Judas And The Black Messiah
US (2021) Dir. Shaka King
“You can kill a revolutionary but you can’t kill a revolution!”
It’s astounding to learn these powerful words came from a 21 year old and not a grizzled veteran dissenter, but Fred Hampton was indeed barely out of his teens when he spoke before a packed hall of Black Panther Party (BPP) members and galvanised them to keep sticking it to the man in the name of freedom.
Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) has risen up the ranks of the Chicago chapter of the BPP to become chairman and this has worried the FBI, with its director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) declaring the BPP as “the biggest threat to national security”. Needing to bring the BBP down and stop the “Black Messiah” from gaining more traction and influence, FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) has a plan.
19 year-old petty criminal William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is arrested for stealing cars by posing as an FBI agent, but Mitchell offers to wipe the slate clean if O’Neal goes undercover in the BPP and feed information back to the FBI. O’Neal agrees and gives the FBI an early advantage but the deeper O’Neal is ingrained by the party, reaching the rank of director of security, the harder his job becomes.
For those of us outside of the US, Hampton may not be a familiar name so Judas And The Black Messiah is an enlightening experience. The history of racism in America has been a prevalent subject in cinema over the past few years, running the gamut from biopics to dramatisations of true stories and fictional works on the this theme. Just when you think this is becoming a cause celebre real life reminds us this is still a problem, offering more stories to tell.
Director Shaka King is the latest filmmaker to pick a shameful episode from America’s history and share it with the masses, partly to instigate discussion on the issue of the country’s inherent racism but also to celebrate Chairman Fred Hampton. I’m careful not to say “honour” because that would make it sound like Hampton was being deified here, even if his legacy as a “black messiah” is the consensus among the black community, and it makes the film seem lacking in balance.
Bearing in mind Hoover’s aforementioned hyperbole and the relentless campaign against Hampton and the BPP, it is difficult not to pick a side early on and stay with it. The extent of this operation against Hampton, including but not limited to imprisonment on bogus charges, can’t be seen as anything other than victimisation, both personal and against the entire black community. The mistake they made was to think if they cut off the snake’s head, it would die, severely underestimating the loyalty and resolve of the BPP.
Revolutionary is a strong term but Hampton saw himself as one, inspired by the likes of Che Guevara and Mao Zedong, espousing the virtues of socialism and community – this was the ‘60s after all. One of his more successful programmes was feeding poor kids free breakfast every day, whilst he did the unimaginable and formed the Rainbow Coalition with other ethnic groups, including blacks, Latinos, and white southern patriots.
O’Neal meanwhile fell under Hampton’s spell and was soon as indoctrinated as anyone, except he would betray the cause on the side, an act that fast became blackmail no matter how hard he tried to end it. Jailing Hampton didn’t mark the end of the FBI’s campaign and O’Neal finds himself torn. Fortunately, despite his important role in the BPP, O’Neal was never active with weapons against his white paymasters, although his militancy later rubs against Hampton’s view of non-violence.
The quote at the start of this review comes from a show-stopping speech Hampton delivers after being freed from jail, in which he advocates killing the police (maybe metaphorically, although the BPP were heavily armed at all times) but also pledges his life to the cause. One person not happy to hear this is Hampton’s pregnant girlfriend Deborah (Dominique Fishback), staunchly behind her man politically but doesn’t want him to die also.
Like many performers, there is the dichotomy to Hampton of the charismatic, loud, and articulate leader in public, and the quiet, thoughtful, philosophical man in private. This makes his call to arms quite alarming and uncharacteristic since he would confiscate all weapons before meeting with other groups. This didn’t stop others in his gang from being trigger happy and bellicose in their actions, by way of highlighting how the BPP could also fight dirty, adding a shade of grey to their image.
Such ambiguity is applied to O’Neal’s character, a man who by rights is the villain of the piece by betraying his brethren, yet is wracked with guilt over this after doing so much for the BPP cause. Lakeith Stanfield pulls out a nicely conflicted performance in this role and one can feel he is intent on being true to the reality of the situation, which has been fictionalised many times in cinema.
Undeniably deserving of the many awards received for his interpretation, Daniel Kaluuya is intensely mesmerising as Hampton, making us believe every rousing, inspiring, and defiant word he speaks. If he wasn’t an actor, Kaluuya could be a preacher, he is that convincing, and it is that conviction as well as the humanity he brings to the role for which he was rightfully lauded.
King opens and closes the film with clips from a 1989 TV interview with O’Neal in which he tells his story. That same night, O’Neal took his own life. Hampton was killed in 1969 in his own bedroom, shot by FBI agents. Today, incidents like George Floyd remind us how little things have changed in the US and around the world.
Comfortably sitting alongside similarly incendiary films like Detroit or Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Judas And The Black Messiah is a powerful tribute to Fred Hampton as well as an affecting social polemic.