Stirring Judas and the Black Messiah leaves more to tell

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“You can kill a revolutionary but you can never kill the revolution.” The making of the film Judas and the Black Messiah and the widespread recognition it inspires demonstrates that Fred Hampton’s quote is true. Passionate interest in revolutionaries will not cease until we are rid of capitalism.

This fact-based film is about the 1969 FBI murder, with the help of an informer, of Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party (BPP). Hampton was in the process of uniting activists and groups across racial lines to create a movement to fight racism and poverty with a revolutionary program. It is a moving and significant film which provides to a wide audience crucial history of a much loved and mourned U.S. Black revolutionary.

Fred Hampton was played by Daniel Kaluuya who won Best Supporting Actor at the 2021 Academy Awards. The film earned six nominations, including Best Picture.

This tale of Hampton’s betrayal at the hands of FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) was produced and directed by three Black filmmakers: Shaka King, Ryan Coogler, and Charles D. King. Lending authenticity to the story was Akua Njeri, Hampton’s pregnant fiancee (then named Deborah Johnson), who survived the massacre. She and her son Fred Hampton Jr. were consultants. Deborah was ably played by actor Dominique Fishback.

The film includes vital scenes of 21-year-old Hampton building a Rainbow Coalition (prior to Jesse Jackson’s in the ’80s) with groups of poor white people (the Young Patriots), Puerto Ricans and Latinos (the Young Lords), radical socialist community groups, and Black street gangs. The BPP’s breakfast program and, briefly, their solidarity with international struggles are on screen.

In one scene the FBI agent who recruited O’Neal claims he’s for civil rights but also that the KKK and the Panthers are the same, sowing terror and division. The FBI’s bigotry and trickery are clearly exposed and J. Edgar Hoover is accurately shown as viciously racist and murderous.

Neglect of Hampton’s politics. Unfortunately the film splits the focus with the “Judas.” Centering on the betrayer is a worn out trope in films dealing with martyred challengers to the capitalist system. Well-known Chicago rapper and activist Noname, (born Fatimah Nyeema Warner) passed on being on the soundtrack because “It’s a movie about an informant. … It was shot beautifully, the acting was amazing … but Fred is secondary and his radical communist politics are centered, [not] at all.”

Some reviews call Hampton a Maoist, and The New York Times correctly calls him a Marxist-Leninist. However, if the words Marx or Lenin are in the film I missed them.

Deborah Johnson’s important relationship to Hampton is evident, but more focus on her role and that of other female leaders could have deepened the view of Panthers’ politics. At its height BPP membership was over 60% women so obviously they were crucial. How many know that the Panthers called for the means of production to be taken from white capitalist businessmen and given to the community to employ all its people with a high standard of living? They called for decent housing, full employment or a guaranteed income, an end to police murder, and much more.

Lessons for today. Black led, multiracial revolutionary organizing is as essential today as in 1969. The surveillance and violence of the FBI and police are more dangerous. Many Black activists and Panthers — elderly, impoverished and ill — are still in prison or struggling to survive outside.

Hampton’s words are still imperative. “We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. … We’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism … with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.” May this film create a resurgent interest into the real history and revolutionary politics of the Black Panther Party!

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