Judas and the Black Messiah: a Black History Month revelation

HBO Max released Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” on Feb. 12. The film is a biographical depiction of events leading up to the betrayal and murder of Fred Hampton. Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), is played by British actor Daniel Kaluuya, of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” 

Kaluuya brought Hampton’s command, contagious and hopefulness to life, encapsulating Hampton’s charismatic way of speaking. Lakeith Stanfield plays Bill O’Neal, an enigma of sorts. O’Neal is contracted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) as an informant against the BPP, specifically Hampton. O’Neal experienced the same type of victimization as Hampton, mercilessly at the hands of white supremacy. 

While viewers desire to paint O’Neal as villain, and although he did commit heinous acts against the cause, both characters share similar violent storylines revealing the systematic racism BPP fought hard against.

O’Neal is a complex character. His interaction with the FBI was motivated by self-preservation, and Stanfield brings a timidness to the character, fearing that his undercover persona will be made. The movie provides an unexpected sympathetic view of O’Neal. Living a life of crime at the young age of 17, prior to FBI involvement, O’Neal is portrayed in the film as being unaware of the myriad complexities within the Black Liberation Movement.

The film opens up with montage footage of BPP and related organizations. Providing context for those unfamiliar with the history of the BPP is beneficial for the many who are unaware of BPP instituting community survival programs, benefiting communities and fighting for self-determination.

In the film’s setting of Chicago, Hampton stated the BPP Free Breakfast Program fed over 3,000 children weekly. They also hosted free medical clinics testing for sickle cell anemia – a disease that predominantly affects the Black community – which previously was not taken seriously by the U.S. government. Providing some contrast, the movie also illustrated the paranoia and demonization of the BPP and Black leaders that ran rampant throughout the government and law enforcement agencies. 

The cinematography and styling of the film displays the aesthetics of the late 1960s. While the FBI is villainizing Hampton, Hampton is reaching out to other community members. He walks into the lion’s den of a white organization which hangs a confederate flag on the wall. Speaking with them, it becomes evident this organization also experiences mistreatment by the police. 

Hampton appeals to their sense of ostracization, helping them realize they need class solidarity. Reaching out to activist group Young Lords – who were fighting for Puerto Rican and Latinx civil rights – together joined forces and formed the Rainbow Coalition. Providing background knowledge of events leaves the audience with an enriching viewing experience.

The film exemplifies the corrupt FBI operations that followed leaders of the Black Liberation Movement. In one instance, there is a framing and murder of a panther Alex Rakley at the hands of a fellow panther George Sams, who was believed to be an FBI informant. The FBI falsely equates the activities of the BPP to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). BPP was an organization created to dismantle the systemic oppression and subjugation of Black and marginalized people. On the hand, the KKK was founded to enforce terror and support maintenance of white supremacy. 

Moments of the film captured the community and their bonds amongst revolutionaries. The film provides scenes of inspiration and power. Hampton was a beloved figure in the fight for liberation. When he returned home from being incarcerated, he was met with a congregation of BPP, Rainbow Coalition and others, including a drum beat. 

An entire generation of Black leadership was wiped out, targeted by the police and other white supremacist vigilantes. But the power of the movement could never be snuffed out. As Black History Month draws to an end, this film provides context for an interesting and important moment in history, as well as providing hope that a better world is possible, if we support and defend each other. 

“You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution,” Hampton said. “You can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom.”

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