The radical re-education of Judas and the Black Messiah
Revisiting the revolutionary who visited us
CW: Racial violence.
“You can kill liberators but you can’t kill liberation.”
These words were published in the Carillon on November 21, 1969. They belong, of course, to Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, who had just delivered a rousing speech to a crowd of more than 600 in the U of R’s Education Auditorium. He and two other BPP members discussed their community programs, the inner workings of the party, and the importance of class solidarity, among other topics. Two weeks later Hampton would be shot and killed in his bed by a Chicago police raid in an FBI-sanctioned assassination. He was 21.
Judas and the Black Messiah, directed by Shaka King and released on February 12, endeavors to tell the story of Hampton’s work, albeit somewhat indirectly; the film follows FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) as he infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther party, befriends Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), and ultimately helps the FBI carry out Hampton’s murder. Through Bill’s involvement with the party, we see second-hand Fred Hampton’s unwavering commitment to his cause and his community.
Though there has been (valid) criticism regarding the fact that the movie is centred around FBI informant Bill O’Neal and not Fred Hampton himself, I argue that this creative choice has merit. However, before I elaborate, I must qualify my opinion with the fact that I am white, that my viewing experience is inextricably influenced by that fact, and that we should listen to and acknowledge Black perspectives when it comes to films about Black experiences and Black history.
To be American (and Canadian) is to be inundated with state propaganda on a daily basis. If the BLM protests of last year have taught us anything, it is that our governments will go to great lengths to cover up and justify the racism built into its institutions. Figures who were once antagonized as dangerous rebels (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Louis Riel) are co-opted as idols by the state in a tepid attempt to position themselves on the “right side of history” without acknowledging nor atoning for the fact that they remain the exact institutions these figures fought against. For instance, just a few weeks ago the Manitoba RCMP took to Twitter to laud Louis Riel as “a champion of minority rights,” despite the fact that they are the present-day iteration of the North-West Mounted Police, the very organization that sentenced Riel to death in 1885. The hypocrisy is clear.
Given the state’s ever-explicit tendency toward self-preservation, it is no surprise that much historical information about the Black Panther Party is biased at best, and completely falsified at worst. Though public attitudes are shifting, many folks, to this day, still think of the BPP as a violent, criminal organization, due either to racism or miseducation. Even the film’s producer, Ryan Coogler, was initially misinformed about some aspects of the party’s history. According to the film’s companion podcast, an early version of the script depicted BPP member Jake Winters ambushing the cops who killed him when, according to Black Panther documents, the cops were the instigators and Jake had acted in self defence.
In a conversation with Fred Hampton Jr. for the podcast, Coogler recounts the shame he felt after discovering that he and his film crew had relied on biased police accounts rather than the BPP’s own information.
“Not only was this group fighting, but they were also documenting when they were fighting,” Coogler said. “They were documenting in they own voice, in they own words with they own fingers with they own resources and still, because we’ve been trained filmmaking in a Western style media [and] we came up in these systems, you [Hampton Jr.] had to ask us, [. . .] and I remember the room got quiet.”
Public misconception regarding the Black Panther Party is exactly what makes Bill O’Neal’s role as the audience surrogate so effective in Judas and the Black Messiah. We listen in as FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) directs Bill and characterizes the Black Panther Party as a dangerous terrorist organization – sentiments that are only ever contradicted by Bill’s lived experiences in the party. Where Mitchell makes the party out to be senselessly violent, we see their rigorous education and internal code of ethics. Where Mitchell depicts Hampton as a figure of hatred and division, we see him not only empowering and educating the Black community of Chicago but reaching out to other street organizations to form his influential Rainbow Coalition. Ultimately, the centering of Bill O’Neal allows us to witness firsthand the discrepancies between state propaganda and fact.
I think I speak for most folks when I say we are all too used to seeing biopics that make consolations to tend to the comfort of white, straight, cis, abled audiences, or so as to not risk offending those in power. Judas and the Black Messiah pulls no punches. Created over two years of consultation with past and present Black Panther Party members, including Fred Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton Jr., and widow, Akua Njeri, there are no “good cop” characters or white saviours in the film to spare the feelings of audience members. The film is deeply, gravely upsetting, as were the real-life events that it depicts. Police officers fired over 90 shots in their raid on Hampton’s apartment, killing him and fellow party member Mark Clark and critically wounding several others. Only a single, involuntary, shot was fired by the Panthers. In January 1970, the state-sanctioned murder was ruled to be a “justifiable homicide.” Utterly deplorable.
When Fred Hampton visited the University of Regina over 50 years ago, his message was reportedly well-received. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. BIPOC people in North America are still targeted by police at alarming rates. BIPOC activists are still routinely surveilled by the state. Capitalism runs rampant. We need to radically rethink the status quo and organize if we want to make things better. I will leave you with some words that were printed in the Carillon all those years ago:
“When asked if he thought that there was anything good about today’s society, Mr. Hampton said that there were a lot of good people in it. These people have no political avenues because these have been blocked by people that are no good.”