For many people in this country, the greater story of the Civil Rights movement and the fight against injustice during the 1960s has been buried, white-washed, rewritten, and precluded from our history books. Over time, the real words and philosophies of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and the subject of this film, Fred Hampton, have been returned to the public conscious, and a reframing of our awareness has taken place when it comes to such topics as the Black Panther Party. With the fervor of the Black Lives Matter movement still in full swing, and a sect of our country still willfully ignorant to the cries of racial inequity while offering empty platitudes in evoking the words of these great Civil Rights leaders, divested of the meaning behind them, films like Judas and the Black Messiah become crucial documents not only to inform the uninitiated of those who fought and died for their brethren, but an integral piece of history which reflects the same struggles that provoke so many people to take to the streets in protest today. Director Shaka King’s vision, in realizing the story of Fred Hampton for the screen — and his betrayal at the hands of FBI informant and fellow Panther member, William O’Neal — is one of gripping drama, historical significance, and contemporary relevance, keying in on themes not just of racial injustice and the outwardly racist systems of our law enforcement, but the need for greater systemic reform in order to install true equality not just for the Black community, but for all the people of this country who are subject to the same oppressions at the hands of a Capitalist authority.
Fred Hampton was the leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party from 1968 until his assassination on December 4th, 1969. His murder came from a coordinated assault on his home by the Chicago Police Department and the FBI, which resulted in not only his death but that of 22-year-old Mark Clark. Like innumerable other Black leaders killed at this time, his death was ordered for fear of the change a genuine movement of the people can result in for those in charge of the systems that have kept them destitute and oppressed. The Blank Panthers have long been depicted as a boogeyman of the Vietnam-era, a fascist group of armed radicals that threatened to upheave our democracy and did not represent the values of the peaceful Civil Rights movement. While their methods may indeed have been radical, their motivations were just, and again we see the words of leaders like Hampton’s echoing into the messages we uphold today.
“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.”
This quote from Hampton recently made the rounds on the lips of a number of U.S. senators in celebration of Black History Month this past week, but as many were quick to point out, this is not the whole quote. Hampton continues,
“We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with Black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism. We’ve stood up and said we’re not going to fight reactionary pigs and reactionary state’s attorneys like this and reactionary state’s attorneys like Hanrahan with any other reactions on our part. We’re going to fight their reactions with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.”
King does not stop at Hampton’s calls for solidarity, as so many of our political leaders have chosen to do. He continues Hampton’s speech up until the call to fight capitalism with socialism, recognizing Hampton as the systemic revolutionary he truly was and emphasizing the need for sweeping systemic reform. The speech, as delivered by Daniel Kaluuya channeling the powerhouse oratory skills of Hampton, is one of many high points in Judas and the Black Messiah, giving a platform to the resounding messages of Hampton and the movement of the Black Panther Party in a time when such sentiments are being felt again with equal demand. Kaluuya is the film’s unwavering centerpiece, embodying the ideals and spirit of Hampton with astounding magnetism. He radiates the strength and moral fortitude of the character not just in his grand moments of militaristic allocution, but in the intimacy of his fears, as he grapples with the crushing weight of systemic oppression while he reads about the burning of the Black Panther headquarters from a jail cell, having been arrested on trumped up charges. The quiet power of his reflective performance is seen in equal measure when he is forced to weigh the sacrifice of leading a truly noble cause against the divine prospects of fatherhood, staunchly resigned to martyrdom should his life be required to further the fight. LaKeith Stanfield is positioned as his undercover undoer, William O’Neal: a veritable Brutus as he contends with his moral involvement within the Panther Party and his commitment to informing on their activities to repent for his own crimes after posing as an FBI agent in ill-conceived acts of grand theft auto.
The comparison to Shakespeare is rather apt in assessing King’s adaptation of the Hampton tragedy. As co-writer of the film, alongside Will Berson in his first screenplay credit, King mirrors the conflict of Julius Caesar in his fixation on the betrayer as central figure to the story, opening the film with a recreation of a 1989 interview O’Neal gave on his involvement with the FBI and Hampton’s assassination shortly before taking his own life without warranted explanation. The film follows him from his early acts of officer impersonation to his recruitment into the FBI proper, overseen by agent Roy Mitchell as played by Jesse Plemons. Stanfield portrays the stricken uncertainty of O’Neal with a deft subtlety, conveying at once a coy disregard for the greater consequence of his actions and the gratification the solidarity and good will his work within the Panther Party generally brings him. This conflicting duality, pulled between the mercenary interests of self-preservation and a moral obligation to community and social service, fills out the human characteristics of his internal strife when weighed against the unforgivable sin of his duplicity. Even as he is gluttonously partaking in the lavish meals and cash incentives furnished by his federal supervisor, he takes pride in working with the community to rebuild their scorched headquarters and appears to find genuine purpose within their camaraderie. Even when Stanfield steps aside, and the real O’Neil is seen in a bookend of archival footage in which he attempts to justify his actions and downplay his transgressions, you get a sense of remorse in his demeanor, as if he truly lost what integrity he found in the movement having been nothing but a lowly carjacker prior to his involvement in the Party.
King’s choice to end the film with real footage of O’Neil confronting the iniquities of his actions is a powerful one given everything that came before. Having just watched the unjust murder of Fred Hampton on screen — shot in his sleep in a manner that reminds us of the enkindling murder of Breonna Taylor which helped to further ignite the passions of the Black Lives Matter movement early last year — O’Neil’s apparent ambivalence is all the more enraging. Despite the clear moral quandary he displays in his only filmed reflection of these events, his attempts to save face and to relegate judgement to that of history belie the actions of a compromised and ignoble man. When it comes to depicting historical events with recorded posterity, and particularly those surrounding the Civil Rights movement, the tendency to rely on documentary footage to punctuate the significance of the story being depicted often undermines the work of the filmmaker by more concisely conveying their message with the genuine article rather than their own narrative summation. Despite the effectiveness of this final statement by mirroring the opening recreation with the actual footage of O’Neil’s interview, King overloads the end of his film with lengthy blocks of text expatiating the details of events just witnessed and their subsequent fallout. As a viewer, we want to learn about these events through their depiction within the story, not through seminarian compression of information in white titles on black backgrounds. The indulgence of this antiseptic abbreviation is a detriment to the storytelling of the film, insisting upon blunt education as its intent instead of the seamless integration of informative narrative that preceded it.
As we continue to uplift the voices of Black storytellers — particularly in this month of celebration, in which we honor such histories while the continued fervor of social movements perpetuate the message of equality for all — Judas and the Black Messiah proves to be yet another example of the deftness and continued relevance these filmmakers bring to the screen with their stories of personal and historic struggles, in a time where such scenarios appear more and more universal. Truly, we are in the midst of a renaissance in Black storytelling on screen. With a world finally ready to embrace the message of people like Fred Hampton, and able to comprehend the circumstances and moral uncertainty that drove William O’Neil to aid in the assassination of his Black brother in arms, we can see how the revolutionary fights waged during the Civil Rights movement did not end with Dr. King and the Black Panthers, merely that their courageous efforts pushed the needle closer to a more equal society, and that our battles today are the same as theirs, and demand equal intensity.