The Hoover-era FBI becomes obsessed with taking down Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton
Directed by Shaka King
Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, and Jesse Plemons
Review by Jon Kissel
O’Neill’s corruptor’s in the FBI imagine themselves as being in the opening scene of Patton, though the events of Judas and the Black Messiah predate that film by a year. Michael Sheen’s J. Edgar Hoover, one of the most foul 20th century Americans, stalks around a stage in front of a giant screen, decrying black nationalist movements as the number one threat facing America. The evocation of Patton is appropriate because that’s how Hoover imagines himself; in the middle of a war, leading a great tank column of besuited agents through anywhere there’s active dissent against white supremacy and overseas militarism. On the occasions that the FBI finds themselves on the right side of history, as Jesse Plemons’ Agent Mitchell claims he was in the Mississippi lynchings of civil rights workers, the lesson isn’t of the need for self-defense amongst Black people or the infiltration of the organs of the state by violent racists, but of a sick equation of the KKK with the Black Panthers and a blindness to the difference between white pride and Black pride. As deluded and morally bankrupt as Mitchell is, he can easily be worse. This is a film that can shamelessly benefit from an exaggerated depiction of the feds and the police, but I don’t feel it’s exaggerated at all. Everything said and done, from the torture of prisoners to the ordering of Hampton’s execution by Hoover himself, is well within the realm of recent history. State power only feels as restrained as it’s made to be, and there’s no one in government that’s going to stick up for fair treatment of the Black Panthers.
As the focus of the characters’ attention, Fred Hampton is certainly worthy of it and more. A city-wide leader in leftist politics and coalition building at 21, Hampton represents unfulfilled potential and the fulfillment of a 60’s era conspiracy theory that’s actually true and all-too recognizable. In modern times, when it feels like no self-respecting activist would be caught dead in the same room as a Confederate flag, the Hampton of King’s film couldn’t care less. He’s on a mission of class solidarity, and he needs poor whites without much to lose far more than he needs soft white liberals who are repelled by displays of racism but are perfectly fine with Blacks being kept out of their cul de sacs. It’s the unification of races under a broader and more inclusive class umbrella that makes Hampton so dangerous to Hoover, a man who gets his agents to do what he wants with implicit threats of interracial dating. Kaluuya mimics Hampton’s rapid-fire delivery and accent, and is a forceful orator in public and a recognizably relaxed and collected person in private, but he’s also ten years older than Hampton was at his death. I’d believe Kaluuya as a man in his forties before a man in his early-twenties. The youth of Hampton is an indistinguishable part of his legacy, and while Kaluuya is quite good as Hampton, I’d have to call him miscast.
With that one major flaw out of the way and addressed, the way King tells this story is admirable in its fearlessness. It’s rare for a wide release to be this naked in its depiction of far-left vocabulary and messaging, and it’s also rare for the dead Black Panthers to so blatantly engage in furious warfare with the cops. A lesser film would’ve pulled punches and softened. King and co-writers Kenny and Keith Lucas and Will Berson present the facts of the case and leave the viewer with a lot to chew on. Hampton isn’t just a black nationalist or a civil rights leader, but an actual revolutionary socialist with a lot of nice things to say about Mao. The FBI would say that all the community service the Panthers are doing is the beginning of a broader revolutionary message and Hampton would agree with that framing. Oatmeal leading to public ownership. Subversion of the Panthers through extortion, infiltration, and hit squads is one tactic, while co-opting their mission by providing services to the community and thus removing the Panthers’ need to exist is another. Of course, the government goes with the former.
Harder to take is the film’s refusal to shy away from the Panthers in open warfare with the cops. The Panthers aren’t shrinking violets engaged in nonviolence, but well-armed resistors who will fire back if fired upon. That’s a noble American tradition as long as it’s not a Black man taking up arms against his oppressors, to paraphrase James Baldwin, but here, King also includes wholesale execution of a wounded cop, in the case of Algee Smith’s Jake Winters. I think the film, taking from Hampton’s actual response, plays this exactly right, where it acknowledges what Winters did but refuses to allow him to be branded as a murderer forever after. The clinic named after Winters did exist, though it was surely taken as an affront by a city that refuses to have Hampton’s grace. The film never directly ties Hampton’s rhetoric to the actions of characters like Winters’ because Winters doesn’t need to be told that the cops don’t value his life or the lives of other Black people. He knows it whether Hampton’s yelling at a podium or not, and he’s radicalized not by speeches but by the feeling of having his options taken away and a fear of bloody retribution that’s not unlike the same fear that animates O’Neill. One can be tortured in prison, or die refusing to go quietly.
Judas and the Black Messiah is an invigorating and vital film that tells a devastating story without giving into despair. Fred Hampton Jr. continues to carry out his father’s legacy, as does Hampton’s partner Deborah Johnson, here played by Dominque Fishback in a role that needed a little more screentime (showing her direct effect on Hampton’s communication skills would’ve gone a long way). O’Neill’s ultimate end isn’t satisfying but it can’t help but feel appropriate. Just the fact that more people are going to know about this whole sordid episode makes the film worthwhile, even if it wasn’t half as good as it is. King finds an in-depth avenue into this historical moment, a throwback to sweaty New Hollywood films with a level of artistry and passion that matches its inspiration. B+