Judas and the Black Messiah: Mesmerising portrait of slain Black Panther

New film starring Daniel Kaluuya exposes parallels between 1960s anti-racism and today's activism

Daniel Kaluuya (right) as Chairman Fred Hampton in a scene from Judas and the Black Messiah. Photograph: Warner Bros Pictures via AP

Daniel Kaluuya (right) as Chairman Fred Hampton in a scene from Judas and the Black Messiah. Photograph: Warner Bros Pictures via AP

 

Standout among the many troubling aspects of MLK/FBI, the recent documentary examining the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr, was the notorious internal directive from bureau founder J Edgar Hoover to “prevent the rise of a [black] ‘messiah’”. It’s a paranoid notion that underpins such timely dramas as Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and now Judas and the Black Messiah, a stirring feature produced by Ryan Coogler (Creed, Black Panther) and directed by Shaka King.

Fred Hampton was certainly a contender for the messiah of the title. A gifted orator, the Black Panther activist was just 21 years old when he was assassinated by the FBI, after the bureau coerced a car thief named William O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and betray Hampton. A 2012 report showed that another FBI informant provided the Black Panthers with weapons and training as early as 1967.

Any time a charismatic leader started building alliances outside the very group that they were from, that’s when they were made even higher targets

On December 3rd, 1969, Hampton returned home from teaching a political education course at a local church. Speaking in 2015, Hampton’s domestic partner, Deborah Johnson, recalled that night as police entered the apartment in a hail of submachine gun fire: “We received no warning, no tear gas, no offer to surrender.”

A photograph depicting Hampton’s body being carried away from the scene shows smiling, laughing police officers. As Howard Safford, an African-American Chicago police officer, put it: “All indications to me are that this was a political assassination. I don’t think anybody would have expected the police to commit just murder. It takes a certain kind of guy to carry that out. They laughed about what happened that night. Much of what they said happened, couldn’t have happened the way they said it happened.”

Sure enough, despite police claims that Hampton and the Panthers fired first, it was soon clear that the police fired 90 shots without return fire. Even the “bullet holes” the police attributed to Panthers, were nail holes.

“What made Hampton dangerous was that his language was accessible,” says Linda Sarsour, the activist and co-founder of the worldwide 2017 Women’s March. “And when he was just organising black people, he was kind of dangerous. But when he started building alliances with Latino groups, and also with white folks and Asian folks, that’s when he really became dangerous.

“And if you notice, in all the moments in history, any time a charismatic leader started building alliances outside the very group that they were from, that’s when they were made even higher targets and in most cases assassinated, which is similar to Dr King.

“When all of a sudden he went from black people to the poor people’s campaign, and bringing [together] poor people across different backgrounds, that’s when he became the most dangerous to the FBI, and to those that are in power. And the same thing is happening right now in our movements today.”

That old expression, you know, ‘if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything’ applies here

Working from a script by Kenny and Keith Lucas, and taking cues from Hampton’s rousing speeches, film-maker Shaka King kept in mind Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and the films of Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook as he crafted the first feature-length dramatisation of the slain Black Panther’s life.

The effect is mesmerising.

“Reading his words, you know, they just were incredibly profound, always relevant,” says King. “And he was able to take very complex ideas and put them in plain English, but in a very clever way. It’s rare that you see that combination, someone who’s both relatable and almost feels superhuman.

“And, you know, the Lucas brothers brought me this package of ‘Okay, you know, essentially, it’s The Departed inside the world of Cointelpro’. I understood, this was a vessel where you could put forth these ideas and ideologies that normally would have a very difficult passage, that you would have a very challenging time trying to get them through that Hollywood bureaucracy and framework. This was an opportunity to meld genres. To take the biopic format and undercover movie format and a love story.”

Judas and the Black Messiah chronicles Hampton’s meteoric rise through the Panther ranks and the co-ordinated efforts by law enforcement authorities to derail him and the party.

The charismatic Hampton is essayed by Get Out star, Daniel Kaluuya, with more screen time afforded to LaKeith Stanfield’s William O’Neal, the petty criminal who avoids a lengthy prison sentence by agreeing to become an informant for the FBI under the tutelage of ambitious agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) and the supervision of Hoover (Martin Sheen).

“I think one of the reasons to make William O’Neal a central character was to highlight the dangers of being apolitical,” says Shaka King. “That old expression, you know, ‘if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything’ applies here.

“And that didn’t only affect the people that he claimed were comrades. You look at how his life ended. This was a guy who had two phones in his car in the 1970s, several $100,000, and a closet full of suits. And he still wasn’t sleeping peacefully at night.

“And on the part of Roy Mitchell, it’s an opportunity to look at the shortcomings of white centrism and performative ‘allyship’, because the Roy Mitchell that we show in the 1960s is today’s white liberal in a lot of ways. I think that that’s something that’s important to kind of put out there.”

Daniel Kaluuya (left), Dominique Thorne (centre) and LaKeith Stanfield in a scene from Judas and the Black Messiah. Photograph: Warner Bros Pictures via AP
Daniel Kaluuya (left), Dominique Thorne (centre) and LaKeith Stanfield in a scene from Judas and the Black Messiah. Photograph: Warner Bros Pictures via AP

The past decade has seen a revived interest in the once vilified Black Panther movement, with the emergence of two significant, prize-winning documentaries, PBS’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015) and Legacy Spirit of the Black Panthers (2019). These representations have been scholarly and measured, especially placed beside the fear-mongering rhetoric that greeted Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, when they formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense as a community group in Oakland, California.

The organisation was founded upon the belief that black Americans should exercise their constitutional right to defend themselves against oppression. For the first few months of the party’s existence, they sought to redress systemic racial abuse as exercised by the police force. They did so by driving around their communities, observing arrests and carrying guns openly, entirely in keeping with contemporaneous California law.

“It’s incredibly important to recognise that in Oakland, there was a lot going on,” says Oakland community activist Pastor Ben McBride. “It’s important for us to recognise that Oakland became more black during the ’50s and ’60s, as a part of the Great Migration. We have black people come in from the South, fleeing the horrors of Jim Crow, only to realise that the state began to recruit white Mississippi and Alabama police officers to follow them to the Bay Area.

“It’s important for us to recognise that the state had continued to control, to destroy, to plunder the lives of black people. And so when the Panthers began to originate and to expand in Oakland, it was as a direct result of the oppression of the state that caused young black people to begin to ask themselves, ‘do we just want another slice of a poisoned pie? Do we want to continue to participate in incremental integration? It is something that is broken, or do we want to give birth to something that is far different, something much more revolutionary?’.

Our goal was to correct the record. To make some attempts to correct the record in terms of putting forth an accurate representation of what the Black Panther Party stood for

“The emergence of the Black Panther Party in Oakland was really about turning a page of sorts, it was about what black people had learned coming out of the South and what they were prepared to do to move forward into the future. The Black Panther Party was not just about self defence: it was anti-fascist, it was anti-capitalistic, it was anti-imperialist. And even before it was popular, it was anti-racist.

“And it was pushing the country to think differently about ourselves and to ask ourselves the question, ‘where is the crime? And where is the criminal? Is the crime the very conditions that put people in a place to actually do violence to one another?’ And to call us to think about who are the curators of these conditions.”

Within a year of the Panthers’ foundation, FBI director J Edgar Hoover went after a movement he characterised as a “black nationalist, hate-type organisation” with the full force of Cointelpro. The black American public, however, responded favourably. By 1969, the Black Panthers comprised more than 5,000 members in chapters, cities and campuses across America.

The Panthers initiated a free breakfast programme for children in some 23 cities, established free medical centres in 13 cities, founded a free ambulance service, and an escort for pensioners who had previously been targeted by muggers.

Part of the rationale behind Judas and the Black Messiah, explains Shaka King, was to provide a corrective to many historic, negative accounts of the Black Panther Party. “Our goal was to correct the record,” says the director. “To make some attempts to correct the record in terms of putting forth an accurate representation of what the Black Panther Party stood for.

The same brutal police forces that brutalised the Black Panthers and political activists at that time are still the most brutal police forces today

“I think we also know what movies do – especially biopics – is to take icons and make them into people. And I think, in this instance, it elevates the sacrifices that Fred Hampton and the members of the Illinois chapter made. Because you are forced to confront them as people, relatable people, people who fall in love and think about having children and still decide that they’re committed to this lifestyle and these choices that they’ve made.”

Judas and the Black Messiah finds obvious parallels, too, between the Black Panthers and current anti-racist and anti-fascist movements, most notably Black Lives Matter.

“We could literally create the entire Judas and the Black Messiah film and swap out Chairman Hampton and put in activists of today,” notes Linda Sarsour. “The same brutal police forces that brutalised the Black Panthers and political activists at that time are still the most brutal police forces today. We still see the criminalising of protesters, the trumping up of charges against protesters, the defamation and discreditation of activists, and the media working with the police right now.

“And interestingly enough, connecting the dots with things like Breonna Taylor, it was the same no-knock warrant that was used to go into the Black Panther headquarters or to target members of the Black Panther Party. For me, the legacy of the Black Panther Party continues today.

“They called it a breakfast programme; we call it mutual-aid programmes in 2020 and 2021. Because we understand you can’t organise hungry people, you need to make sure that people have basic necessities. The Black Panther Party was a necessity and they are a necessity today.

"We have Black Panther members who are in prison right now and they are scared. One of them is someone I’ve worked with for a very long time, H Rap Brown. He is an old man. He is sick. He is in a Covid-ridden prison. I hope folks are going to be inspired by Judas and the Black Messiah to join the fight for political prisoners.”

Judas and the Black Messiah is available digitally from March 11th

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