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“Judas and the Black Messiah”: a Movie that Does Justice to Fred Hampton’s Death

Shaka King's directorial debut is about "Judas" William O'Neal, Black Panther and FBI informer, and his role in the 1969 killing of the young leader

Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers in a scene from "Judas and the Black Messiah" (frame, Warner Bros)

It’s 1989, PBS is producing a civil rights documentary titled “Eyes on the Prize II: Americans at the Racial Crossroads 1965-1985.” William O’Neal’s interview will remain his only testimony about the Black Panthers and the civil rights movements. The first scenes of the film “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros production) reconstruct the footage during the documentary filming and introduce us to the co-protagonist of this story: William O’Neal, an infiltrator paid by the FBI who is responsible for the death of Fred Hampton in Chicago in 1969. Shaka King directs the movie, doing justice to the story of Hampton and his killer. The third protagonist is the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover and its agents, who are determined to wipe out the extremist Black Panthers, considering them the greatest threat to national security. We already know the ending: at the age of only 21, Fred Hampton is killed in a raid organized by the FBI with the aim of weakening the party once and for all.

“When it’s a poor person who demands equal rights, it’s no longer democracy. It becomes socialism.” Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is standing next to a blackboard. Cigarette between his fingers, he’s busy in one of the party’s many activities: training and educating members. He speaks in a tone that sounds like revolutionary music, a pronounced accent, the marked physicality of someone who is used to speaking to the masses. It’s easy to get excited about young Hampton. We recognize the great revolutionary’s  devotion as we see him listening to Malcolm X’s speeches on tape at night. Like medicine or an injection of hope, the words “political oppression,” “economic exploitation,” and “social degradation” also penetrate the viewer’s mind. This is the music that serves as the true soundtrack for the entire film.

Fred Hampton in a scene from “Judas and the Black Messiah” (frame, Warner Bros)

Hampton forms an alliance with other organizations, including The Crowns, the Young Patriots, the Young Lords, and even a section of white extremist rednecks. The result is the famous Rainbow Coalition, the union of those inspired by Marxism-Leninism, revolutionary socialism, and anti-capitalism, all under one banner, with the single goal of social vindication. Meanwhile, William O’Neal (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) solidifies his role as an activist and perfect infiltrator by gaining Hampton’s trust. His contact is an agent who, through clever blackmail, gives him no choice but to become an informant if he doesn’t want to go to jail. O’Neal promptly informs the FBI of the hypothetical coalition with the Crowns, but fails in his attempt to turn the respective leaders against each other, as happened with King or Malcolm X before.

William O’Neal in a scene from “Judas and the Black Messiah” (frame, Warner Bros)

The relationship between William O’Neal and the FBI agent who manipulates him, Roy Martin Mitchell (Jesse Lon Plemons), serves us to understand the nature of the “Judas” who is indifferent to the fight and lacks a political conscience. Forced by the FBI, O’Neal is ordered to set the conditions for the assassination of the “Messiah.” At dawn on December 4, 1969, fourteen Chicago police officers (with a warrant for illegal weapons possession) storm a second-floor apartment at Monroe Street in Chicago. Inside are nine members of the Black Panther Party, Illinois. Four Panthers are injured, two of whom die – Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Kaluuya’s performance playing Hampton just earned him a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.

The FBI agent Roy Mitchell in a scene from “Judas and the Black Messiah” (frame, Warner Bros)

The Black Panther Party defines itself as a stratified process made of consciousness, physical and moral losses, failures, partial victories, and the need to defend themselves. Black Power also includes the need for education, action, and militarization. Revolution comes where conditions are no longer sustainable, and armed conflict stands as the only possible development. During an opening scene of the movie, Angela Davis (one of the most famous African American activists) explains that the use of guns in Oakland “as a defense mechanism reflects the need to resist harassment and intimidation by local police.” Next, we hear the voice of Bobby Seale making a list of the party’s priorities: distribution of free breakfast to many children in the ghettoes, distribution of clothing, fighting the drug trade in Negro neighborhoods, the establishment of free clinics.

Fred Hampton in a scene from “Judas and the Black Messiah” (frame, Warner Bros)

Black Panther literature was distributed on the street corners and was disseminated among the black troops in American barracks from Vietnam to Europe. “An avant-garde, not a mass organization,” said Masai Hewitt, the party’s education secretary. By 1969, the police battle the organization targeting its ideology and political platform, and the only solution is to wipe out the opposition; the director represents this by reconstructing a violent raid at the party headquarters during Hampton’s days in prison.

Fred Hampton in a scene from “Judas and the Black Messiah” (frame, Warner Bros)

Where there are men, there is power, as the party says. At a time when the abuse of power and violence perpetrated by the police is a daily debate, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is definitely among the movies you should see. Those movies that any expert should recommend like “American History X”, “Selma” and “Malcolm X”. As the film’s publicity claims, you can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill a revolution. Eyes On The Prize II premiered on January 15, 1990, on Martin Luther King Day. That same evening, William O’Neal killed himself. The ending titles tell us about it, seeking a deep connection to the historical truth.

 

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