Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★

The murder of Fred Hampton will always be one of America’s darkest moments, but unlike the more famous assassinations of MLK or Malcolm X, Hampton isn’t a household name and the circumstances of his death remain unknown to the general public. It’s likely an intentional choice as increased awareness of Hampton’s legacy comes with the explicit realisation that the FBI murdered an American citizen out of fear that he would unite ordinary people against an unjust system, this pre-emptive elimination of a potential black messiah skimmed over to preserve a sanitised American history where the FBI always acted legally. While I had been aware of Hampton’s murder for a while, it was only last year that I picked up Jeffrey Haas’ The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther which left me stunned by the lengths the FBI was willing to go to in order to silence Hampton. It’s a dense, frequently infuriating look at bureaucracy and the rot beneath American systems that I highly recommend to anyone who wants to learn more after watching this biopic.

When I heard that a Fred Hampton biopic was around the corner, despite the intriguing casting I didn’t think it would be much more than your boilerplate rise and fall Hollywood drama and I never expected it to become the critical powerhouse it is now, especially given how Hampton’s confrontational anti-capitalist stance seemed incompatible with the performative Hollywood machine. The most notable feature of Judas and the Black Messiah is that rather than focus on Hampton specifically, the movie instead splits the bill between Hampton and William O’Neal, the FBI informant who drugged and sold out Hampton in the end. It’s a bold choice that places Hampton’s towering personality in a supporting role while elevating and humanising O’Neal who comes off as nothing more than an opportunist in Haas’ book. From a narrative level, it works wonders to contrast a real vs opportunistic revolutionary and really sink into that juicy Jesus-Judas dynamic where few actors could pull of Stanfield’s incredibly delicate role of self-preserving rat occasionally given into glimpses of true belief and bouts of guilt. Stanfield absolutely nails the rat in a maze desperation of O’Neal as he finds a real home in the Panthers without ever getting too close, it’s never hard to believe that the jovial Wild Bill that chauffeurs Fred around is the same O’Neal who sneaks away during a shootout or fakes outrage when their base is raided on his information. There’s a pervading sadness to O’Neal that really humanises him despite knowing what he ends up doing, with a lesser actor it would be much harder to grasp every distinct aspect of his complex motivation or even care about him when framed against Kaluuya’s magnetic Hampton. Kaluuya stuns as Hampton and when Shaka King allows him to just monologue to enraptured audiences it really feels like the spirit of Hampton lives on in Kaluuya’s impassioned declarations that ‘I am a revolutionary.’ With Hampton being so mythologised in left wing circles as the potential black messiah, it’s the domestic moments between Hampton and Deborah that reminds us that this was a real person torn between domestic bliss and his duty as a revolutionary. The only downside to the casting of two established stars is that it undersells the fact that Hampton and O’Neal were 21 and 20 respectively at the time of the murder, nothing more than kids in the centre of one of America’s most pivotal moments. Hampton’s relationship with the college-aged Deborah even feels a bit gross given the implied age difference that wasn’t a factor in real life.

While some aspects of Hampton’s story have been toned down for the Hollywood system, I’m amazed that revolutionary violence is still depicted in a somewhat necessary light when MLK’s peaceful protest has been long established as the correct way to protest. Jake’s grief at Jimmy’s death escalates into the shooting of a cop in what’s treated as not necessarily justifiable, but a nonetheless understandable action where Jake doesn’t become less of a hero because he kills a person. Regardless of your personal thoughts about violence, it’s incredibly powerful to focus on Jake’s motivations and the attempt to reframe his legacy rather than just the killing, the scene with Jake’s mother serves as one of the strongest reminders that behind the violence there’s a mess of human emotions and relationships left behind that are far more nuanced than would appear. Combined with the whole Rainbow Coalition being emphasised as Hampton’s primary achievement, this movie showcases working class unity and socialism far more than I’d expect from a relatively mainstream production, especially one with such bankable stars attached. With this now a major Oscar contender, hopefully it can play some role in reshaping ideas about the FBI as a hallowed institution and the Black Panthers as a violent cabal into more nuanced attitudes towards each.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a fitting tribute to Fred Hampton while also serving as a narratively compelling exploration of an opportunist caught between two warring sides. It’s especially timely given recent social movements around class and race and with Shaka King’s eye for visually scrumptious and distinctly framed scenes, hopefully this is the beginning of a fantastic career.

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