968 to 1969 and focuses on Hampton’s interactions with an FBI informant so there’s still plenty of room for a future film to tell a more complete version of the life story of Fred Hampton. Though putting aside the movie’s flaws I think it’s still worth checking out, especially if you also read more in-depth books about Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers in general.

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