Every child in America knows the name Martin Luther King. Most know the name Malcom X. Not nearly enough know the story of Chairman Fred Hampton, and that’s a damn shame. Judas and the Black Messiah can be the antidote not only to filling in an essential piece of American history, but the cure for what ails this country now more than ever.
This country is more divided than it’s been in a long time. Divided racially, geographically, ideologically, and along a whole host of other differences that millionaire politicians in both of the two major political parties exploit for their own self-interest, and the interest of their families. It’s the oldest trick in the book. Keep people divided. Keep them afraid. Keep them fighting each other while ignoring the elites robbing them blind. Sending them to fight in foreign wars, killing other poor people so that a few powerful robber barons directing a handful of multinational corporations can profit. Fred Hampton understood this game better than perhaps any man alive. And because he understood it, he knew how to beat it. Love thy enemy. Easier said than done, but Fred Hampton both said and did. It’s why he earned the nickname of “the Black Messiah” from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Hoover’s FBI was constantly on the lookout for this “Black Messiah.” Like all tyrants, their greatest fear was that one of their downtrodden victims would soon rise above and rally resistance. They feared a man who could threaten the existing power structure dominated by white male patriarchal crony capitalism. Hampton quickly became a prime target and Judas and the Black Messiah succeeds in capturing exactly why.
When the Judas of our story, Bill O’Neal, played to perfection by the always wonderful LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You, FX’s Atlanta), infiltrates The Illinois Black Panther Party as an FBI informant, he finds a radically different organization than what he’s expecting. O’Neal’s FBI handlers insist that the Panthers are the black Ku Klux Klan. The other side of the same coin of toxic racial hatred, committed to the supremacy of their own race above all others. That’s why the FBI needs to destroy them, lest they become a threat to polite, civilized, society. O’Neal soon learns about the real Panthers under the leadership of Hampton. Fred Hampton understood that people are ultimately more divided by class than by race. He recognized the divide and conquer strategy that the FBI and other agents of the corrupt law enforcement establishment were using to keep black revolutionaries and white revolutionaries and brown revolutionaries from joining forces to become a real threat to the established order. O’Neal is disciplined by Hampton for failing to show proper respect to his sisters in the revolution. Women are equal within the Panthers. O’Neal watches as Hampton builds bridges with the Young Patriots, a confederate flag waving rabble of impoverished white revolutionaries, and the Young Lords, an organization of Puerto Rican revolutionaries, to form a Rainbow Coalition within the city of Chicago.
This Rainbow Coalition becomes a reality, because Hampton had the courage to reach out to other revolutionary leaders like William “Preacherman” Fesperman and Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez. He had the courage to show these men that they all share the same goals of dismantling the same oppressive systems, opposition to the Vietnam War, opposition to police brutality, and opposition to capitalist exploitation. He had the courage to show these men that they shared the same positive goals as well: universal access to health care, education, housing, clothing, and food. The Rainbow Coalition, thanks to the leadership of Hampton, was able to set aside its identity-based differences and work together for the radical ideas that in the richest country on earth, no man, woman, or child should be without access to basic necessities. The longer Bill O’Neal spends with The Panthers, the more he realizes he’s actually working for the bad guys. Stanfield captures the subtleties and complexities of O’Neal’s roiling internal battle beautifully, as conscience and self-preservation are in constant conflict. It would have been an Oscar-worthy performance, but for the even more impressive work done by his co-star.
Daniel Kaluuya’s (Get Out, Black Panther) performance as Fred Hampton is masterful. You watch him give speeches to his fellow Black Panthers and you’re ready to follow him into battle. You want to tear down the systems of oppression that have not only kept black Americans in a position of subservience in this country, but poor white Americans and Latino Americans as well. You watch him, cool as ice, walk into hostile territory to negotiate with other militant black leaders, unarmed and defenseless, and gain their trust with calm reason and just enough charm. But perhaps equally compelling are the moments when Kaluuya’s Hampton is dealing with relatable personal challenges, like how to make your move on the woman you’re interested in. How to balance being a revolutionary with being a future husband and father. Those are the moments that remind you that for all his prodigious talents as a revolutionary leader, Fred Hampton was also just a 21-year-old kid when he died. A story that is tragic not only because of all that Hampton was able to accomplish, but because of how much potential was wasted by his assassination.
One criticism leveled at Judas and the Black Messiah is how much attention is focused on O’Neal and the FBI’s plot to assassinate Hampton, rather than serving exclusively as a biopic for Hampton’s life. Its understandable why some would feel that way, but its impossible to capture the true tragedy of Fred Hampton’s life without discussing in detail the depths of the plot to bring about his death. Fred Hampton was murdered because he had the audacity to love his enemies until they became his allies. And he did it all so that no child in America would ever have to go hungry again. Judas and the Black Messiah not only captures the beauty of Hampton’s commitment to his ideals, but delivers the necessary excoriation that Hoover’s FBI deserves for taking him away from us so soon.
Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition served as a shining example for other revolutionary leaders like Jesse Jackson, Bernie Sanders, and most recently, Cori Bush. They all owe Hampton a debt of gratitude in their efforts to unite a multiracial coalition. Watch Judas and the Black Messiah. Show it to your friends, show it to your parents, show it to your kids, until Fred Hampton’s name is consistently mentioned in the same breath as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s, because 2021 America needs more leaders like Fred Hampton.
P.S. If anything ever happens to Cori Bush, I’m checking on J. Edgar Hoover’s rotting corpse ????