Judas and the Black Messiah – In the Struggle
New York magazine|February 15–28, 2021
Is it possible to make a convincing Hollywood movie about an anti-capitalist radical?

There’s the truth. To watch footage of Fred Hampton—the Illinois Black Panther Party chairman slain by the twin forces of the FBI and the Chicago Police Department in 1969 at a mere 21 years of age—is to be pulled in by magnetism as expansive as his politics. Whether making speeches or debating with other organizers, Hampton blended earthy intimacy with the patter of a Baptist preacher. His approach to community organizing was bold, undergirded by a belief in the power of and need for cross-racial, cross-cultural solidarity. He was intelligent, able to imagine a necessary socialist future. It’s for this reason that he was a threat to the racist, imperialist power structures that govern this country.

Hampton also had all the complexities that make us human. Yet there was no moment while watching Judas and the Black Messiah, the film based on his murder when I felt a hint of emotion. I felt no swell of joy at the exceedingly brief moments of Black communion. No warmth while watching the thinly developed romance between Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and Deborah (Dominique Fishback), who connect over Malcolm X's speeches. I didn’t even feel horror witnessing the bloody violence wrought by white hands. Judas gets neither the beauty and complications of Blackness nor does it capture the outright depravity of white supremacy. From the poorly developed performances to the muddled script, this film, by co-writer and director Shaka King and producer Ryan Coogler, fails the history it seeks to embody.

Judas and the Black Messiah positions itself as the story of a man primed to lose his soul—not Hampton but Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief posing as an FBI agent to pull confidence games. When O’Neal is caught by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), he is given the option of embedding with the Black Panther Party as an FBI informant instead of going to jail. O’Neal is our window into the world and history Judas is aching to inhabit, and the film splits its focus between his life and Hampton’s—while never wholly developing the concerns or interiority of either.

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