Judas and the Black Messiah Actually Does Fred Hampton Justice
Leftists have been burned so many times by Hollywood depictions of radicals. So it’s a welcome surprise when, once in a blue moon, mainstream filmmakers actually do the history of American radicals justice, as in the new film on Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, Judas and the Black Messiah.
On December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police burst into the apartment of Black Panther Fred Hampton. Equipped with machine guns, rifles, shotguns, and handguns, the police not only fired first but discharged upward of ninety shots. The Panthers, according to the findings of a grand jury, fired at most a single shot.
The violent raid took the lives of Hampton and Mark Clark. Hampton was murdered while he lay asleep in bed, likely drugged by FBI informant William O’Neal. After police removed Hampton’s pregnant fiancée, Akua Njeri, from the bedroom, she could hear an officer asking if he was still alive. She says two gunshots were then fired, and then another officer said, “He’s good and dead now.”
Hampton’s and Clark’s murders were directly the work of the Chicago Police and Cook County state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan. But a landmark Senate investigation into the misconduct of US intelligence agencies and a protracted wrongful death suit uncovered that the police raid was part of a secret FBI domestic intelligence operation to neutralize political movements that challenged “the existing political and social order.”
Hampton was twenty-one when he was assassinated. He was a gifted orator with a deep-seated opposition to racial oppression and an unflinching socialist vision. Having spoken to people who knew Hampton when he was alive, I’ve heard him described as someone simply unable to let injustice go unopposed.
As a result, Hampton remains a heroic figure to many on the Left. People born decades after his assassination continue to find inspiration in his life. And Hampton’s assassination at the hands of the FBI and the Chicago Police remains an important story about the depths the US government will go to silence leftists.
But while Hampton’s story may be known on some quarters of the Left, most Americans have likely never heard of Hampton or the secret FBI counterintelligence program that caused his death.
That is why it is so crucial that the new movie Judas and the Black Messiah seeks to tell the story of Hampton’s demise at the hands of the FBI. With the backing of a major Hollywood studio, the film has the potential to bring this story to a mass audience. Thankfully, the film manages to do justice to the history it portrays.
How to Fight Fire
The Black Panthers are one of the most misunderstood groups in US history. Even to this day, they are frequently demonized, having their worldview distorted beyond recognition. In the film, FBI agent Roy Mitchell frequently compares the Black Panther Party to the Ku Klux Klan. While such a comparison is as abhorrent as it is absurd, it reflects how the Panthers are still frequently wrongfully thought of as violent racial chauvinists. And when the Panthers are not maligned, they are often co-opted, their radical politics omitted in favor of appropriation of their aesthetics.
As a result, any Leftist going into a Hollywood film about Fred Hampton does so with apprehension.
The very first time we see Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya) onscreen, he is delivering one of his most famous quotes:
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. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.
Shortly after, we see Hampton speaking to a black student group at a local college. The speaker introducing Hampton announces that, in line with the student’s demands, the school will be changing its name to Malcolm X College. When Hampton takes the stage, he lambasts those in the audience who think a name change is akin to true liberation. What’s going on, Hampton asserts, is liberal reformism. Liberal reform is about making slaves into “better slaves.” What the Panthers want is revolution. And Hampton lets the students know who their real enemy is by name: “the capitalist.”
In another scene, we see Fred Hampton leading political education sessions for new recruits. Hampton not only talks about socialism, he also talks about Mao and the impact of his theories on the party’s outlook. The FBI’s informant, William O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), ignores the lesson to make passes at a woman sitting near him. Hampton stops to call him out and remind of him of the party’s teachings on respecting women comrades. Men are not to take liberties with the women and are to recognize them as “sisters in arms.”
Far from racial chauvinists, Hampton seeks to build a “Rainbow Coalition” of the Panthers; the Young Lords, a predominantly Puerto Rican organization similar to the Panthers in ideology; and the Young Patriots, a leftist, anti-capitalist organization of self-described “hillbillies” largely made up of Appalachian migrants to Chicago.
In a tense dramatization of the first encounter between the Panthers and the Patriots, some of the Panthers seem hesitant about what might await them when meeting with the Patriots. As they join a meeting in progress, a giant Confederate flag immediately catches their eye. A speaker from the stage asserts that the flag is merely to remind of their Southern heritage. A member of the Panthers asserts that the flag reminds him of his family being lynched. The Patriots’ speaker states, “My people oppressed your people for hundreds of years,” before a white member of the audience erupts, claiming his people oppressed no one, as his family were sharecroppers.
Before the situation explodes, Hampton steps in. He reminds the white attendees that they are living in a ghetto with deplorable conditions. Hampton asks them if they find it ridiculous that they too must pay the salaries of the police who routinely brutalize them. In short, he acknowledges the differences and tensions between them but insists that their similarities in oppression should unite them to fight a common enemy.
The Panthers’ primary focus was combating racial oppression by achieving self-determination for black communities in America. The Panthers were formed in Oakland as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Guns in hand, the Panthers would follow the police to make sure they obeyed the law. While the Panthers were a movement against the oppression of black people in the United States, they did so through an explicitly internationalist and socialist framework, looking to the writings of Frantz Fanon, and they considered themselves to be operating in the same global movement as the revolution in Cuba and the national liberation struggles in Algeria and Vietnam.
And they were clear on the source of black oppression: capitalism. Black capitalists would not solve the problem, only socialism would. In this fight, the Panthers were willing to work with poor and oppressed people of all races and backgrounds to achieve it.
Besides a few stray remarks, including comments about the achievements of the Cuban health care system, the Panthers’ internationalist politics are not really explored in the film. But the revolutionary socialism of the Black Panthers is out front and center — no small feat in a major Hollywood picture.
While the film focuses on Hampton, it’s also ultimately about the FBI’s attacks on him. Here, too, the film does history justice.
Crucifying a Potential Messiah
The title “Judas and the Black Messiah” refers to a letter sent by FBI headquarters to forty-one FBI field offices. In 1956, the FBI formally began a counterintelligence program (called COINTELPRO) against the Communist Party. Counterintelligence traditionally involves the neutralization of hostile foreign agents, but the FBI decided it was time to use these techniques against domestic political movements.
The FBI believed its anti-communist powers allowed it to target noncommunists who were, in their estimation, in danger of being infiltrated or influenced by communists. It was under this rationale that the FBI originally targeted the civil rights movement and many of its most prominent leaders, including Martin Luther King.
But in 1967, the Bureau created a new COINTELPRO to target “Black Nationalist Hate Groups.” Around the same time, the FBI also created a “racial intelligence investigations” section within its domestic intelligence division. On March 4, 1968, the FBI outlined the goals of this new COINTELPRO, which included “Prevent[ing] the RISE OF A MESSIAH who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.”
At the time the memo was issued, the Panthers were not yet in the sights of the FBI. The potential “messiahs” in question were Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and Elijah Muhammad (the memo noted Malcolm X could have been the feared “messiah,” but instead he had become a “martyr”). Exactly one month after this memo, King was killed by an assassin.
J. Edgar Hoover himself would go on to declare the Panthers to be the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country”; they would quickly become the program’s main target. Of the 295 COINTELPRO operations authorized against “Black Nationalist” groups, 233 would be carried against the Panthers.
The revelation that Hampton was killed as the result of a series of covert actions designed, in part, to prevent the rise of a “black messiah” had an obvious impact. Fred Hampton was a charismatic speaker and a brilliant organizer. He was capable of not only excoriating racial oppression but uniting a multiracial working-class coalition. Many wondered if the FBI feared that Hampton was that “messiah,” so they chose to assassinate him. Judas and the Black Messiah takes this view of history.
While the film avoids didacticism, it does a fairly good job of depicting some of the FBI’s common COINTELPRO tactics. These include “snitchjacketing,” when informants falsely label other people as informants in order to sow distrust. No spoilers, but, as the film shows, this can have lethal consequences.
Also depicted is how the FBI drafted pamphlets falsely claiming to be from the Panthers that attacked other groups in hopes of sparking violent conflicts between them. In another scene, Judas and the Black Messiah shows how informants can act as agents provocateurs in hopes of creating pretext for an arrest, a tactic still popular with the Bureau.
In the film’s title, “Judas” is given top billing over “the Black Messiah.” This is reflective of the film, which is anchored not on Hampton but on FBI informant William O’Neal. This focus has sparked criticisms. While the film thankfully avoids one-dimensional, cartoonish portrayals, O’Neal is arguably shown in a more sympathetic light than he deserves.
In a handful of scenes, O’Neal is shown wrestling with what the FBI has tasked him to do. As O’Neal spoke very little about his experiences, these scenes are purely fictional. We have no idea if O’Neal ever felt conflicted about his assignments. And some of O’Neal’s worst acts as a provocateur are omitted from the film: O’Neal actually constructed an electric chair that he wanted the Panthers to use on informants and attempted to incite violence between the Panthers and Chicago gangs. Both incidents are completely absent from the film.
Still, on balance, the film successfully captures a rarely told history while succeeding on mainstream filmmaking’s cinematic terms.
Fred Hampton’s Vision Endures
Even before the current wave of propagandistic cop programs, the FBI has always been boosted by popular culture. At the height of the Second Red Scare, Hollywood churned out films like I Was a Communist for the FBI that lionized the nation’s political police. While the FBI has been the beneficiary of fawning press coverage throughout its history, the exact opposite has been true of the Black Panthers.
Judas and the Black Messiah comes at a time when there is renewed activism around police violence, racism, and the failings of capitalism. Today’s activists are grappling with questions about how to confront racial oppression and class exploitation. Plenty of sophistry has been offered on this topic, from assertions that closing one’s eyes and ignoring the realities of racism is the road to class unity to admonishments that breaking up banks won’t end racism.
But the revolutionary vision of Fred Hampton offers one view of how to tackle racial oppression and capitalist exploitation not as separate problems, but as part of an intertwined struggle.
While the true history of the Panthers and the FBI is necessary to tell in and of itself, Judas and the Black Messiah comes at a time when this history is of heightened relevance. And for that, the Left can find much to celebrate about the film.