‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ served as a lesson in activism, conspiracy, and the dangers of apathy. This story of the Black Panthers is painful, but necessary. The historical drama depicts the impact of the Black Panther Party and the life the Chairman of the Illinois Chapter, Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya. Director Shaka King, previously known for his comedic writing background, takes a daring pivot telling the nuanced story of Hampton’s assasination by the hands of FBI through infiltration of Informant, William O’Neal, played by Lakieth Stanfield, into the Black Panther Party.
King said he hopes the film,“presents an opportunity to examine the US’s past and present acts of crushing voices of dissent.”
The film premiered on HBO Max Feb. 12. As I viewed towards the end of Black History Month, it left me analyzing today’s social injustice issues.
Repainting the Picture of the Black Panther Party
In the film we see the duality of the Black Panthers. Often painted as a terrorist organization in efforts to silence the party, instead we get an inside look of their work within their communities. Their key themes were monitoring police activity in their communities and more importantly giving back. Hampton said in the film their goal was to “feed every hungry child in Chicago” and was expressed through multiple scenes of their breakfast programs feeding the community. But that didn’t mean the Pathers were peaceful at all times. There were many violent face offs within the movie, showing how they were not afraid to protect themselves from the state’s maltreatment.
When taking on this role, Daniel Kaluuya was faced with the obstacle of trying to reincarnate as an iconic civil rights leader. As the film progresses, we watch him conquer imitating an orator, while also peeling away his character’s jagged layers, uncovering a vulnerable side only close-ones to the real Hampton can describe.
My heart swelled and I felt hopeful watching the re-imagination of the Rainbow Coalition. A true representation of allyship, we watch some of the polarizing communities of Chicago assemble under Hampton’s guidance. An olive branch is extended to city gangs and movements, such as the Young Patriots Organization, a leftist group of white Southerners, and the Young Lords, a local Puerto Rican gang. We see a lesson of resisting the power of the state and building alliances across race and class lines. It serves as an example of the successful mobilization of political movements, and how the intersectionality of our struggles can bring us together.
After the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, there wasn’t a leader that could mobilize the country in the way he did. As Hampton gained ground within the party, so did the target on his back.
The Black Panther Party vs. The State
In a scene where Hampton meets with current party members, he explains that everyday they were at war. It was them vs. the federal government.
They were heavily armed, but not because they wanted to incite violence, but they believed in the right to protect themselves, just like many right-leaning political organizations of today.
“War is politics with bloodshed. Politics is war without bloodshed,” said Hampton in the film.
The film depicts a chess match with the Panthers always coming up short. Besides government informants infiltrating the party, it is suggested that evidence was planted in rival neighborhoods to incite violence, arrest members of the party on false or weak charges, and constantly harass the neighborhood.
While watching the film, it is evident there are parallels to the government’s efforts in suppressing the Black Panther Party and today’s movements being policed by the state. The film mentioned the takedown of other prominent party members. This is similar to mysterious deaths and disappearances of Ferguson organizers within the last six years.
The Dangers of Apathy In the Face of Oppression
William O’Neal is characterized by his carelessness towards oppression, which made him a prospect for the FBI. Lakieth Stanfield captures his selfishness and his constant fight-or-flight mentality. In the film it was revealed, he accepted the offer to serve as an informant only to get himself out of going to jail. We then see him blur the lines of his own morals. He struggles throughout the film to align himself with a cause. As his knowledge of the party grows, we see him struggle with his previous allegiances. When the order came to kill Hampton he looked sick, knowing he had gone too far.
The beauty of watching a biographical drama is how you are left wishing for a different outcome that has already happened. We watch O’Neal ponder the idea of helping to kill Hampton. We see his inner turmoil, and hope he chooses a different fate, but we already know how this story ends.
Stanfields performance proves powerful as the audience can feel his every emotion. Guilt was the only expression on his face as he collected his final payments from his handler. He questions him, ”Are you still a panther?” and he doesn’t reply, just sits and ponders. What started off as indifference, we see has turned into clear side alignment. And he wonders if he is on the right side of it.
Hampton harped on the fact the revolution cannot be stopped. After his death, 5,000 attended his funeral and filled the streets in remembrance.
The social unrest of 2020 has shown us that injustice is still rampant within our system. As the same problems persist today, I wonder if we’re losing the fight Hampton spoke of.
The concluding scenes show live footage of Hampton. The colored videos from the 60’s show that this history was not that long ago. I ended the movie in tears, inspired, angry, but passionate. The film concludes with the powerful message of Hampton’s chant echoing in the background, ”I am a revolutionary.” One emotion audiences are guaranteed to feel is moved. ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is a call to not sit idly by.