In JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (20210), we are taken inside the Black Panther Party during its struggle with Chicago police and Hoover’s FBI, focusing on the betrayal of Illinois chapter leader Fred Hampton by FBI informant William O’Neal. The film offers solid drama and a powerful political history that remains relevant today. It’s awesome.
It’s 1968, and FBI director Herbert Hoover has essentially declared war on the Black Panther Party, fearing the rise of a “Black messiah” who could unite the communist, New Left, and antiwar movements. One man he specifically fears: Fred Hampton, the charismatic chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. Hoover’s answer: his counterintelligence program, or COINTELPRO, which for years actively targeted various political groups with informants, provocateurs, trumped-up jail time, and possibly even targeted assassinations.
Enter William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief given a choice of jail or informing by Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). O’Neil joins the local Black Panther Party and rises to become one of Hampton’s (Daniel Kaluuya) closest associates. Through his eyes, we see Hampton’s personal life, politics, and more. As the police apparatus shifts from surveillance to actively breaking the law and framing Black Panther leaders, O’Neal becomes increasingly torn and fearful about exactly what he’s doing and what it’s costing him.
The Black Panther Party formed in California in response to de facto segregation and police brutality. Citing open carry laws, they began arming themselves and shadowing police officers and otherwise patrolling neighborhoods. In response, the State of California and then Governor Ronald Reagan passed legislation to make open carry illegal, with support of the NRA. When Black Panthers showed up in Sacramento during debate on the bill with weapons to make a point, many people were amazed at their audacity, and a national then international movement was born. From the beginning, the Black Panthers held to a 10-point manifesto. They wanted economic opportunity, decent housing, education, jobs, freedom, a jury by their peers, the release of prisoners, exemption from the draft, and justice. They started child nutrition and other welfare programs in their communities. Their look–black leather jackets, sunglasses, berets, and a gun–influenced fashion, became a Black Power symbol, and helped drive the “Black is beautiful” movement. Despite the male urban guerilla image, the majority of members were women.
Fueled by terrific acting, direction, and incendiary history and politics, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is a powerful film. Overall, the story it tells feels hopeful. Hopeful in the energy and devotion Hampton gives to his ideals and what those ideals ultimately stand for, which are arguably things any American would support, though one may argue about methods and whether “revolution” as he saw it or gradual reform was the way to get it done. Overall, the story also feels very dark, as we see Roy Mitchell, who seems like a standup FBI agent, increasingly go along with the FBI’s police state methods to keep the Black race in its place. And we see O’Neal, who believes Hampton is a good man and starts to believe in the cause, always chooses himself over a higher ideal. In the end, the Black Panthers lose, and the ideals they fight for seem very far out of reach.
I loved JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH. It portrays the Black Panthers not as they are typically shown–as loud, radical, and over the top extremists–but as a real people with a cause that is entirely sympathetic, and ideals that remain absolutely relevant today.