The new film, Judas and the Black Messiah, is worth seeing, talking about and analyzing with a variety of historical lenses. The historical lenses include the history of Black Cinema, revolutionary cinema, African American history and the history of political repression in the US in general.
Every once in a while, an important political film gets released by a major Hollywood company, even though the company’s owners don’t fully grasp how the message of the film might detract from their usual class interests. In that context, Judas is like the 1973 film, The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Like Judas, Spook was produced by Black men who took it upon themselves to raise money, make the film against all odds and then approach Hollywood for distribution. In 1973, United Artist decided to back the film, thinking it could make money as a typical blaxploitation movie. Shortly after it was released and its political significance emerged, United Artists, with alleged encouragement from Hoover’s FBI, pulled the film (even though it was making money), destroyed all but one of the prints and stored the negative under a different name so it would be hard to find. In 1973, as in 1969 when Chairman Fred and many other revolutionaries were murdered, the FBI was confident that it was winning. Today in 2021, law enforcement in general is having a crisis of identity, and the FBI in particular is far removed from the infallible G-man image that once appeared on TV, as portrayed by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. Cointelpro no doubt exists under a different name, but more and more people are aware that the FBI and other law-enforcement are not above plotting political assassinations.
Although it is politically and historically significant, Judas is not, in this writer’s opinion, in the same category as Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (as suggested by Ed Rampell in his 2/5/21 Counterpunch piece). A big part of the justification for this perspective is that the filmmakers made a conscious decision to make the center of this film the traitor rather than the revolutionary. In an interview with the 3 producers sponsored by the Producers Guild, Shaka King (also the director and co-writer) says “it might sound crazy but in a lot of ways I think most viewers are more aligned with William O’Neal’s beginning of that film than they are with Fred Hampton”. This questionable notion represents the fundamental flaw in Judas and the Black Messiah. Depending on what group of viewers is considered, this writer believes the producer/director/co-writer made a mistake. In another interview, Shaka King reports that they showed a cut of the movie to a panel of 12 filmmakers. And it was not until strong criticism from 2 of these filmmakers, that the film was re-edited to make it LESS of a William O’Neal story. Shaka King, like any other woke filmmaker trying to make a major Hollywood film, is well aware that they needed to “couch the film in genre” in order to sell it to a major studio. It helps Hollywood execs when you can describe a proposed movie as a cross between two other movies they have already seen. So, the Judas filmmakers had to pitch their movie as The Departed meets Cointelpro. Well, so far, there had not been a Hollywood film dealing with Cointelpro. However, there have been quite a few Hollywood films dealing with informers, including for example the 1968 Uptight. Uptight ends with the on-screen death of the informer. Judas ends with the informer arrogantly telling us that he will let history judge what he did, and then we get small letters on screen telling us that he committed suicide some 20 years after his betrayal of Chairman Fred. This writer for one, would have liked to see the suicide visualized on screen, as a payoff, for having to watch the story of a snitch. This writer believes that most people who see Judas, particularly those who have been oppressed as a group in the US, are not going to identify more with William O’Neal in the beginning. In Battle of Algiers, there is no interest in exploring the inner emotional conflicts of collaborators and traitors.
Although it is not in the same league with Battle of Algiers, Judas and the Black Messiah is in a new league of its own. There was a convergence of factors that has most likely never happened before. A young African American Director of an all-time top-grossing Black film becomes a producer, teams up with another Black producer (Charles King) successful enough to volunteer to put up half of the budget. Then when they take the film, already packaged with A-List acting talent, to the big studio, they have a Black woman, Niija Kuykendall sitting on the other side of the table, as Executive Vice-President of Film Production for Warner Brothers. A lot of prior struggles made this convergence of factors possible, from Oscar Micheaux making his own films in the 1920’s and 30’s, through the struggles of the 1960’s and 70’s, all the way to the Black Lives Matter Movement of recent years! Because there is so much powerful African
American talent behind Judas, the film has a dignified authenticity, that it would not otherwise have had. To see people wearing real Afros and not Afro wigs; to see the outstanding casting of secondary characters who look like real people (short, fat, skinny, big lips, little lips, buck teeth, pretty-faced and not so pretty-faced); to see the tender and poetic affection between Fred and Deborah; to hear large groups of people saying “Off the Pig!” – all of these details helped this viewer buy into most of the film. On the other hand, watching the traitor having dinner and drinking scotch with his handler left this viewer feeling distant and suspicious at best.
Producer Ryan Coogler said in the same group interview mentioned above that he hopes there will be many more films on this topic. Given that nearly 30 years have gone by since the one and only Hollywood biopic of Malcolm X, and there has not been another major film about him since, this writer will not be holding his breath for another major narrative film dealing with Fred Hampton. So for now, we need to learn as much as possible from Judas, and pray that some of the young people who see this film, will be inspired to learn more about the Panther era and the many individuals who overcame their fear, lack of self-confidence, and sensitivity to threats, torture and criticism to become major community leaders and internationally known activist historical figures. The dramatic phenomenon that allows an ordinary oppressed individual to become a revolutionary, a person who helps to change the course of history, has not been explored enough, nor has it been adequately presented as a heroic journey instead of a tragedy. Props go to the filmmakers of Judas, for thoroughly demonstrating Fred Hampton’s remarkable ability to build coalitions, and for ending the film with actual documentary footage of Fred Hampton saying, “You’re going to have to say that ‘I am a proletariat, I am the people, I am not the pig!’ – you have got to make a distinction!” The credits end with, “Free all victims of political oppression, a clenched fist to fallen comrades.”