‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ and De-Radicalizing Revolutionaries

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The Shaka King film “Judas and the Black Messiah” premiered on Feb. 12 and has gone on to receive rave reviews and a Golden Globe award. The film tells the story of the assassination of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton. The film follows Bill O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield, as the FBI’s informant whose betrayal of Hampton led to his murder. While the film is extremely well made and acted, with Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Hampton being a standout and winning the actor a Golden Globe, the film seems to be hesitant to show the full spectrum of Hampton and the Black Panther Party’s ideology.  

In the film, Hampton talks about achieving socialism and being a socialist revolutionary. While this is accurate to Hampton and is not misplaced, it fails to consider the audience of the film. “Socialism” has become increasingly popular among many young people in the United States in the past few years. However, the ideology of socialism espoused by these young people is largely not at all the ideology of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. Let’s get this out of the way: Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party, including individuals like Assata Shakur, Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis, were communists — specifically, Marxist Leninists. They did not espouse socialism as conceived by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America. While Hampton does recite quotes from revolutionaries like Mao Zedong, this is done so quickly that while I recognized the quotes, I was not sure at first whether or not the film acknowledged who said them. This might leave audiences with the conception that the Black Panthers were basically Bernie Bros with guns that took a more militant attitude during the Civil Rights Movement, but who basically were just more radical in appearance and rhetoric, and believed the same things as these young modern individuals. This is not the truth though. Hampton and the Party were far more likely to criticize and be themselves criticized by such modern figures and organizations. This quote by Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin pretty much sums up the phenomena just described above: “During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them … robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”  

Another way the film largely waters down the revolutionary character of Hampton and his organization is in the nature of the story itself. Hampton himself is not really the main character. Instead, O’Neal is the main character and the film follows his moral crisis as a man expected to betray someone he grows to respect. Now, I will let you judge the idea of a movie asking us to sympathize with someone who is essentially an undercover cop, while at the same time asking us to support characters that are against police and American law enforcement in general. But also this just seems to come off as a way of protecting the audience. If the movie was told from Hampton’s perspective, it would be hard to hide the man’s communist ideology. It really seems like the filmmakers are trying to protect the audience from knowing the film’s hero is a communist because they do not think we as an audience will be mature enough to sympathize with a political radical. This is a major issue because just as important as acknowledging the role of the U.S. government in sabotaging the Civil Rights movement, which the film does in a line referencing the evidence showing the possibility that the U.S. government may have been involved in the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, is presenting the honest truth of why Hampton was murdered in the first place, a big part of which was his ideology.   

But this would not be such an issue if it did not fit into a larger pattern in American movies of taking figures and movements that are too dangerous to the status quo to be portrayed accurately. In “Invictus” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” two films about Nelson Mandela, no reference is made to Mandela’s time in the South African Communist Party which was the main reason for his long imprisonment. In the excellent documentary “13th,” a movie about the long history of systemic racism in the United States, no mention is given to the Black Panthers’ radical ideology. They even interview Angela Davis and use several archive clips of her, but none of the many clips where Davis espouses her Marxist views. Of course, every MLK day we are told about Dr. King’s message of racial reconciliation and so forth. In this narrative, King fits well into the liberal consensus and is able to be shown as the model of activism. Yet, we are usually never shown quotes like this, “Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.” Yet, there are alternatives.

Spike Lee’s film “Malcolm X,” while having its own flaws, puts the eponymous figure center stage and through excellent direction and writing from Lee and an absolutely masterful performance from Denzel Washington. Malcolm’s ideas are able to be brought forward and empathized with by an audience. “Che,” directed by Steven Soderbergh, presents the Argentine Marxist Leninist in, what is in my opinion, the best depiction of a radical figure in American film. No apologies are given to Guevara or his ideology. Instead, the film depicts Che in the starkest, most human terms. His ideology is made clear. His actions are shown and not praised or condemned. This is how to present a radical figure like Hampton in an honest way. Show us the person without sway in one direction or another and let the audience see them in their totality. Through the skillful filmmaking and acting on display in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” this was absolutely possible. But until radical figures are given the mature and honest treatment they deserve, we are likely going to see society given the false notion that these radicals were not all that different from the status quo, a view upheld by mainstream Hollywood.  

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