By Jordyn Perry
Judas and the Black Messiah is an HBO film depicting the death, and the events that preceded it, of revolutionary Black leader Fred Hampton. In summation, Fred Hampton was a 21-year-old activist within the Chicago sect of the Black Panther Party, lauded for his ability to speak and unite groups who typically would not see eye to eye. Specifically, the film highlighted his plans for a “Rainbow Coalition,” or, a group including Black, Puerto Rican, and poor white people united to combat police brutality education inequality. A portion of the movie was dedicated to depicting the good that Hampton and the rest of the Party were doing, though this was not the primary focus. In actuality, the focus of the film was William O’Neal, the informant who poisoned Hampton, gave the FBI the floor plan of his home, and subsequently got him assassinated. Although the film did highlight the Party’s Free Breakfast Program, some of Hampton’s speeches, and a little bit of his personal life, the primary purpose of the film was to portray all that O’Neal was doing, the psychological toll being an informant took on him, and ultimately his role in Hampton’s death. While I do think that both Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, who played Fred Hampton and William O’Neal respectively, did an incredible job with their roles, this film left me with a few questions.
The initial thought I had upon watching the first scenes of the movie was: “Why does Hampton look so old?” At the time of his death in 1969, Fred Hampton was only 21 years old, meaning that for the majority of the movie he would have been twenty. Daniel Kaluuya is 32 years old. Like I said, I think Kaluuya executed the role well; however, I do not think that he should have been given the role in the first place. Fred Hampton was young. He was only two years removed from high school age, and if you have ever watched one of his speeches, you can tell by the way his face looks. Kaluuya is a grown man, not a young adult like Hampton was. Allowing a 30-year-old to play Hampton was detrimental to the movie because it artificially aged him, which inherently minimizes the fact that one of the key reasons for his murder was his young age. A large part of what the FBI, the CPD, the informants, and every other person mobilizing against Hampton did to turn people against him was to paint him as a violent, murderous, hateful grown man. The effort to adultify young Black revolutionaries, and the adultification of young Black people in general, is not something that should be disregarded. Allowing Kaluuya to play this character as if Hampton was not closer to childhood than adulthood unintentionally did just that. He was twenty-one years old. He was my age when he had the entire FBI, local police force, and hundreds of other people mobilize against him and that is a very important part of this story. O’Neal got Hampton killed before he had even reached all of the things that could have been accomplished. The FBI knew all of the things that Hampton was capable of doing even at such a young age, they knew his power, and because of that they killed him. This piece of the story is so incredibly important, and casting a 32-year-old man to play this role ignores that. I find it hard to believe that they could not have found an actor who could execute that role just as well as Kaluuya and is also in the proper age range, and I think choosing not to do this really ignored a huge aspect of the story of Hampton’s death. The United States government assassinated multiple Black revolutionaries, including Hampton, in young adulthood because they were afraid of their power and their voices. This part of Hampton’s story was something that deserved to be told, and the film failed to do so.
In addition to the age of Kaluuya, there was a lingering thought in the back of my mind throughout the entirety of the film: would Fred Hampton and the other members of the Chicago Black Panther Party even support this? If you have ever listened to even just one of Hampton’s speeches, then you would know that he is staunchly anti-capitalism. Hampton explicitly said, “Racism is an excuse used for capitalism, racism is the byproduct of capitalism,” and he called out the individuals who believed that Black capitalism is the way to get freedom for Black Americans. He said, “We’re not going to fight capitalism with Black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.” Hampton was strongly against capitalism and capitalistic ideals, so does it really make sense to produce a 26-million-dollar movie about an organization and an individual who advocated against capitalism? I’m not sure that it does, and I think that the way that this film watered down, and in some parts blatantly ignored Hampton’s anti-capitalism and other radical political ideals is very demonstrative of Hollywood’s tendency to not make actual liberation films for Black people. Instead, they make films to satisfy white people’s desire to witness Black destruction and tragedy, without ruffling political feathers. After all, in what way does a song entitled “Rich Nigga Problems” at all embody the ideals of Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers? Why was Hampton’s real-life son, whom the film only briefly touched on through the lens of his mother’s pregnancy, struggling to keep Hampton’s childhood home in the family while a movie about his father’s murder and a snitch netted over three million dollars domestically? Why are there still activists and organizers on the west side, who are doing a lot of the work that the Black Panthers tried to do in the past, struggling to pay rent and attain the funds needed to fix the community while they spent 26 million dollars on a film about the same area? Why did this movie happen when so many of the Black Panthers and other Black revolutionaries are still political prisoners or traumatized from the behavior of the United States Government in the 60s and 70s? This movie was not about Fred Hampton, the Black Panthers, or Black liberation. It was about depicting an FBI informant’s destruction and profiting off of Black trauma and violence, all while blatantly contradicting the political ideas of Hampton and the Party.
This brings me to the final question I had while watching this film: why am I learning more about William O’Neal, an informant, than I am about Fred Hampton, a revolutionary?
It is a little frustrating to me that there is very little writing on Hampton (and definitely not a biographical movie) in addition to how it can be difficult to find full recordings of his speeches. There is so little easily accessed information out there about Fred Hampton, and instead of depicting his life, his family's lives, or his comrades' lives, they choose to make an entire movie surrounding the man who tore down the organization. Truthfully, there was very little focus on the life of Hampton outside of his speeches and duties within the Black Panthers. There were a handful of scenes depicting his and his girlfriend’s struggles with the ideas of maintaining their relationship while he was in prison and being parents in such a violent environment, but the main character whose psychology was in focus was O’Neal’s. In fact, it almost felt like we learned more about Hampton from the perspective of O’Neal than Hampton himself or his actual comrades. Personally, I have no interest in learning about a revolutionary through the eyes of an informant, nor do I have an interest in how mentally challenging it was for that individual to be an informant.
This brings me back to the idea that this is another Black trauma film created for white audiences’ incessant need to consume Black violence and destruction. If this movie were for Black people, it would not have focused on the Black man who tore down an organization, but instead the Black man who dedicated his life to the liberation of Black Americans. All of this is not to say that I hated the film. I found it interesting and I felt that the acting was excellent, however I believe that it’s important that we acknowledge the film for what it was. The film was not for us. The purpose of the film was for Warner Brothers to make millions of dollars catering to the parasitic desires of white audiences. The purpose of the film was to depict intracommunity destruction. The purpose of the film was to create yet another movie about Black people dying. This is a typical pattern that I see in Hollywood, and because of this, I was not at all surprised by the disregard for Hampton’s age and his anti-capitalism views or the focus on O’Neal, but I had hope that maybe it would surprise me. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Judas and the Black Messiah is not a bad film if you qualify “bad” based on acting and production, however, it was not at all a proper account of Fred Hampton. Hampton was so much more than his assassination, but unfortunately, the writers of this film chose to ignore this.