Judas and the Black Messiah: A Review

Judas and the Black Messiah: A Review

by Bobby Dillon

Martin Luther King Jr., in the last speech he ever gave, said this: “You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it… He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.” King gave this speech, referred to as “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” when he went to Memphis, Tennessee in support of  the 1,300 sanitation workers (largely African-American)  who had gone on strike to demand living wages commensurate with the essential labor they provided, and better and safer working conditions. 

King was assassinated the next day.

I first heard about Fred Hampton a few years ago on a podcast. A man named Flint Taylor was plugging his phenomenal book, The Torture Machine and discussing the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (or, COINTELPRO) and how they worked together with the Chicago PD to assassinate Fred Hampton, the deputy chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. 

Fred Hampton was assassinated at the age of 21. I couldn’t imagine the FBI wanting to murder me when I was 21 – I was a total shithead. But he was dangerous, in the FBI’s eyes. Not because he was a leader of the Black Panthers, but because he had the audacity to unite seemingly disparate groups to fight the status quo together. From gangs to white confederate flag-waving religious groups, Fred Hampton was a consummate organizer, bringing people together and making connections that otherwise wouldn’t have been made. He united people from all walks of life and that’s why he had to be stopped. 

Fred Hampton knew, just as MLK knew, that the only way to fight the system that oppresses you is with unity and solidarity. When one side has all the money and all the power, there’s only one way to stand up to them: with people working together.

Now, some people may say “well, he was uniting gangs and gangs are bad.” True enough, gangs do a lot of bad shit, but a lot of gangs also serve as an employer for people who might not be able to get legit work. I’m not here to say gangs are good because they provide jobs or anything like that, but I will say that there’s not much in the way of difference between a gang and any other exploitative business. How many times have we heard “Jobs” as some hand-wave to excuse corporate shittiness? I’d say that same logic applies to gangs, which I recognize is probably controversial, but if we’re talking pure body count, no gang has ever killed more people than the FBI. For example. Further, I would emphasize that one of Hampton’s most remarkable achievements was convincing the various street gangs to stop fighting one another and work together to feed, clothe, and house people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to those most basic human rights. Fred Hampton, as the film shows it, was in fact committed to nonviolence and nonaggression. 

Which brings me to the film. Judas and the Black Messiah is a dramatic retelling of Fred Hampton’s relatively successful attempts to build a rainbow coalition of disaffected and politically disengaged groups of people, and the FBI’s plot to neutralize him at all costs at the direct behest of J. Edgar Hoover, the man who built the FBI into what it is today. 

The film stars Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton, the titular Black Messiah, and LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neil, the film’s Judas figure. The film is structured with two alternating plotlines. The “main” plotline is the story of O’Neil being coerced by FBI agent Roy Mitchell into infiltrating the Black Panthers in order to get close to Hampton. 

Meanwhile, the film shows Hampton’s attempt to build his Rainbow Coalition by giving a shitload of speeches. Do you like watching a great actor give dramatic speeches? Then this movie is for you. Daniel Kaluuya gives SO MANY SPEECHES in this movie, it’s insane. It’s kinda cheesy if I’m being totally honest. Every time he gives a speech, no matter the audience, there’s ALWAYS some murmurings of “yeah, that’s right” and people nodding their heads in agreement. Thanks to the magic of words, Hampton is able to convince even the most hardened criminal to follow him. 

One major plot point of the film is Hampton being arrested while running a breakfast program for children. He was accused and then convicted of stealing $71 worth of ice cream. For this, he was sent to prison for two-to-five years. Not satisfied that he would be sufficiently neutralized by this, the FBI and Hoover then conspired to murder him, coercing Bill O’Neil to slip drugs into Hampton’s drink to knock him out and then executing a “raid” on Hampton’s apartment, killing Hampton while he slept, unconcious from the drugs. 

Sending the man to prison wasn’t enough. He had to die, as Hoover saw it. So, the FBI, in cooperation with the Chicago PD murdered a 21 year old man, a kid, while he slept. The only crime he was ever convicted of was stealing ice cream. 

This film begs the question: if Fred Hampton was murdered by the FBI on the direct order of J. Edgar Hoover, who else did they kill? Do you believe that such an operation, carried out in the name of fighting communism, only led to the assassination of one man? I want everyone to chew on that question for a while. 

The film is very good, if a little cheesy in it’s speechifying. The actors are great, the content is interesting, and the story and person of Fred Hampton is fascinating to me. The fact that he died so young is a genuine tragedy. Imagine what he could have accomplished if he’d had a few more decades, the bonds he could have formed and the alliances he could have forged. At least now, we have a great film to remember him by, but it’s cold comfort when you consider what we lost. 

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