The release of Judas and The Black Messiah raised excitement for many fans of Black history; the Civil Rights Movement, followers of Fred Hampton, and the Black Panther Party. However, as soon as the film debuted on HBO Max, film critics voiced their disappointment while other fans praised the film and its creators via social media
Produced by Ryan Coogler and directed by Shaka King, and starring actors Daniel Kaluuya and Dominique Fishback, the film received mixed reviews. From the script, to the acting, to the point of view depiction from William O’Neal’s eyes, there are disagreements over the aims of the film and whether it does proper justice to Chairman Fred.
Chairman Fred Hampton was the leader of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party. He was a youth leader for the NAACP. After the Party got word of his influence in the community, he was asked to lead a chapter in Chicago. Chairman Fred joined because he felt the Party worked a little faster to make change happen and he was eager for it and eventually killed for it.
The FBI planted many Black people within the Party to eavesdrop on his work and initiatives of the Party and painted them out to be a hate group. After failing to intimidate him into silence, they resorted to assassinating him. He was 21 years old.
Strengths of “Judas and the Black Messiah”
One of the most crucial components of a film portraying a movement from the 60s is to do due diligence to their motives and mission. Black liberation movements in the 60s were often presented and skewed by the media as violent “terrorist” groups. Therefore, Hollywood’s depictions must create an accurate rendition of these conspiracies and the realities of the movement.
The Black Panther Party chapter of Chicago fought racism through Marxist, Socialist, and Communist ideals and a militant belief in self-defense . Conservative then and today shuddered at the thought. However, from the perspective of Black liberation, these ideals meant giving Black people and other disenfranchised groups the right to urge the government to work in their favor and end the decades long fight against oppression.
The film depicts how Chairman Fred stood firmly against capitalism, due to the ways in which it exploited thousands of Black people in poor neighborhoods. He was also against the police force’s abuse of power in targeting neighborhoods of color–he encouraged the people to defend themselves. While he used strong language, he didn’t intend to incite violence. In the film he references Malcolm X multiple times suggesting he learned freedom must be achieved, non negotiably, by any means necessary.
Additionally, Coogler, with the guidance of Chairman Fred Hampton Jr., honored the deaths of the Panthers who lost their lives to the police. The film challenged the narrative that the Panthers were senseless cop killers. In one scene, Panther Larry “Jimmy” Robertson walked into the corner shop to intervene in a random stop and frisk. The police pulled their guns on him and instead of retreating, he reached for his gun behind his back causing the cops to shoot him. He didn’t go looking for trouble. He was intending to assert his rights and those of the men who were being confronted.
Following that, Jimmy died mysteriously after seeming near recovery and Panther Jake Winters went to find more information about how Jimmy died. The man he was asking for help called the police on him after his rifle fell from within his jacket. After being chased down and shot at by a group of cops, he shot and killed one. Some may find these scenes difficult to sympathize with. However, the dynamics of each situation are important to understand–Black people were retaliating against police intimidation.
Judas also captured the humanity of the Chairman. In one scene, he kisses his girlfriend and offers her coffee, which he routinely drank at night to stay up at night and study Malcolm X’s speeches.
Daniel Kaluuya studied the Chairman’s voice to the T, sounding almost identical to his speeches. The loyalty the Panthers felt towards the Chairman is expressed through short scenes in the car and delving into the moments where the Panthers almost snuffed out O’Neal for being a rat. Though representing the chairman’s leadership in a short amount of time, the film took care to address the Rainbow Coalition, while also the participating groups like the Young Patriots and Young Lords who collaborated with the Black Panther Party to achieve justice.
The highlight of the film is the subtle playing out of the biblical story of Judas’ betrayal through visuals. Throughout the film, it is suggested that toward the end, O’Neal is nearly a “follower” of the Chairman, having been so close to him for extended periods of time.
In exchange for money, he handed over information about the Chairman and sealed the deal by drawing a blueprint of his apartment. The night Fred Hampton died, Hampton, his girlfriend and a group of Panthers had a small gathering eating and drinking together, perhaps symbolic of a “Last Supper.”
Finally O’Neal kiss of betrayal was offering Hampton a drink containing a strong barbiturate and after he left, Hampton fell into a nearly unconscious state. In the middle of the night, officers raided his home spraying up to 90 bullets through the walls, killing two Panthers and shooting Fred at point blank.
Flaws in “Judas and the Black Messiah
Casting in “Judas and the Black Messiah”
While the film certainly delivers, it is also lacking in a few areas that sometimes take away from the experience. Bill O’Neal is the first downfall. Writing the film from his point of view, essentially, deviated the focus from the Chairman and his influence. O’Neal was only 17 when he was approached and coerced by the FBI.
Stanfield’s performance is outstanding, however, his age is a barrier in relaying the naivete of a teenager. Instead, he appears in his 20s, at least, making it hard to believe he was sincerely crippling under the pressure of helping conduct an assassination.
Additionally, Stanfield’s random laughs make believing in his gradual remorse difficult. The giddiness he exhibits after fleeing from the Panthers after manipulating them into one of his performances makes him seem villainous. Furthermore, his progression into caring for Hampton and worrying for his death feels splotchy and abrupt. The only time his growing passion is apparent is when he cheers, “I am a revolutionary” at Hampton’s speech upon his return from jail. Leading up to that point, his attempts to gain the trust of the Party while Hampton is incarcerated seem disingenuous.
Hampton’s age leans towards inaccuracy. . Though he did have prominent facial hair in real life, Kaluuya’s face aged him another 10 years. The script also didn’t help guide the audience into understanding how young he was. This factor is especially important as age was prominent to Hampton’s impact. He was hand-picked by the Panther Party to start a chapter in Chicago due to his youth, charisma and influence.
Omissions and Historical Accuracy in “Judas and the Black Messiah”
The film also didn’t explore the political climate of Chicago during the 60s. Beyond police brutality and harassment, redlining segregated Black people to the west side of the city. Isolating them made it easier to funnel money to the white areas.
Additionally, the industries which Black people worked in during the Reconstruction Era were dissolving, leaving little economic opportunity. Addressing these factors, beyond the hints of the chalkboard writing or secondary footage, would have painted a clearer picture of why the Panther Party’s work was so crucial to the community and other communities they reached through the Rainbow Coalition.
The Party grassroots organizing and implementation of programs to mobilize and heal the community were only briefly examined. In addition to feeding kids free breakfast before school, the Panthers held classes on politics, opened medical clinics and rehabilitation programs. Their motive was to serve the people, especially since the government was failing so terribly to do so during that time.
The Panthers gave the community the tools to decide whether the government was living up to the standards they set regarding every man being created equal or neglecting Black Americans within the concept. Instead, the film’s focus is on the government’s plans to crush the Panthers. The various levels of the Party’s work are outshined by the evils of white supremacy.
The glossing over of COINTELPRO is also a flaw. Once scene places the audience in a room full of white men in black suits listening to another white man vent about how dangerous he thinks Fred Hampton is. We are never given any additional information as to the specifics of their plans were and how these strategies were carried out, including the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On the surface, the film showed how the government made Black leaders out to be dangerous and war-hungry. What they failed to address was the willingness to do anything to maintain the status quo that kept whiteness in power and Blackness in struggle. The true evil of white supremacy and its hold on the government was only mentioned rather explored for its long term damage to the Black community.
Luckily, Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. was heavily involved in the production of the film. Aside from the technical faults many critiques highlighted, the son of Chairman Fred Sr. did history justice by ensuring detail and accuracy, from the clothes, to the mannerisms, to the characters and the roles they played. Chairman Fred Jr. and Mama Akua (Fred Sr.’s mother)’s characters stayed close to the authentic story to ensure just representation of this great leader.In only two hours, the film is relatively effective in providing an overview or glimpse into Fred Hampton’s life and legacy, even to viewers who are unfamiliar with the history.
Documentaries and podcasts offer more in depth information on Hampton as well as his views and accomplishments with the Chicago Chapter. More importantly, the film proved the Panthers were more than the violence highlighted in the media. Winter’s mother, remembering her son Jake, said, “He did that. But that ain’t all he did. It don’t seem fair that that’s his legacy.”
We must continue to change the narratives of white-washed history and the media’s framing of Black history and Black leaders. Filmmakers must continue, as Shaka King does, to accurately represent Black stories. The pain, the struggle and the joy and triumph were all real and brought us to where we are today. Though not much has changed, these films allow us to take a glimpse into the past to see how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go.