“Fred Hampton” may not be a name that rings any bells, but after watching Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah you wont be forgetting it quickly. This historical drama of the 60s is driven by a memorable performance by Daniel Kaluuya in the role of the youthful Black Panther supremo. King’s theme, needless to say, is race – the rumbling volcano of fear and hatred that has loomed over American life since the days of slavery. The story, a contest between high political idealism and base self-preservation, is a moral minefield.
The timing of the movie is hardly coincidental. All over the United States Black Lives Matter protesters have been reacting to police violence against African-Americans. In Judas and the Black Messiah we are transported back to a time in which FBI chief, J.Edgar Hoover, saw the Black Power movement as the greatest single threat to his version of American democracy – nothing short of a revolutionary movement that had to be strangled at birth.
For Hoover – played in this film by Martin Sheen, looking like he’s just been exhumed from the crypt – there were no limits to what needed to be done to stop the Panthers. Hoover’s most paranoid thought was that a “messiah” would come along, capable of uniting all the country’s disaffected protest groups under one banner. The charismatic Fred Hampton was the leading candidate for that role. When he founded the Rainbow Coalition in Chicago, bringing together black and white groups to demand social justice, he made himself a marked man.
There’s no doubt that Hampton, who was just 21 at the time of his death in 1969, was a extraordinary figure. He had risen to prominence in the ranks of the Panthers after Huey Newton had been imprisoned and Eldridge Cleaver had gone into self-imposed exile in North Africa. An outspoken Marxist-Leninist he had the ability to electrify an audience with his diatribes against the “Pigs” and the Establishment. Despite the violence of his public pronouncements Hampton was also a strategist who helped raise money for the health and welfare of poor black communities.
It’s this duality that makes the movie so consistently edgy. King doesn’t try to hide the violence and gangland tensions that were part of the Black Panther movement, but we’re obliged to see the group as having grown out of the greater, long-term violence inflicted on black communities by governments that hardly bothered to disguise their racist intent.
When you ain’t got nothin’ there’s always crime. For many poor people this was the only path out of poverty, but it fed the idea that blacks were inherently dangerous and predisposed to criminality. This in turn justified further social discrimination and repression. Then, and today, whatever violence the police perpetrated on the black community was seen as a safeguard against the greater potential violence of an uprising.
Plus ça change. Only last week the nitwit Senator, Ron Johnson, told an interviewer he hadn’t been worried about the groups stoming the Capitol as he knew they were “people that love this country”, but he would have been “a little concerned” had they been Black Lives Matter protesters.
One African-American who saw crime as his best option in the 60s was William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), who devised a daring scam whereby he flashed a phoney FBI badge in a black nightclub and confiscated someone’s car. The film begins with O’Neal attempting this stunt and barely escaping intact. It brings him into involuntary contact with a real FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who makes him an unrefusable offer: work for us as an informer and earn some real money, or go to gaol for the next five years.
O’Neal, who has already shown his lack of racial solidarity by stealing from his peers, accepts Roy’s terms. He begins attending rallies, joins the Panthers, and works his way into Hampton’s inner circle. From this point things get complicated. Although the political angle doesn’t interest O’Neal at first he is visibly affected by the strength of Hampton’s orations and the rapturous response he can draw from a crowd.
Stanfield shows considerable skill in this portrait of a deeply conflicted personality who finds himself increasingly in tune with Hampton and his message but knows he’s headed for gaol if he double crosses the FBI. Mitchell plays O’Neal with kid gloves, plying him with cash, taking him to expensive restaurants, even inviting him home for a meal.
While Mitchell is doing his best to charm O’Neal, Hampton is forming a liaison with a young poet, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). Deborah admires Fred’s way with words but is amazed by his upright, almost puritanical attitude towards women. Nevertheless the romance prospers, even if Deborah has to accept that for Fred the movement always comes first.
While these two contrary relationships are evolving the police are becoming increasingly aggressive in their approach to the Panthers. As tensions build in the face of blatant injustice and provocation, members of the group become involved in violent incidents that open the door to further strong-arm tactics from the authorities. Hampton may preach revolution but he urges his people not to take the bait, even when he is imprisoned on a trumped-up charge.
The pressure is too much for some Panthers but O’Neal is assiduous in trying to avoid conflict. He knows what the FBI is capable of, and soon finds out he’s not the only informer on the payroll. There is, however, no escape from the treacherous commitments he has made.
Towards the end of the movie King flips back to the real William O’Neal’s appearance on a TV talk show, where he tries to defend what he did at the end of the 60s. It sounds like aggressive bravado, and subsequent events proved this to be true. We’re left with a desolate picture of America as a clandestine police state that employed all the methods of coercion it routinely denounced in communist countries, with the sinister Hoover acting as a law unto himself. The Panthers may have been revolutionary idealists intent on the overthrow of the system, but they were no match for the unscrupulous brutality of the FBI and the cops.
The tragic hero of the story is Fred Hampton who comes across as a charismatic figure, possessed of almost superhuman reserves of intelligence, compassion and integrity. There’s simply no way of knowing how the actual man measures up to Kaluuya’s commanding portrayal. If he seems too good to be true we have to remember Hampton died before he could mature as a person and as a political thinker. The Marxist-Leninist rhetoric is the hallmark of someone who believes implicitly that words and ideas have the power to reshape the world. Time would almost certainly have dampened Hampton’s convictions, but his early success ensured that he would be deprived of the opportunity to lose any of his illusions.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Directed by Shaka King
Written by Will Berson, Shaka King, after a story by Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenneth Lucas, Keith Lucas
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Martin Sheen, Dominique Thorne
USA, rated MA 15+, 125 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 20 March, 2021