Film Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

by Jacob Bilsky

On February 5th, U.S. Senator Cory Booker quoted Fred Hampton in a tweet, stating “We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.” Instead of finishing the quote, Booker shamefully left out the following line where Hampton states “We don’t say you fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”

Unlike Senator Booker, director Shaka King was not afraid to finish this quote in his new film Judas and the Black Messiah, which tells the story of Fred Hampton’s (portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya) assassination through the eyes of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant William O’Neal (portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield). 

There is a lot to love in Judas and the Black Messiah, between Kaluuya’s charismatic reenactments of Fred Hampton’s speeches, Dominique Fishback’s portrayal of Deborah Johnson as she grapples with the pressures of motherhood while in a revolutionary organization, and the internal moral struggles of O’Neal and Roy Mitchell as they conspire to sabotage the Black Panther Party (BPP). 

Coupled with its cool–if not quite authentic– ‘70s aesthetics, sparse yet always mood-defining score, and intense shootouts, the film makes for an exciting watch, well worth spending two hours on.

Although Judas and the Black Messiah takes inspiration from crime dramas, it does away with the stereotype in such films that the cops are the good guys. Instead, King portrays the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican political organization formed out of a Chicago turf gang, and the self-described “white trash” that made up the Young Patriots Organization as positive political forces, uniting with the Black Panther Party under the banner of the Rainbow Coalition and a socialist program based on the BPP’s Ten-Point Program. Meanwhile, the villains of the film are FBI agents clad in suits, lounging about with expensive cigars behind fancy desks or in suburban living rooms.

While the FBI agents in the film frequently throw around the idea that the Black Panthers were racist extremists, equivalent to the Klu Klux Klan, with time the film reveals the opposite is true. While Fred Hampton unites the working class across racial lines, the FBI uses informants like O’Neal to divide and conquer the left through their COINTELPRO program. In fact, King’s artistic license in depicting the FBI agents was recently supported by the release of FBI documents connecting the agency’s director J. Edgar Hoover to the Hampton assassination

Elsewhere, the film takes positive steps in rejecting the use of isolated terrorism and violence as a means of making gains for the working class. The Black Panthers are shown to be at their weakest when individual members engage the police, often paying for their mistaken tactics with their lives or prison time, causing the Panthers to lose valuable members. 

Meanwhile, Fred Hampton recognizes that individual acts of violence only make things worse for the BPP, yelling at William O’Neal for suggesting that they bomb the police to retaliate for raids against the party offices. Hampton recognizes the strength of the party and its ability to overturn the capitalist system comes from its numbers and the collective strength of the people, not from killing individual “pigs.”

Unfortunately, while the film argues that killing individual revolutionaries can’t kill a revolution, its fixation on great men—or, in the case of O’Neal and Mitchell, despicable men—is its greatest weakness.

Hampton’s attempts at coalition building are sidelined in favor of focusing on the personal lives of himself and the man who enabled his murder, with the Young Lords and Young Patriots Organization and the efforts of Hampton to bridge racial divides in the working class underutilized and relegated to only a few scenes. 

The film establishes the radical image of the Black Panthers through a few early scenes depicting political education and day to day organizing, such as handing out leaflets and selling newspapers, but fails to develop this any further.

Early on in the film, the characters mention building a community health clinic as one of the BPP’s “survival programs.” The film never looks into the work required to do this, casually showing an EKG machine roll through the party office in a weak attempt to show that this concept wasn’t totally forgotten.

The movie climaxes with William O’Neal struggling to go through with a plot to drug Fred Hampton and enable his assasination. On the night of the deed, just before Hampton was slated to return to jail on trumped up charges, the cast are shown in Hampton’s apartment socializing as a sort of “Last Supper.”

The leader of the Crowns–a fictional turf gang representing an amalgamation of groups Hampton brought into the Rainbow Coalition–offers Hampton a bundle of money and the chance to flee to Cuba or Algeria to avoid prison. Hampton declined his offer, instead saying it should go toward building the clinic.

Due to the film’s focus on an FBI informant over the Panther’s actual organizing, what could have been a profound moment of an individual prioritizing what was best for the Party over his personal safety instead feels forced and out of place.

Judas and the Black Messiah certainly has its place among recent works of radical film, including Sorry to Bother You and Parasite, and with its use of documentary footage and the historical context provided at the end, will likely spur viewers to do further research and learn more about the Black Panther Party. We recommend following the film with a viewing of Howard Alk’s 1971 documentary, The Murder of Fred Hampton, for a more factual depiction of the events in King’s film.

For further reading on the Black Panther Party from the Independent Socialist Group and our co-thinkers in the Committee for a Workers’ International, check out:

Also check out our pamphlet and program on fighting Police Racism and Brutality:

In addition to this review, we recommend reading Chicago rapper Noname’s critiques of the film, reported on here: ‘It’s a Movie About an Informant’: Rapper Noname Explains Why She Passed on the ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Soundtrack

Image credit: Glen Wilson / Warner Bros.