Judas and the Black Messiah: Shining a light on overlooked Black history
The American education system has long failed and erased Black history. From eliminating the early history of African Americans that began long before slavery, to censoring the cruelty that took place against Black Americans before, during, and after the Civil rights movement, American history has been told through a white lens. It is because of this that many monumental Black figures and events have been redacted or watered down by systems that do not give appropriate weight to Black curriculum. This morphed and segmented version of history is exactly why Judas and the Black Messiah is a crucial and impactful film. It utilizes historical filmmaking in a way that educates individuals about glossed over events of the past.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a tense, historical drama centered around the assassination of Fred Hampton (Golden Globe winner Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, at the hands of the F.B.I and the Chicago police in 1969. These systems of force were able to invade Hampton and the Panthers with the help of William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a thief turned F.B.I informant after he is caught with a stolen vehicle. Given the choice of either prison time or infiltrating the Panther Party, O’Neal picks the latter and begins to communicate with F.B.I agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) about the activities of Hampton and the Chicago chapter.
Fred Hampton was murdered at the young age of 21 but was able to rise to prominence and power long before. Since the events of the film deal with the year leading up to his death, we do not get to witness the full extent of Hampton’s charisma, intelligence, and community organization skills. We do get snippets as Hampton assembles a multicultural coalition, gives passionate speeches delivered with powerful accuracy by Kaluuya, and creates medical clinics and community food programs in Chicago. What was perhaps most poignant about the movie were the gorgeous pieces of Hampton’s humanity displayed through small but impactful moments of connection. Whether it was the relationship with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) or his sheer love for the Panther community, we saw the man behind the movement, making his loss all the more tragic. On the other end, Bill O’Neal was only 17 when he was recruited to spy on the Black Panther party. The audience does not receive tremendous insight into the character of O’Neal, as his motivations and identity are kept fairly ambiguous, which was perhaps done purposely to center the narrative more on Hampton’s legacy. There are hints of complexity into the character as he starts to receive more expensive bribes, enticing him further into corruption. Although O’Neal technically fills the role as one of the “bad guys” in the story, we must remember the power that the corrupt law enforcement system held over Bill.
The title of the film is meant to invoke obvious similarities to the Biblical story. Hampton was coined the “Black Messiah” by the F.B.I because they perceived him as a grave threat to a white-dominated society for his ability to entrance a crowd and unite individuals towards revolution. They saw Black militants as a danger to national security and even went as far to compare the Panthers to the Ku Klux Klan. This rationalization, along with monetary bribes, was used to further coerce O’Neal into becoming the Judas of the story. For a country that has deep Christian roots and values, they still turned against the one they called a Messiah and went as far to create their own Judas. In the same sense, it makes the audience see Hampton as a Jesus figure for the Black community and leaves us wondering what more he would have done with his life if not cut short by corrupt forces.
There is no mistaking the comparisons between the events in Judas and the Black Messiah with present-day society. The Black Panthers armed themselves with ideologies of Black nationalism and socialism and rallied against police brutality. Systematic racism is still a prominent problem in America, as is the presence of white supremacy in law enforcement. Video footage that plays during the credits shows marches in honor of Fred Hampton’s life evokes similar connections to the BLM marches that continue to take place today. Hampton’s murder is carried out in his own home, just as Breonna Taylor’s life was taken while she was sleeping in her own bed.
The Black Panther party has never been given the prominence it deserves in history, education, and media, but Judas and the Black Messiah helps to shine a truthful light on overlooked pictures of the past. It successfully deters from the framework of telling Black stories from white perspectives (I’m looking at you Green Book and The Help) and tells a story to educate all people alike through a solely Black lens. Although films are a matter of artistic expression and should not be taken as the only source for historical knowledge, they should inspire people to delve into subjects of Black history that books tend to neglect.