BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 16 FEB 21

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Captures the Complexities of Revolutionary Death

Skaka King's film on the life and assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton exceptionally examines the ever-present interplay between race and capital

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BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 16 FEB 21

There has always been, from its inception, a battle for the soul of the US. Part of it comes down to plain tribalism along the lines of skin colour or ethnicity: ‘This is our country, not yours.’ But, the core of Americans’ hopes and anxieties has long been economic, grounded in dreams of ever-increasing prosperity, suffused with divisions about who will partake in it. The Black Panther Party, founded in Oakland in 1966, understood the subtle interplay between race and capital.

The Panthers recognized that the exploitation of Black people in the US was a feature, not a bug, in our system – what Afro-pessimist theorists would later describe as Western society’s integral reliance on anti-Black violence. This put the Panthers at odds with the reformist impulse that predominated in the early 1960s. For the founders, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the daily work of the party was to provide for urban communities in the form of free lunches and citizen patrols. The larger aim was to dismantle capitalism itself. Unsurprisingly, the Panthers’ emergence as a national force amid the American War in Vietnam (1955–75) and during the administration of President Richard Nixon put them on the radar of the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. Fearing the emergence of a ‘Black Messiah’ who would advocate for both communism and civil rights, the feds leaned on the now-notorious COINTELPRO project that infiltrated ‘subversive’ domestic groups.

Judas and the Black Messiah, DANIEL KALUUYA (right) as Chairman Fred Hampton in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved
DanielL Kaluuya (right) as Chairman Fred Hampton in Warner Bros. Pictures’ Judas and the Black Messiah, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved

Shaka King’s new film (on HBOMax and in cinemas), Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), narrates events leading to the FBI’s assassination of Fred Hampton, the charismatic leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, in 1969. While nominally centred on Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and his betrayal by an FBI informant in the ranks, ‘Wild’ Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), the film provides a snapshot of how the political organization operated over several crucial years as part of a broad network rooted in chapters across the US. Even more, Judas and the Black Messiah imparts a rich social context for an often-maligned movement working in the revolutionary mode of the day to redress and raise consciousness around many of the very same issues that animated the protests of 2020: over-policing of, and underinvestment in, Black communities.

Aside from the numerous exceptional performances, Judas and the Black Messiah excels at grounding its narrative in small details of place. West Chicago, here, is a study in steady dilapidation counterpointed with the crisp comportment and subtle care of its residents; the city itself is a vast tapestry of rival power centres and gradations in wealth. The factions Hampton seeks to unite under his Rainbow Coalition movement are sketched briskly but in sharp relief. The film gives viewers a real sense of being there – in the smoky pool halls and austere bedsits, in the bustling Panther headquarters or the tidy lounge of the government agent (Jesse Plemons) who runs O’Neal. As a result, the broad caricature that has long persisted in Hollywood portrayals and media discourse gives way to the individual and collective struggles that animated the work of Hampton and others. He was just 21 years old when he was murdered in 1969; that same year, across town, Bobby Seale was tried as part of the ‘Chicago Seven’. The recent dramatization of that hearing – Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago Seven (2020) – is an upbeat courtroom drama which claims that those who speak truth to power more or less win at the end of the day. In King’s vision of 1969, the stakes aren’t procedural; they’re existential.

Judas and the Black Messiah, (L-r) DANIEL KALUUYA as Chairman Fred Hampton and DOMINIQUE FISHBACK as Deborah Johnson in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Left to Right: Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred Hampton and Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson (aka Akua Njeri) in Warner Bros. Pictures’ Judas and the Black Messiah, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.  © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved

Title aside, this is not a hagiographic film. Stanfield subtly plays against the ‘double agent’ archetype; he never seems drawn in by the lure of ideology nor truly conflicted about his role. Additionally, King is unsentimental in his depictions of armed conflict between the police and the Panthers: shootouts are staged as grim inevitability and, even when we are invited to understand an act of bloody retribution, he does not ask us to romanticize it. Gender, too, comes to the fore, as the promise of empowerment of steely ‘sisters in arms’ is juxtaposed with the burden that falls to women left to raise children of slain fathers, and to mend the very communities so inexorably gutted by disinvestment. Dominique Fishback delivers a nuanced performance as Akua Njeri, a poet who joined the Chicago chapter and became romantically involved with Hampton. Late in the film, she reminds him that ‘bringing a child into a warzone, these aren’t considerations you have to make. You get to go out there, talking about dying a revolutionary death.’

Much has been made in recent weeks of Judas and the Black Messiah as evidence of King’s migration from indie outsider to Hollywood darling. But that migration is all to the good. Mainstream audiences know plenty about American intervention overseas, but precious little about the country’s surveillance of its own people. If past is prologue there, so it remains in the state violence and regressive economic policies we still confront a full 50 years later. I was most struck this week watching Judas and the Black Messiah on the evening of Donald Trump’s acquittal by the US Senate. His attorneys stitched together a defence that relied on ‘whataboutism’ of the highest order: the incitement of an insurrectionist mob dismissed as equivalent to Black leaders galvanizing global protests over the past year. Such false equivalencies permeate, too, the unvarnished racism and ethical contortions of Judas and the Black Messiah’s white antagonists. If our history seems doomed to repeat itself, King has animated a vital piece of that history, and a necessary one.

Main image: Left to right: Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred Hampton, Ashton Sanders as Jimmy Palmer, Algee Smith as Jake Winters, Dominique Thorne as Judy Harmon and LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal in Warner Bros. Pictures’ Judas and the Black Messiah, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. He is a contributing editor of frieze

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