The magnificence and the tragedy of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party

Daniel Kaluuya burning up the screen as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah
Daniel Kaluuya burning up the screen as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah
Directed by Shaka King, written by Shaka King, Will Berson
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback
In cinemas and then streaming

Fred Hampton was 21 years old in December 1969 when the Chicago police murdered him in cold blood.

He had been politically active for only three years. But in that time he rose to be the deputy national leader of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the chair of its Illinois chapter.

He famously wove together an unlikely coalition of community forces in Chicago. His Rainbow Coalition included street gangs that had previously been warring with each other, like the Crowns and the Young Lords, plus poor white groups like the Young Patriots Organization and even churches.

Had Hampton’s unity efforts succeeded he would have increased the BPP's national membership several fold.

That united front work put Hampton on the radar of arch-reactionary FBI boss J Edgar Hoover. Hoover was alert to the danger of a Black leader emerging who could forge an interracial, working-class movement dangerous to US capitalism — a “messiah”.

Black leaders on Hoover’s “messiah” list, which included Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, had a terrible habit of dying in a hail of bullets.

In Judas and the Black Messiah you can hear Hampton’s electrifying oratory performed to perfection by Daniel Kaluuya. He brings an urgency and intensity to the role that burns up the screen.

His character is rounded out in his loving relationship with his Panther comrade Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who gave birth to their child days after Hampton’s assassination.

It is made clear in the film that Panther women were no mere appendages of the males. There are some fierce women warriors depicted.

The film is very impressive — just having the Panthers brought to life is magnificent — but it has minor defects.

LaKeith Stanfield performs well as the traitor Bill O’Neal, who infiltrated the Panthers for the FBI and directly contributed to Hampton’s death. But the script doesn’t quite clarify his motivations.

Was O’Neal simply spying for the money, of which he made plenty over the years? Or was he acting out of fear of imprisonment, which the FBI kept hanging over his head?

There is a suggestion here that he was mired in a co-dependent relationship with his FBI handler. All these motivations fly past inconclusively.

In real life O’Neal was a far more active and evil agent than is portrayed in this film.

Under FBI orders he created an armed confrontation between the Panthers and a huge Chicago street gang, the Blackstone Rangers, politically isolating the Panthers. He also fomented discord between the Panthers and the mostly-white Students for a Democratic Society.

After Hampton’s assassination O’Neal continued spying for the FBI for years.

The film barely touches upon the Panther politics. We are shown a political education class that hinges on a Maoist slogan: “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed."

There is footage freely available on You Tube of Fred Hampton saying far more politically astute things than are shown in this film.

In reality the Panthers always suffered from an organisational confusion.

Was the BPP a community-based, mutual-aid service organisation patiently building a mass-based political party or was it the nucleus of a revolutionary army on the verge of an urban guerrilla struggle? Those two things are mutually contradictory.

At its peak the BPP’s weekly newspaper had a circulation of 250,000. Their political influence spread far beyond the Black community.

As Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin explain in their history of the Panthers, Black Against Empire, the BPP began as a community defence organisation. But with the death squad tsunami unleashed on them by the Nixon presidency that relationship reversed — they were desperately forced to ask the Black community to defend them.

Within two years of Nixon’s election 28 Panthers were dead, many others were caught up in long, drawn out court battles and allies like Angela Davis were persecuted out of their jobs.

Thoroughly infiltrated by FBI agents, the BPP became insular and eventually torn apart by police-initiated disputes and internal witch hunts. Those who led the demoralising hunt for police agents were often agents themselves.

It is a pity the producers could not find actors closer to the real age of Hampton and O’Neal. One of the most outstanding features of the Panthers was their youthfulness and Kaluuya, unfortunately, looks his 32 years.

The tragedy of the Panthers was their youthful impatience and the murderous repression that prevented them from developing a truly clear politics. However, as shown in this film, their integrity and courage were above reproach.

It speaks volumes about US society that Fred Hampton’s murder still echoes after 50 years. The country’s racist contradictions are still unresolved.

Seven minutes of extraordinary footage of Fred Hampton speaking can be seen here.