Summary: Judas and the Black Messiah provided an opportunity to tell the story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton to a new generation—did it really succeed in doing so?
From the outset the concerns and priorities of a socialist watching Judas and the Black Messiah are going to be different from that of a profit-driven corporation like Warner Brothers or the average film goer just looking for an entertaining film. So this will not be a “normal” movie review. As a Hollywood action movie meant for entertainment alone it has almost everything. There is a crusading hero, a short car chase, a gun fight, a love story, and an exploding building; what else do you need? This is what a successful Hollywood movie is supposed to contain. It just so happens that it is also a movie based on the life of Fred Hampton, who at the age of 21 was known as Chairman Fred Hampton–leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. Chairman Fred would prove to be one of the most well read and charismatic leaders the Black Panthers would ever have. His contributions continue to resonate to this day.
There are some things I’m happy about in regards to this film and also some things I am not. I will talk about both. First, I think it is great that Fred’s story is finally being told at all. Chairman Fred’s story being released as a major film is an opportunity and an entry point to a much wider conversation on everything from socialism, to police accountability, Black history, and the struggle of working-class people for liberation in the U.S. Fred Hampton was a 1960s revolutionary everyone should know about but in particular Black youth. The movie tells the story of how he tried to organize Black revolutionaries and gang members, poor whites, and
Puerto Rican Americans into a united force to fight in behalf of all their common economic interests. The issues they fought for, the people and ideology that inspired them, the vision they had for their communities, and the brutal government repression they suffered all deserve to see the light of day. And not just one day but many. So yes, I’m happy this movie was made but at the same time I’m critical of all it did not do based on the profit imperative of its creators.
Some of the problems and concerns I have with the movie:
- If you watch this movie and are not already a socialist who has read a few books about the Panthers I believe you will be lost. The movie moves quickly without a lot of explanation.
- At no point is Fred Hampton’s character allowed to sit down and calmly explain his ideology or what exactly it is he’s fighting for. Out of a two-hour-five-minute movie I’m just asking for at least two to five minutes for the hero to be given the chance to explain his goals and share his vision of what the world he was fighting for would look like. In movies like Superman supervillain Lex Luthor gets to tell you what his plan is at some point. Listening to Chairman Fred stress the importance of political education while showcasing his internationalist knowledge of the world would have been helpful and informative.
- Too much time was spent focusing on the FBI Informant who would betray Fred, William O’Neil. I don’t think I agree with film maker/producer Shaka King, who purposely wanted to juxtapose Fred with O’Neil to show “what Fred was and what he wasn’t.” O’Neil’s character is supposed to show us the “dangers of investing in and believing in nothing.” My opinion is that every moment spent focusing on the snitch robbed us of learning more about Fred’s story and example. Less O’Neil would be more for me in this film.
- My biggest fear is that young people will watch this movie and conclude that fighting against oppression is hopeless so why bother? Since there’s no counter message to impress this upon the audience I believe it is very likely. Just flashing a few shots of Fred’s widow and son at the end was hardly enough. Fred’s son for that matter is now a grown man with plenty to say for himself. It would have been nice for someone to deliver a motivational message that 51 years later Chairman Fred’s words continue to reverberate and echo in the streets of the U.S. I needed somebody to say that “You can imprison a Revolutionary but you can’t imprison Revolution. You can kill a Revolutionary but you can’t kill Revolution.” Someone needed to say the struggle continues and it has been taken up by the millions of young people of all colors who rose up in response to the murder of George Floyd from coast to coast and around the world. I needed someone to say The Struggle Continues. Che Guevara said “One becomes a revolutionary out of an extreme love for humanity.” A revolutionary doesn’t believe they are going to die in their sleep from natural causes at the age of 85.
Again, these are all the concerns and priorities of a socialist who hopes that this film triggers the political education of a new generation. Though I don’t share the values of Warner Brothers, I am happy they made this film and think it is worth your while to watch it. Chairman Fred, like many of the Panthers, truly lived and died for the people; their story deserves to be told.