Judas and the Black Messiah

One Punk Goes to the Movies: “Judas and the Black Messiah” by James Rosario

In many ways, Judas and the Black Messiah is the film I’ve been waiting to see for nearly thirty years. 

Let me explain.

You see, back in the early-1990s, I went to high school in the dumbest place in America. There’s no use even arguing about it. The small town, ignorant education I got when I was a freshman and sophomore in that nowhere western Wisconsin hole in the ground was nothing more than propagandic nonsense. As a burgeoning fifteen-year-old punk rocker and skateboarder, this was just about the worst place a kid could’ve wound up. Because verbal and physical harassment from fellow students, teachers, police, and random passersby was a constant reality, my friends and I formed a tightknit group who always had each other’s backs. This was common in the early-’90s, and whenever we’d travel to other towns to skate or hang out, it was easy to spot our fellow comrades in arms by their torn-up skate shoes and homemade punk shirts. The constant battle we lived made us fiercely defiant and extremely jaded toward anything even resembling conformity or establishment—which is how we all became interested in radical politics and progressive movements. 

Most of the teachers at that shitty school dismissed us as losers and slackers, but a few recognized what was really going on. My American History teacher, for example, put a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in my hand and my English teacher tried desperately in vain to teach A Raisin in the Sun to the snickering class, and so wound up basically just talking to me about it. To this end, the school library became the de facto punk rock hangout. As we were among the few students who actually cared about learning anything beyond the propaganda being forced on us, we were welcomed by (most of) the staff. 

One day—after noticing my Rage Against The Machine t-shirt (the old one with Che Guevara on it), and, after realizing I was unaware of whose face I was wearing—a school librarian put a few books and a list of microform call numbers in my hands. The books were about the civil rights movement, the Cold War, and labor movements (the best progressive titles available in the school’s meager, right-leaning collection), but the microform went much deeper. I was shown how to use the viewing machine, conduct my own research, and print my findings (generously, printing charges were waived for punks who wanted to learn the truth about movements vilified by our teachers). I eagerly dove into the rabbit hole.

One of my first major discoveries was the existence of COINTELPRO—the FBI-led counterintelligence program that targeted left-leaning, anti-war, and Civil Rights activist groups in the 1960s and ’70s (something I’ve written about before). I was instantly taken—shocked, really—by the lengths and tactics the government (our government) used against its own people. Learning these truths was an extremely liberating experience, and even though I was stuck in that awful town and that terrible school, I was becoming free. This is how I learned about the assassination of Fred Hampton. It was 1993 and I was a sixteen-year-old white kid in a small-town Wisconsin high school library—and I had just become radicalized (more on that here).

Films like Judas and the Black Messiah—black written, black directed, black produced, and black acted—are proof positive that not only is there a cinematic reckoning on the horizon, but more importantly, there are cultural and historical ones on the way as well. 

In the space between then and now, Hollywood has let slip a whole host of films that tread similar waters as Judas and the Black Messiah, but, unfortunately, they’ve been either hamstrung by budgets or fallen victim to a glossed-over composite treatment (meaning, they’re only surface-level glimpses of complex and far-reaching historical events, personalities, and themes)—or they’ve simply been ignored by mainstream (i.e. white) audiences. To name drop just a few from the ’90s alone, the works of Spike Lee come to mind, as do those of John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers. Combined, these filmographies have had a righteous fist raised at the white Hollywood establishment for decades, even though most in it weren’t ready to listen or recognize them past the dollar signs they supplied. It now seems, however, that the industry is finally beginning to catch up to the messaging. Directors like Steve McQueen, Jordan Peele, Regina King, and Ryan Coogler are shattering barriers, and films like Judas and the Black Messiah—black written, black directed, black produced, and black acted—are proof positive that not only is there a cinematic reckoning on the horizon, but more importantly, there are cultural and historical ones on the way as well. 

The events leading up to the assassination of Fred Hampton have been a matter of public record for decades, but have always remained a rather hushed topic outside certain progressive circles. Experience has taught me that making those outside these circles understand that, yes, the United States government really did wage a war against its own people using disinformation, infiltration, and assassination is a hard sell to those whose heads are planted willfully and firmly in the sand. Worse still are those who are open to the idea of law enforcement’s use of nefarious and unscrupulous tactics, but have so internalized the lies they’ve been taught that their gut reaction is to assume that “those criminals must have deserved it.” 

In examining the revolutionary life and death of Hampton (played powerfully by Daniel Kaluuya in the film), Judas and the Black Messiah defines a clear enemy (FBI and Chicago PD), but stops just shy of painting the titular “Judas” as a strictly evil man. In many ways, William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, in an extremely nuanced and gritty performance)—the FBI informant who infiltrated the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1967—could be considered a victim as well. This may seem counterintuitive considering Hampton’s death was a direct result of O’Neal’s actions, but with the bureau’s known track record of using intimidation and lies to coerce potential informants, the FBI can be a highly motivating organization—especially to a scared seventeen-year-old kid who’s just been busted in a stolen car. 

What Judas and the Black Messiah doesn’t do—and by extension asks us to do for ourselves—is get to the revolutionary heart of Hampton himself. Some of the film’s negative criticism stems from director Shaka King’s decision not to showcase Hampton more prominently, opting instead to focus on the activities of O’Neal—a decision I happen to agree with the director on. 

Director Shaka King chooses instead to simply plant seeds of knowledge in the audience and then encourage those seeds to grow through personal exploration and research. He has chosen to give us an assignment, not to do our homework for us. 

One of the major shortcomings of strict biopics (especially ones about political figures) is that they fail to adequately capture the energy of the movements they depict. All too often, famous speeches and well-documented events have an air of inauthenticity that seems forced and staged rather than energizing and inspiring. The reason for this is simple: they are forced and staged. No matter the talent of the actors, the power of the words, or the skill of the director, cinematographer and editor, it is nearly impossible to recapture the lighting in a bottle on film—and King knows this. Ditching an over-reliance on recreated, truncated speeches or long-winded expository dialogue, he chooses instead to simply plant seeds of knowledge in the audience and then encourage those seeds to grow through personal exploration and research. He has chosen to give us an assignment, not to do our homework for us. 

Shaka King wants us, as Hampton did, to pick sides. Are you with the people or are you with the pigs?

Additionally, turning the focus towards the conflicted O’Neal offers an opportunity to further expose the corrupt strong-arm approaches used by the FBI and their enablers. King may not be able to convince a white audience of the magnitude of Hampton’s presence and the importance he played in the Civil Rights movement outright (despite Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield’s monumental performances), but he can demonstrate how at just twenty-one, Hampton was viciously targeted by establishment power structures who feared what he represented. Along with daring us to explore Hampton and his ideas, King is challenging us to scrutinize how we view the historically documented extralegal tactics approved by the highest branches of government that were, and are, used against American citizens. In short, he wants us, as Hampton did, to pick sides. Are you with the people or are you with the pigs?

As I learned when I was sixteen, those whose ideologies (or lack thereof) are entrenched in white establishment spin are unlikely to hear the words of Fred Hampton or the Black Panther Party with anything but revulsion. They simply won’t listen to or are incapable of understanding their concepts. Further, these same people have demonstrated time and again their ability to use mental gymnastics and apologist tactics to make excuses for law enforcement’s continued brutalization of people of color, among other things. This unwillingness is dangerous and irresponsible, and as Judas and the Black Messiah points out, is also nothing new.

Sadly, the film’s final terrifying minutes are a foregone conclusion. For those who have ever cared to know, what happened to Fred Hampton in the early morning hours of December 4th, 1969 at the hands of the Chicago Police Department is well documented. This knowledge bathes the film in an unmistakable gloom, yet through an almost overpowering despair shines an inspiring, intense energy, fueled by both righteous anger and visions of meaningful change. Judas and the Black Messiah possesses an intangible quality that angers and enlightens all at once, but also feels just right for the moment—even though the specifics of its story are over fifty years old. 

Will the industry continue to embrace these new powerful voices who aren’t afraid to call bullshit on establishment propaganda? My sixteen-year-old self hopes to hell it does, but my forty-three-year-old self hopes these important artists instead just take the motherfucker over completely.

Will the industry continue to embrace these new powerful voices who aren’t afraid to call bullshit on establishment propaganda? My sixteen-year-old self hopes to hell it does, but my forty-three-year-old self hopes these important artists instead just take the motherfucker over completely.