“Judas and the Black Messiah” and what 30 pieces of silver can buy

A scene from “Judas and the Black Messiah.” (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures /AP)

In February of 2021, the independent film “Judas and the Black Messiah” was released to critical and audience acclaim. The film, detailing how the infiltration of the Black Panther Party by car thief-turned-FBI agent, Bill O’Neal, lead to the assassination of BPP leader Fred Hampton, unfortunately did not make back its relatively meager budget for a variety of reasons. Of course the film was released in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as in the winter season, when statistically, theater attendance habitually slumps. Being independent, the film did not have the budget conducive for a widespread theatrical release, and at the same time, the elephant in the box office must be addressed. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a radical film about a radical time. Generally, films with openly political thematic content do not garner the same attention as other Hollywood action and comedy blockbusters. The purpose of this article is not to dive into the nature of studio films in this era of capitalism, but instead we shall bring to light the hidden gem of a film that cannot help but to educate, agitate, and inspire the proletariat of all backgrounds. 

Fred Hampton (1948-1969) was a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary born in Louisiana and raised in Illinois, where his family took part in the Great Migration northwards to escape Jim Crow and seek the economic opportunity that it had deprived millions of African-Americans. Hampton worked to become a paralegal associated with the NAACP and at this time began reading Marxist-Leninist literature. He joined the Black Panther Party, seeing no revolutionary path in the revisionist CPUSA that used to hold hegemony over the working class and progressive movements in the US. With his intelligence, skill for oration, and amiable personality, Hampton would, despite his youth, become the Chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Illinois BPP and Deputy National Chairman. Perceiving this young revolutionary as a threat, the FBI organized the infiltration of the BPP not just in Chicago but nationwide, leading to the arrest, exile, or assassination of many members of the BPP’s leadership. In the case of Hampton, just as he worked to build a popular front in Chicago among various left wing groups, called the Rainbow Coalition, Hampton was arrested on trumped up charges of theft — allegedly ice cream for the BPP’s free breakfast program for children — and as he sought to further the BPP’s community programs such as a health clinic and a credit union. However, even with Hampton’s appeal denied, the FBI still coordinated his assassination at his home while he lay sleeping next to his pregnant wife. Comrade Mark Clark was also killed in this attack and several others were wounded. 

The intelligence provided by informant Bill O’Neal was essential in the successful raid and the murder of Fred Hampton. Bill O’Neal would go on to become a small business owner and gave only one interview detailing his history of informing in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He sheepishly defended himself as “someone actually in the struggle, not an armchair revolutionary,” and yet despite this apparent conviction expressed under darting eyes and a sweaty brow, O’Neal would commit suicide by walking into traffic the day the documentary premiered, on Martin Luther King Day, January 15th, 1990. Of course, Bill O’Neal was not the only informant serving the FBI. As the film details, the FBI utilized infiltrators to go from chapter to chapter who themselves initiated witch hunts against false informants, and any chapter which hosted the informant could be raided for “harboring a fugitive.” The history of this cloaked fascist reaction in the United States is an uncomfortable exposure that there is no democracy, not for oppressed nations, and not for the working class. 

On a technical level, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a sharply crafted work, with smooth editing, an immersive set design and costume scheme, and a dark, brooding score that captures both the danger that these revolutionaries found themselves in on a constant basis as well as the paralyzing fear that the films protagonistic rat, Bill O’Neal, lived with. There are also moments of tenderness and tragedy in the score and in the performances. Daniel Kaluuya in particular proved to be picture perfect for the charismatic, intelligent young man that was Fred Hampton. In a particular scene when Hampton is comforting the mother of a comrade slain by the police, there is a pronounced gravity to the Chairman even as he is humbling himself before this older, respected woman, apologizing to her for the loss of her child. His reservation turns to indignant resolve when she asks Hampton to “tell the people who my Jake really was.” A film can tell the truth, it can stand on its pulpit, but to move its audience to tears, to feel immersed in this world not too far removed from our own, and to respect these unsung heroes of a revolutionary history long forgotten is a tremendous artistic accomplishment. 

Thematically, the film, outside of its scathing criticism of informants such as Bill O’Neal, is very gently critical of certain aspects of the revolutionaries at the time that every class conscious worker would do well to study. In one scene, the machismo and chauvinism of certain candidate members was deconstructed by Hampton and a female cadre, compelling the over-confident O’Neal to recite the party policy on harassment and to exercise publicly. The necessity to organize a principled popular front against fascism and imperialist war was also central to the arc of Hampton in his supporting role. The most prominent secondary theme of the plot was the struggle of young couples to balance their revolutionary responsibility with protecting their partners and families, as Deborah Johnson (Akua Njere), a leading member of the Chicago chapter and Hampton’s partner, expresses fear for the safety of Hampton, herself, and their unborn child. This subplot culminates in an emotionally resonant affirmation to Fred to see after her family and the revolution both, something she ponders as “is there anything more radical than that?” 

In the final analysis, it is a wonder this film was made at all. At times, some films generally critical of capitalism, such as “Sorry to Bother You” and “Young Karl Marx” will be published by independent studios every few years to almost no media review or coverage and subsequently meager box office returns. But to whatever extent possible, it is certainly the duty of proletarian sources of media, such as the Red Phoenix, to review, platform, and promote such media as it speaks for the interests and strength of the working peoples. For the vanguard of the proletariat that is now under construction, these cultural achievements will remain poignant lessons of the importance of vigilance against infiltration, caution in the utilization of lumpen proletarians — Bill O’Neal confessed in one scene to suspicious Panther cadre that he was a serial carjacker, stopping short of how his arrest for these crimes led to his informant status for the FBI — and the utmost care in raising up the best cadre, true professional revolutionaries like Fred Hampton whose place can and will be filled in the march of the proletariat towards victory. With the betrayal of Fred Hampton, judged by the FBI as a “Black Messiah,” Judas O’Neal got his 30 pieces of silver in a few hundred dollars and the keys to a gas station, as well as a short life in the shadows, living in fear and disgust as befits all rats. 

This Black History Month, the American Party of Labor is proud to review and recommend this film to all proletarians, and to oppressed peoples in particular, who feel our hard-fought progress coming under fire by a reactionary Supreme Court, a doddering president, and a cesspit of state legislatures nested by the most reactionary vultures imaginable. Though we have suffered, we have lost such heroes, lost so many battles, the courage and wisdom of our class and peoples is to adapt, to pick up the banners of the fallen and surge forward, knowing now where the enemy trains its guns, not just in stormtroopers and tanks but in spies and rats.

Categories: Media & Culture, Movies

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