Judas and the Black Messiah

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

As the same argument about reform plays in a loop, Judas and the Black Messiah is a reminder that there is no such thing as patient protest and that to combat targeted, intentional systems of oppression, it takes a revolution. Because as the real Fred Hampton so famously explained in a commonly quoted 1968 speech, it’s the revolution that lasts.

“You can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail a revolution,” he said about Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale, who was beaten, bound, and gagged while on trial for a conspiracy with men he’d never met. “You might run a liberator like [BPP minister of information/spokesperson] Eldridge Cleaver out of the country, but you can’t run liberation out of the country. You might murder a freedom fighter like [BPP treasurer] Bobby Hutton, but you can’t murder freedom fighting.”

Produced by Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Creed) and directed by Shaka King (his studio feature film directorial debut), the film is based in Chicago and is inspired by the true story of how the FBI used an informant, William O’Neal, to betray Hampton—the 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who police killed in a raid at his home while he slept in the bed he shared with his pregnant fiancée on December 4, 1969.

Daniel Kaluuya plays a captivating Fred Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield an anxious Bill O’Neal, with a cast of strong supporting actors—including women who show just how essential they were to the Black Panther Party. And with these knockout performances comes an examination of the need for revolutionaries when pushing for real change.

Over the past year, criticisms of activists and their demands have returned to the forefront of conversations about equity. Fighting about the language of “defunding the police” has often overshadowed the reasons behind it. Critics have written long op-eds about how people should protest, when they should do it, and what that protest should look like.

Yet, history has shown that reform often fails and that Black leaders like Fred Hampton knew that waiting patiently for equality to be given does not yield results, that systems of power do not willingly give that power up. From Ida B. Wells to Malcolm X, leaders who do not nicely request change are deemed revolutionaries and called dangerous when their justified anger is on display.

It was this rhetoric that caused FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (played in the film by Martin Sheen) to issue this real-life directive: “Prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.” As the film suggests, it was Hampton’s efficacy as a leader and his ability to move the masses that made him that messiah. He wanted to unify Black gangs, but also created the Rainbow Coalition—an alliance between the Panthers, the Young Lords (a Puerto Rican political organization), and a group of working-class white people called the Young Patriots.

But the film also dives into another meaningful point: that with every messiah there is often a betrayal. In this case, FBI agent Roy Mitchell saw Bill O’Neal, a young Black car thief, as a Judas they could create and manipulate. O’Neal saw Mitchell as a role model. Mitchell convinced him that the Panthers were the same as the Ku Klux Klan and that their goal was “to sow hatred and inspire terror.”

But, Hampton and the other members of the Black Panther Party were also young. Hampton was 21 when police killed him, and Mark Clark, a defense captain also killed in the early-morning raid, was 22. Akua Njeri, then Deborah Johnson, was 19 and eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she laid on top of Hampton to cover him. (O’Neal had drugged Hampton with secobarbital that night and had also provided authorities with a floor plan. Njeri says a sleeping Hampton never moved.)

Later, reports show that police shot more than 90 times that night (all but one of the bullets fired in the apartment came from police weapons), and that Hampton was gunned down while still in his bed—his assassination part of the secret FBI program COINTELPRO.

The film shows how, at the time, the Panthers were a group of young Black people who were frustrated with the status quo and fueled by the desire for freedom. They were armed for protection while also feeding breakfasts to kids, working to build a health clinic, and providing needed resources to their community. But, the fearlessness that made them powerful is also what made them targets.

“So if you were asked to make a commitment at age 20,” Fred Hampton says in the film, “and you said, ‘I’m too young to die,’ then you’re dead already.”   v