I had the pleasure of watching the powerful biopic based on the assassination of Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. Released simultaneously to HBO Max and theaters, the movie stars Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal, Jesse Plemons as Agent Roy Mitchell and Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson.
Judas And The Black Messiah shows us the growth of the Black Panther movement in Chicago and takes us all the way into the final days leading up to Hampton’s murder. Because he was a threat to the US government as were many black leaders in the 60’s, Hampton became the target of J. Edgar Hoover’s witchhunt and public enemy #1 to the US. Using fear tactics during racial tensions following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Hoover ordered Hampton to be “neutralized” after attempts to imprison him proved to be futile.
About The True Threat of Civil Rights
Before I go into my review of the movie, I wanted to give a little insight into Fred Hampton and a bit of tumultuous times of the Civil Rights Movements we don’t see. Because these are the things we were not taught in school. In fact the movie shed light that Hampton was more than a political activist, he was more than a militant and he in fact fought for more than just black people.
A Messiah is defined as a leader or deliverer of a group of people… a savior if you will. The word stems from the Hebrew word, meshiach, which means high priest. The funny thing about black history is that whenever someone or a group of people rallies blacks to challenge racism and injustice they were labeled as a hate group. Even if the message that they deliver is one of self-love, knowledge of self, self sufficiency or simply equality, they are immediately the labeled an enemy of the same government that has enslaved and infringed on their rights.
When Martin Luther King marched and advocated for integration and equality, he was assassinated. Ironically Judas and The Black Messiah immediately begins following his murder. The government didn’t focus on solving his murder as they were the ones that initiated it. Instead, they focused on the riots and unrest that resulted from it. When Malcolm X advocated separation and for blacks to have their own, something that many before him strived for following the emancipation of slavery, he was murdered.
The goal of J. Edgar Hoover by way of his Counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) was to subdue the effectiveness of unity in the black community as stated in their goals. The FBI is quoted in the statement of COINTELPRO “… [to] prevent the RISE OF A “MESSIAH” who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement” “Prevent the RISE OF A “MESSIAH” who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement” It was even stated in their mission that “In unity there is strength”. So the FBI used whatever tactics they deemed necessary to prevent this. Although they deemed groups such as the Nation of Islam or the Black Panthers as militant and violent, it was in turn the FBI and the US government that used violence to subjugate said groups. Civil unrest for blacks for the years following slavery was never the true threat, despite the FBI accusations of terrorism and threats against national security. It was actually the attempts of attaining civil rights and even equality that were the true fear of the government and its racist propaganda to maintain white supremacy over an entire group of people who were originally brought here against their will.
About Fred Hampton
Fred Hampton was articulate and intellectual young man who quickly grew within the ranks of the Black Panther Party. However, Hampton’s roots in social justice began long before that.
At 10 years old, he started hosting weekend breakfasts for other children from his neighborhood, even cooking the meals himself. Coincidentally, he would later create the Panthers’ free breakfast program in Chicago, which fed thousands of poor school children. Hampton attended Proviso East High School where he led walkouts protesting the exclusion of black students from the race for homecoming queen and calling on officials to hire more black teachers and administrators. After graduating with honors, he enrolled at Triton Junior College where he majored in pre-law. In addition to studying law, Hampton familiarized and modeled his speeches from that of many black orators before and during his time such as Malcom X.
Hampton utilized his pre-law education and interest in socialism as a means of combating of the problem of police brutality in Chicago’s poorer neighborhoods. He founded the Rainbow Coalition, a prominent multicultural political organization that initially included the Black Panthers, Young Patriots, and the Young Lords. He initiated a non-aggression pact that would forge an alliance among major Chicago street gangs to help them end infighting and instead work for social change. He focused his talents on not only protecting black people but all disenfranchised people. He initiated free medical clinics, legal aid, education for the community and the popular free breakfast program which would be the blueprint for all school children in the public school system.
Not long after, the FBI got wind of Hampton’s popularity and from there he became public enemy #1. Those wise enough to know better like myself believe that it wasn’t his communist/socialist views that made him a threat to the US government but his way of mobilizing black people. This was especially the goal of that of J. Edgar Hoover whose racist and xenophobic views weren’t much of a secret despite rumors of his hidden homosexuality. Because the FBI had very little evidence to use against Fred Hampton, they framed him for the robbery of an ice cream truck and eventually plotted to neutralize him altogether.
They tapped phones, planted evidence, conducted illegal searches and/or raids in addition to whatever else they could to take down the Black Panthers. However, but it wasn’t until they planted a mole within their ranks, William “Bill” O’Neal to help infiltrate and inevitably take down the organization that would prove advantageous. Threatening O’Neal with extended, federal jailtime, the FBI offered a deal to O’Neal to help bring in Hampton in exchange for having his charges dropped. In addition to this get out of jail “free” card, they paid him to get intel on Hampton as well as the Black Panther Party, the FBI was eventually able to assassinate Fred Hampton. He was shot after heavily armed police who were not in uniform. They raided the house where Hampton lie asleep next to his pregnant fiancé, Deborah Johnson using a floor plan sketched by O’Neal. They shot him dead as he slept in addition to another Black Panther, Mark Clark. O’Neal spent later years in the Witness Protection Program. Despite lawsuits filed against the government and law enforcement, the Black Panthers never regained their original state of power.
About the movie:
The movie quickly introduces us to Bill O’Neal and how he was apprehended by the police & FBI for impersonating an federal agent while in actuality he was robbing and committing grand theft auto. We then see Fred Hampton’s rise to power as O’Neal eventually became not only his right hand man but head of security for the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers. The cast of this film was excellent and the pacing was quick, it didn’t steer off from the historical record or the source material.
Daniel Kaluuya, an English actor from Get Out fame despite looking nothing like the real Fred Hampton is so convincing in his method, you begin to believe he is in fact Fred Hampton.
From his mannerisms, Chicago 70’s accent, Kaluuya absolutely knocks the role out of the water. He even put on weight for the role. No questions asked, he sells the role of the activist in a way I was apprehensive about prior to seeing the movie. LaKeith Stanfied joins his fellow Get Out alum Kaluuya and slams the role of antagonist with ease.
You see his struggle as an informant who went from trying to infiltrate the Panthers to trying to stay alive to a man whose moral compass began to eventually weigh on him. Especially during the climate of 60s. The story bounces from the POV of O’Neal taking points mentioned in his final interview, Eyes on the Prize, which aired shortly before his suicide.
Before we even get to the third act, we see how as a mole for the FBI, O’Neal is inserted into the Black Panthers. Although we see points of views from other characters, this film focuses on O’Neal and his betrayal of those that not only let him in but fought for him and (black) people like him. You see his need to survive and avert the many internal conflicts that proceed his mission. One has to ask what his true motivations actually were. Was it freedom, money or somethin more? Nevertheless these struggles aren’t lost in the plot because we see that O’Neal often regrets his choices. Yet his need to survive the threats on both sides, the Panthers and the FBI urge him to go on. Although we know this dude is a horrible and shitty person… what makes us see O’Neal’s aka Judas’ humanity are his choices in the third act. Although he is the antagonist in this story, he quickly rebounds back and forth from that to protagonist.
The set and costume designs are flawless. So much that even my mom couldn’t find any goofs in the movie pertaining to the period. The only thing I really had anything to say about this movie is that the pacing was a bit thin at times. I mean we are emotionally invested in all of the characters but it is hard to grasp onto them knowing what will happen. This is tough to bypass especially with biopics because it’s like the ultimate spoiler has already been given up. I think the only time I felt crushed to see a historical figure die was Martin Luther King as portrayed Paul Winfield in the ’78 miniseries, which ironically re-ran on PBS the same month that Eyes on the Prize aired. Another thing the film doesn’t paint as clearly is the dynamic between Hampton and O’Neal. The film zips through a lot except just how close the two actually were and why the betrayal was just that heartbreaking. But this doesn’t take away much from that because even as we the audience know the demise of Hampton was inevitable. So does his fiancé Deborah as portrayed by Dominique Fishback.
At first I wasn’t clearly sold on how they would end up together. Yet once they became a couple, the love was apparent on screen. So much that when Hampton gave his speech prophesizing that he would die for the people, FIshback’s tears and emotions showed us just how much her character knew that Fred Hampton’s legacy was not only bigger than their love but that he was never hers to begin with. I think that is probably why he was hesitant to become romantically involved with her to begin with because I didn’t buy the shy bit at all. That aside, as a mother and a woman who’s been in love… It is her turmoil knowing that she will eventually be a widow and a single mother that brought a tear to my eye. We saw it in the 90’s film Malcolm X from Angela Bassett who portrayed his wife Betty Shabazz. I think that’s probably the toughest thing to be in love with someone who is passionate and has a cause to fight for. Loving someone who is willing to lay their life on the line for complete strangers has got to be the most selfless act of all.
Lastly, the villians.
Jesse Plemons is the young, ambitious FBI agent, Roy Mitchell tasked with leading the investigation to bring in Fred Hampton.
He believes in the “law” and for the most part plays the role of “good guy” and when I say good I don’t mean hero in the positive sense of the word. He’s like any other self-righteous lawman of who is consistently urged by Hoover to “do the right thing.” Plemons pulls off the role of naïve agent but very sure of his intent especially when he makes it known how he feels about blacks when asked if he’s allowed his daughter to date one.
But for most of the movie, you have to sit back and think that this guy has no clue what the Panthers are really about. The only thing he knows is that they are communists, which is probably the most un-American thing you can be back then. He is spoon-fed the propaganda that these black militants will cause an uprising that will allow the Russians to overthrow the US. Especially if they rally enough citizens here on American soil rallying behind their cause. It never occurs to white politicians then that the only reason black people flocked to communism in the first place is because of the deplorable treatment we’ve suffered at their hands in just a century after slavery.
J. Edgar Hoover as played by Martin Sheen who like the rest of the cast does an amazing job second to Leo DiCaprio in the biopic released ten years ago.
Judas and the Black Messiah vividly but briefly displays Hoover’s manhunt for any and all black activist and leaders. His intent on dismantling all civil rights movements was depicted only a smidge compared to the monstrosities he actually committed in the name of national security. While plenty of movies have shown Hoover’s racist motives it was only this movie that prompted a congressman to remove his name from a federal building.
One thing not emphasized in the movie is the fact that O’Neal was not his only mole in the Black Panthers. Although they mention other snitches who the Panthers eventually catch, the story sticks to O’Neal’s point of view and only brushes over one other mole when actuality there were several implanted within the organization.
All in all Judas and the Black Messiah is the movie we needed. It sheds a much needed light on Fred Hampton that he was more than a radical activist. It tells his story that shockingly many did not know. He was a leader for all people, black people, the disenfranchised & the poor. He had a gift for bringing people together and ideas that would bring about change. And while his death led to the downfall of the Panthers, his legacy did not die. Hopefully this movie will show not only folks more history shrouded in myself but light a fire to continue the fight for justice.
Until Next time kiddies,
Be Awesome, Be You, But Above All Else… Love Yourself
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