All Power to the Pictures! Judas and the Black Messiah

Shaka King’s must-see Fred Hampton biopic Judas and the Black Messiah is the best, most powerful political feature film to emerge from Hollywood in years. With its stirring portrait of the Black Panthers besieged by the FBI’s COINTELPRO dirty tricks, this Warner Bros. movie gives Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 revolutionary masterpiece The Battle of Algiers a run for its proverbial money.

Daniel Kaluuya, who co-starred in 2017’s Get Out and 2018’s Black Panther (its director, Ryan Coogler, also produced Messiah), is electrifying, as he embodies the bright, charismatic “Chairman Fred” imparting revolutionary fervor to Chicago’s masses with his rabblerousing communication skills and sharp organizational flair in 1968/69. As Deputy Chairman of the Black Panther Party nationally and Chairman of its Illinois branch, Hampton galvanized the Windy City’s oppressed with what he had to say and how he said it. But more importantly, as this fact-based movie co-written by King, Will Berson, Keith Lucas and Kenneth Lucas clearly shows, the 20-year-old inspired the wretched of the Earth with his united front approach to create a “Rainbow Coalition” (Hampton coined the term before Jesse Jackson).

The courageous Chairman Fred repeatedly confronts other factions and street gangs in person, and in doing so fearlessly places himself in harm’s way. Unarmed, Fred boldly meets on the turf of Black nationalists or white southerners of the Young Patriots Organization in an effort to forge a multi-cultural umbrella against the powers-that-be to fight against common enemies. Puerto Rican activists in the Young Lords join forces with the radical coalition Hampton was uniting to challenge the status quo. Eschewing separatism and what the Panthers called “porkchop nationalism,” one of Chairman Fred’s catchy phrases was: “We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity.”

Messiah also depicts Panther social programs, such as free breakfasts for poor children and clinics screening for sickle cell anemia. The movie also does not shrink from portraying the BPP’s outspoken militancy and leftwing ideology. Onscreen, Fred declares: “We’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.” Hampton is also seen repeatedly quoting Chairman Mao and Che Guevara, both sixties’ avatars of armed struggle and guerrilla warfare, and publicly brazenly denounces police as “pigs.”

The Panthers’ inter-racial solidarity, free social services, defiance and leftist politics are too much for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which unleashes COINTELPRO on the black beret, leather jacket-clad militants. Jesse Plemons (2019’s The Irishman) plays Roy Mitchell, the real life agent who leads the FBI’s surveillance and infiltration campaign to discredit and destroy Hampton and his Party. (In this respect Messiah is similar to Sam Pollard’s superb new documentary MLK/FBI, which covers COINTELPRO’s witch-hunt against Rev. Martin Luther King.)

To do so, the G-man recruits a lumpenized petty hood, William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, who was in 2014’s Selma and starred in 2018’s Sorry to Bother You), by cornering him. A promise to drop the charges pending against “Bill” and putting him on the Bureau’s payroll turns him into a rat – albeit a snitch with a troubled conscience. Bill connives his way into the BPP and rises in its ranks, becoming Director of Chapter Security and Fred’s own bodyguard.

In a bit of canny casting, one of Hollywood’s most committed activists – Apocalypse Now and West Wing star Martin Sheen, who has been busted 60-plus times at protests – portrays über snooper J. Edgar Hoover, the evil mastermind of COINTELPRO’s covert actions. Whenever he appears onscreen as the FBI Director, Tinseltown’s “acting president” (as Sheen was called when he spoke out at anti-Iraq War demonstrations) steals the show with his slyly chilling depiction of the chief of America’s secret police. (According to Democracy Now!: “FBI memos and reports obtained by historian and writer Aaron Leonard now show that senior FBI officials played key roles in planning the raid and the subsequent cover-up.” Those Bureau bigwigs allegedly include Hoover himself. See: The Assassination of Fred Hampton: New Documents Reveal Involvement of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover | Democracy Now!)

When Hoover meets with Mitchell, he racially riles the young Caucasian undercover agent up by asking what he’ll do “when your daughter [then only eight months old] brings home a young Negro male?” (A lifelong bachelor, J. Edgar is widely suspected to have been a closeted homosexual, as well as to have had African ancestry that he likewise hid.)

Anxious to avoid the emergence of another Malcolm X-like “Black messiah” who could rouse and unite the African American masses, Hoover intensifies the clandestine campaign against Hampton. The FBI Director warns against only imprisoning him, which had the effect of turning Panther leaders “Huey Newton into a celebrity and Eldridge Cleaver into a bestselling author.” Of course, Chairman Fred rather famously proclaimed: “You can jail a revolutionary but you can’t jail a revolution!”, as Kaluuya movingly reminds us onscreen. (According to the movie, Hampton served time for stealing pancake mix for the children’s free breakfasts, the program which prompted Hoover to dub the Panthers “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”)

In an eyebrow-raising comment sure to interest CounterPunch readers, Hoover says as a wry aside, “Our friends in Langley got Eldridge to Algiers,” indicating that the CIA (headquartered in Langley, Virginia) enabled the BPP’s fugitive Minister of Information to go into exile at Algeria. This is the movie’s only reference to the eventual split in the Panthers’ ranks, and its suggestion that the Central Intelligence Agency was somehow involved in that faction fight is quite intriguing – but the subject for another film-to-be-made.

Although Messiah pulls no punches about Hampton’s militancy, when Bill attempts to entrap the Panthers into committing a terrorist act, Chairman Fred resolutely refuses to take the agent provocateur up on his suggestion. In other scenes purported Panther violence is discussed – but, tellingly, never shown onscreen – of BPP members torturing and murdering an alleged informer at its New Haven, Conn. branch. However, a fact-based shootout between police and Panthers at the Party’s Chicago offices is vividly visualized.

The egregiously excessive use of force by the FBI and police is graphically dramatized, including the torching of the Panthers’ Chicago HQ. [PLOT SPOILER ALERT:] After Bill slips Hampton a mickey, the “pigs” raid Fred’s home, repeatedly shooting the sedated Panther while he lay unconscious in bed beside his pregnant sweetheart, the poetess Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, co-star of HBO’s The Deuce series). According to the film, during the home invasion the Panthers managed to fire one shot – while law enforcers shot up the apartment with 99 bullets.

The budding romance between Fred and Deborah is tenderly depicted. Although some accused the Panthers of being “macho,” the Party had a policy of supporting gender equality and promoting women within their ranks, such as Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown, respectively the Secretary of Communications and Education. During a political education class Hampton teaches he admonishes a male Panther not to “take liberties” with female members.

Earlier this year Hampton was dramatized in Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, portrayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (2019’s Waves) as a visible part of the courtroom audience, as co-defendant BPP Chairman Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, HBO’s 2019 Watchmen series) is bound and gagged for trying to defend himself. There have been other feature films about the BPP, such as Mario van Peebles’ 1995 Panther, but Judas and the Black Messiah is far and away the best.

Shaka King’s direction is evocative of the best documentaries about the Black Panther Party, including nonfiction productions by French New Wave helmer Agnes Varda, 1968’s cinema verité style Black Panthers; Howard Alk’s 1971 The Murder of Fred Hampton; and Stanley Nelson’s 2015 The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, as well as Newsreel’s shorts.

The stand-up-and-cheer Messiah is also the finest feature in the ongoing cinematic cycle of films about police/vigilante violence and judicial injustice against Blacks. As King’s movie points out, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale co-founded what was originally called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense to resist the kind of rampant police abuse of power that Black Lives Matter is still resisting today. The current screen trend includes several pictures involving Messiah’s talents, notably: Ryan Coogler’s 2013 Fruitvale Station, about the police murder of Oscar Grant in the Bay Area. Dominique Fishback co-stars in 2018’s The Hate U Give, about one of those routine traffic stops by white officers of Blacks gone terribly wrong. And in 2019 Kaluuya starred in Queen & Slim, about a manhunt of wronged African Americans ambushed by the pigs.

But Messiah packs an even stronger punch, for which Kaluuya richly deserves a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his towering, bravura performance as Hampton. As the traitorous William O’Neal, who sells Chairman Fred out for 30 pieces of silver and pays the price for betrayal, LaKeith Stanfield likewise merits an Academy Award nom for Best Supporting Actor.

King’s period piece viscerally captures the temper and tone of the turbulent times. As a student revolutionary I crossed paths with Panthers as unforgettable stalwarts on the New York Left’s scene, at rallies, fundraising screenings of The Battle of Algiers and so on. Messiah has the ring of truth, authentically and accurately depicting the people’s fearless champions exactly as I personally remember them.

Coming at this time of Black Lives Matter mass protests against police brutality and the storming of the Capitol Building by a rightwing mob, Messiah raises a number of profound questions. In particular, what is the role of violence in social movements and at demonstrations? Are the Proud Boys rightwing counterparts to the Panthers?

First of all, it should be pointed out that even at the height of the direct action carried out by radical organizations such as the Panthers, Weather Underground, Black Liberation Army, Symbionese Liberation Army, et al, all of their shootouts, bombings and the like combined did not equal the terror and violence of a single, routine air strike by the U.S. imperialists in Vietnam. Although they did mobilize numerically larger demos in D.C., even at the New Left’s apex, antiwar, Black power, et al, forces never came close to invading the Capitol or White House (except, perhaps, in their wildest dreams). Furthermore, there is no moral equivalence between extremists seeking to impose and enforce white supremacy with militants resisting and defending themselves from oppression and domestic terror.

As the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, with the help of news media and informers among the public, crackdown and roundup of Capitol Hill rioters, contemporary leftists shouldn’t be too quick to gleefully applaud this massive manhunt that may transgress civil liberties and various constitutional and human rights. As Messiah’s depiction of the surveillance and infiltration of the Panthers demonstrates, since at least the post-World War I Palmer Raids, scrutiny and repression of America’s political groups is usually aimed against the Left.

Another point raised by Messiah that’s worth pondering is regarding the Panthers’ defiance and bravado. As the movie shows the Panthers were predominantly very young – “Li’l” Bobby Hutton was 17 when he was gunned down in Oakland in 1968, while Hampton was only 21 when he was liquidated. It’s true that the Panthers’ outspoken audacity focused America’s attention on the BPP and racism, but did their zeal for armed struggle also prove to be their undoing, making them targets for police and FBI reprisals? Did the Black Panthers literally jump the gun by urging overzealous followers to “pick up the gun” before the conditions were ripe for revolution and they were still so vastly outgunned? (This may have played into Huey’s notion of “revolutionary suicide.”)

Be that as it may, Judas and the Black Messiah performs a valuable service, traveling back in time to present an extremely entertaining, compelling, vivid dramatization of the Black Panthers that will have viewers sitting on the edge of their seats watching a drama that, alas, remains all too familiar as America grapples with our own racial reckoning today. If you see just one movie this year, Shaka King’s 126-minute titanic tale of treachery, nobility and valor may just be the one. Bravo and all power to the pictures!

Judas and the Black Messiah premieres February 12 in theaters, such as the Cinelounge Drive-In Hollywood, and on HBO Max.

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Senator Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in Cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College and is an L.A.-based film historian/critic who co-organized the 2017 70th anniversary Blacklist remembrance at the Writers Guild theater in Beverly Hills and was a moderator at 2019’s “Blacklist Exiles in Mexico” filmfest and conference at the San Francisco Art Institute. Rampell co-presented “The Hollywood Ten at 75” film series at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.