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A Sledgehammer: Review of Judas and the Black Messiah

A revolutionary socialist and Left Voice correspondent who met Fred Hampton in 1969 reviews the new Fred Hampton biopic, Judas and the Black Messiah.

Rob Lyons

March 1, 2021
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The actor Daniel Kaluuya in character as Fred Hampton. He is standing in front of a microphone looking serious and concerned, with other Black activists standing behind him.

If, as Berthold Brecht postulates, art is a hammer which shapes reality, then great art is a sledgehammer which clears away the dross and beats reality into a form that lays bare the interconnections of social being. Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, detailing the assassination of former Illinois Black Panther Party Chairperson Fred Hampton, is a work of great art.

While watching this movie again and again, I was bothered by a question: how could such a great political film, which lays bare the institutional racism reaching to the highest levels of the state organs, and reinforces the demand to disarm, defund and abolish the police raised by the Black Lives Matter Movement, be made? Why this movie, at this time, especially given the political context, which has also seen the evidence of the collusion between the police, the FBI, and the politicos in the assassination of Malcolm X?

After all, the making of a movie with such fine production values as Judas and the Black Messiah is not cheap, in this case an estimated $26,000,000, which isn’t chump change, but is well below the average cost of $65,000,000 for a typical Hollywood movie.

I was not satisfied by the easy explanation that it was the result of the Black Lives Matter uprising, which has radically changed political dynamics in the U.S. and has reactivated the Black movement for civil rights and liberation. After all, there have been the civil rights movements in the past, and a civil war fought by Black soldiers on the side of the Union resulted in a racist movie like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Even films like Mississippi Burning, while showing racism, tended to reduce it to particular individuals at a particular time, in reality obfuscating the essential racist nature of the capitalist state apparatus.

This time, something is different, and I think that the “something different” finally reflects the change in the composition of the U.S. working class. Black and Brown workers are becoming the majority, for example more than 50 percent of California’s workforce is of Latinx descent. Also, more people of color have entered the ranks of the petit bourgeoisie and thus have the financial wherewithal to help bankroll artistic productions.

This “something different” is reflected in a change of consciousness emerging among the growing layer of activists associated with the Black liberation movement, where important breaks with the traditional graveyard of social movements, the Democratic Party, and its careerist Black sheep dogs are happening. This can be seen in the repudiation by Black Lives Matter-Inland Empire and the BLM10, representing large chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement, of the unaccountable and Democratic Party promoters and self-proclaimed leaders of the BLM Global Network, who in 2020 alone raked in $90,000,000 in donations.

The growth in the number of Black filmmakers like Boots Riley and Shaka King are also evidence of this. In a certain sense, the production of Judas and the Black Messiah represents that leap in consciousness catching up to the class realities of life in the U.S.

A Nearly Perfect Film

Spoiler alert. I am not going to describe the film’s scenes, other than in a very general sense, because you need to see this film without preconceived images in your head.

In nearly every way, Judas and the Black Messiah is a perfect film. Like all great art, its essential message is more, much more than the overt content. From the screenplay, by Shaka King and Will Berson, who strip away any potential superfluous filler, to the marvelous acting of Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton), LaKeith Stanfield (William O’Neal), Dominique Fishback (Deborah Johnson) and Jesse Plemons (Roy Mitchell) in lead roles, to the supporting cast of Dominique Thorne (Judy Harmon), Algee Smith (Jake Winters), Martin Sheen (J. Edgar Hoover), Terayle Hill (George Sams) and all the rest of those actors who populate the screen, do so with a presence and an understanding of the intention of the work.

The background music, mostly stark and which hits you like a blast, is formed for the most part from the two most important notes in the Blues scale, the third and the flat seventh, signaling the importance of the scene by its level of intensity. Even the closing song, “I’ll Fight for You” by H.E.R. allows the film to create a denouement which is not an end, but just another beginning.

The movie is simply outstanding in its ability to capture the raw essence of the times. Credit for that must go to Fred Hampton Jr. and his mother, Deborah Johnson, now known as Akua Njeri, who acted as cultural advisors to director King, and to Njeri who acted as a personal advisor to Dominique Fishman.

Every scene is riveting and connected with the underlying thematic layers which form the basis of not only the plot and storyline, but with this tragedy of immense proportions. Judas and the Black Messiah is the Greek tragedy tradition writ modern. It’s a story of contrasts between William O’Neal, a car thief and minor criminal turned FBI informant, George Sams, another FBI operative, on the one hand, and Fred Hampton, Deborah Johnson, Mark Clarke (also killed in the police assassination of Hampton), Jake Winters, and all those members and allies of the Panthers, the Young Patriots, the Young Lords, and the gangs like The Crowns, who know which side of the class struggle they are on.

O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield in an edgy, never comfortable, never authentic persona, is a person without moral redemption. He is given choices, multiple times, most unpalatable but choices nonetheless, to act in an honorable fashion, to refuse to bow to the pressures placed upon him by the FBI and the circumstances which surrounded him.

His actions and those of the other FBI informant Sams, are contrasted with the choices of sacrifice, selflessness, and death chosen by Hampton, Clark, Johnson and all the others in the community of resistance which the Panther Party represented. The greatness in the art of this film is in the uncompromising portrayal of the contrast between choices which all the main characters face, including those made by O’Neal’s FBI handler, Agent Roy Mitchell, when confronted with the stark and vile racism of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and those who surrounded him.

Certainly, while the events of Hampton’s assassination took place more than 50 years ago, the context of the fight for Black liberation is as fresh as tomorrow’s next ‘cop kills innocent Black person’ headline. The Black Lives Matter uprising triggered by the cop murders is the intense backdrop which frames the context of the essential theme of Judas and the Black Messiah.

The message of the film is clear and plain: be like Fred Hampton, not like William O’Neal. What matters is the legacy of your commitment to building a better world.

So let me say a few words about how some people have criticized this film, seeing it as demoralizing or as promoting hopelessness, After watching the film three times, and noting carefully how it was structured, that is not a conclusion I drew. It is an exposition of the raw reality which faces revolutionaries in the imperialist centers, and doesn’t try to hide, romanticize, or prettify the ways in which the state will try and eliminate all those who present a threat to capitalist rule.

This is the naked lunch, real life on the fork of reality with which you are confronted by the life and death choices. I found Judas and the Black Messiah life affirming, symbolized by the birth of Fred Hampton Jr. 25 days after his father was murdered, and with the knowledge that his mother and he are both active in the movement, and that some of the work initiated by the BPP is still making a difference. You can kill revolutionaries, but you can’t kill the Revolution.

The song by H.E.R. is itself a song of solidarity to those willing to pick up the torch, knowing full well that the road ahead will be hard traveling. 

A Personal Note

In November, 1969, I was a newly hired political organizer operating in Regina, Saskatchewan. The University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus, Students Union had invited Fred Hampton to speak to the student body about the struggles of the Black Panther Party in the U.S.A. and the fight for Black liberation in context of the rising level of police repression.

I got to meet him as part of a group of political activists which had helped organize his visit. Hampton and his two associates were on a speaking tour of Canadian universities to raise money for the Bobby Seale Defense Fund.

His speech was electric, shocking to the 700 almost all white student body attendees, with the exception of several First nations and Metis students, including Harry Daniels, who was to become national president for the Metis Association of Canada. Most had never heard the police being referred to as “pigs.”

The theme I most remember is Hampton’s stress on the unity amongst the oppressed peoples of the earth. His viewpoint was that of a revolutionary Marxist, internationalist to the core, who stressed the similarities of the oppression people of colour faced, and the need for revolutionaries of all countries to work together.

At the end of his speech, he spoke about the repression by the Chicago Police Department and the work of the FBI in assassinating the national leaders of his party. He prophesied that he would probably be dead within the year. He was assassinated two weeks later.

On December 12, 1969, the political activists in the city of Regina organized a candlelight march from the campus to the headquarters of the city police department to protest the police murder of Fred Hampton and a 19 year old Metis youth, shot and killed by the police the previous day. Regina has a history of radical actions. It is the spiritual home of the socialist movement in Canada and of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, whose Regina Manifesto declared in stirring tones that “We shall not rest until Capitalism is eradicated.”

Of all the political struggles during those days, and in the decades to come, helping to organize this statement of resistance on a cold winter’s night was one of the acts I remember most vividly and most proudly adding to the list of Regina’s radical tradition. 

The choices Fred Hampton makes in Judas and the Black Messiah, are the choices that he made in real life. His choice to become a revolutionary is the choice all those who wish to change the world are or will be confronted with. This film, like a sledgehammer changing reality, will be an aid in helping people make that choice.

See this film.

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Rob Lyons

Rob Lyons joined the Canadian section of the USFI in 1971, after a stint as a journalist who covered the Prague Autumn of 1968, and as political organizer for the New Democratic Youth, the left wing youth group of the Canadian labour party based on the trade unions. Until recently, he was the International Coordinator for Socialist Action/Ligue pour lÁction Socialiste, a Canadian Trotskyist organization excluded from the EUSecFI, and in that capacity attended the founding conference of the Tendency for a Revolutionary International. He has been a wilderness and air ambulance pilot, a trade union organizer, and elected union leader, and for 10 years was an elected member of the Saskatchewan, Canada, provincial legislature representing a heavily unionized, working class constituency. He presently writes political commentary and organizes from a working class barrio in southern Costa Rica.

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