“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a very good – almost great – movie about the charismatic Fred Hampton and the way the United States government targeted the Black Panther Party. But neither the outstanding achievements of Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield nor the sensitive and insightful direction of Shaka King are the most remarkable aspects of the film: Since Spike Lee’s 1992 biography “Malcolm X”, there has not been an American mainstream film that is through and through black and black is radical.
Black History Month was a mystery to me as a kid. I never could understand why we were taught some black history, but nowhere near enough, not even close. We’d learn about Frederick Douglass, but not Nat Turner. Booker T. Washington, but not WEB Du Bois. Our teachers took great care to hear from Rev. Dr. Telling Martin Luther King Jr., however, completely neglected Malcolm X. With this approach, they tacitly communicated that only the black historical figures, which included white people who did the work of black liberation, were the ones worthy of memory. This is especially true for black radicals. The panthers, who were important to my community growing up, and the Black Power movement were never part of the narrative at school. Same goes for Hollywood.
Hollywood has long told black stories from the perspective of whites. Think of Oscar-winning dramas like “The Blind Side” (a white adoptive mother helps a black soccer player), “The Help” (a white journalist awakens to the injustices faced by black maids in the civil rights era South) or ” Green Book ”(a white chauffeur helping a black classical pianist): Instead of examining what black characters could put up with, these films were aimed at a white audience and taught them how to better perform their whites near blackness.
This tradition of making black films about white people makes the very existence of “Judas and the Black Messiah” shocking and exhilarating. The film, which is available on HBO Max and distributed by Warner Bros., isn’t exactly hostile to whites, but for a mainstream film likely to attract Oscar attention, the version of Blackness set in an unapologetic love of the Offspring of rooted is enslaved people is rare. Surprisingly, it doesn’t apologize for Hampton’s embrace of blackness or deep suspicion of capitalism. Nor does it gloss over the portrayal of the title’s Judas, the FBI facility Bill O’Neal. In another era, Hampton would have been secondary in the story of a personable informant if a studio film had dealt with the material at all. Instead, King wants us to side with the black radicals, and we see the government for what it was: a destructive force.
The movie isn’t perfect. Hampton was a fiery speaker, yes, but to fully understand him and his appeal you have to see him in action – a point of view that the film does not offer its viewers. What made him a legend in Chicago was his organizational skills and undeniable charisma. But his most important achievement was bringing together the Rainbow Coalition, an alliance of the Black Panthers; the left, mostly white Young Patriots Organization; and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang involved in human rights. This isn’t really given a lot of screen time. Instead, the film shows us a Hampton that has already peaked – it doesn’t show us the work it did to get there. Of course, a movie isn’t a history lesson, but a little more time could have been devoted to Hampton’s ideas.
Recent documentaries such as Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Avant-Garde of Revolution” and Göran Olsson’s “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” have explored the history of the panthers and their meaning. There were a handful of features about the Panthers, particularly the beautiful and intimate “Night Catches Us” (2010), which portrayed what happened to former members who tried to live outside the party. Perhaps the closest drama to what “Judas” has achieved is a film about black nationalism, Lee’s “Malcolm X”. The politics of the two films are similar in that they both portray men vocal in their vision of black self-determination. However, “Judas” is more explicit about how Hampton combined his racial criticism with economic criticism.
It’s clear why we finally have a movie like this. Black protesters have forced this country and its cultural creators to finally pay attention to its vicious legacy of white supremacy. In recent years, not only have people been on the streets singing “Black Lives Matter,” but Hollywood has also been an explicit target for criticism. It was only a few years ago that #OscarsSoWhite forced the academy to seriously think about how the industry marginalized black talent. More needs to be done to make the industry an equitable place for all stories and creators, but the work so far is already having an impact.
And it’s important to see a movie that tells a story about black characters who have been neglected in American history books. If nothing else, the film might inspire viewers to dig deeper and learn more about the black radicals depicted in it. Hampton and the Black Panther Party have always been heroes to me; This is a film that lives up to your memory.