Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★

The news that a major studio was making a film about Fred Hampton caused both excitement and dread in my corner of the left. It went something like "audiences will learn of Fred Hampton, the original rainbow coalition and the BPP...But what if they fuck it up? They're probably going to fuck it up."

Did they fuck it up? Kind of. The characters say "socialism" like three or four times and there's a quick references to Che Guevara and Vladimir Lenin, but mostly the BPP is here stripped of the ideology central to it's vision and conduct. They're reduced to generic black leather jacket and beret wearing 60's revolutionaries. We're never shown the dismal living conditions, every day racism and police violence which gave context and meaning to the Black Panthers' actual praxis. The multiracial anti-capitalist rainbow coalition gets a single scene featuring a vast over simplification of their relationship with The Young Patriots and merely name checking The Young Lords. Worst of all, we're never shown the immensity of what the Chicago Black Panther Party was up against - The FBI from top to bottom, mayor Daley's entire city government including the police, racial hatred, poverty, sabotage - It goes on. Here, their only adversary is a couple of Racist FBI agents, most notably J Edgar Hoover, who's contrasted as both older (and therefore out of touch) and more racist than the other agents. This is the same mistake Sorkin's Trial of the Chicago 7 made when it assigned cause not to major systemic problems but rather to a couple of unsavory bad actors out to get our protagonists.

Speaking of Trial this is, if nothing else, a far superior portrayal of Hampton than the completely inaccurate cameo in the former film.

Lastly, Judas and the Black Messiah was marketed as a film about Fred Hampton, but it isn't about Fred Hampton. It's about William O'Neal, the informant who assisted in the illegal state murder of Hampton. The viewer is lead to emphasize with an opportunistic snitch who goes through a really contrived emotional arc before becoming the Judas to Hampton's Black Messiah. In real life, O'Neal did his work with pride rather than guilt.

"But artistic license" I hear you say. Which, yeah, fair - But talking about the plot and style of Judas and the Black Messiah would just sound like "black Departed" as one critic called it.

The soundtrack of jazz and funk is killer, and Daniel Kaluuya gives an absolutely great performance, both of which bump up the rating in my book.

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