Film review: Judas and the Black Messiah

A searing reminder of the need for class unity in the battle for socialism.

Proletarian writers

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The life and teachings of the Black Panthers’ young ‘Chairman Fred’ remain starkly relevant to workers in the imperialist heartlands today, more than 50 years after his assassination by the US state.

Proletarian writers

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“I am a revolutionary! I AM a revolutionary! I AM a revolutionary!

With these words, he addressed a public meeting called by the Black Panthers in Chicago in 1968, encouraging the audience in the vigorous call and response style of America’s black churches until the whole body was enthusiastically joined in making the same avowal. The audience comprised not just the Panthers’ members and followers but also members of the city’s black gang, the Crowns, of the Puerto Rican Young Lords, and of the Young Patriots, a local organisation of poor white workers.

Students of working-class history and present-day socialist organisers alike will understand the signal achievement of uniting these disparate forces into willing followers of the Black Panther policy of unity against the common class enemy.

The solution to their common problems of poverty, oppression, exploitation and disadvantage was not, he said, to replace white capitalism with black capitalism, but to replace capitalism with socialism. For that to come about, the oppressed people had to recognise their common enemy and make common cause against it.

That was the reason why the Panthers promoted breakfast clubs for poor children and medical centres in the most deprived areas of the city; not just to raise the ability of the children of the poor to benefit from their schooling and to help the poor to access the medical help denied them under the United States’ iniquitous insurance-based private healthcare system, but also to bring the Panthers into closer touch with the people they needed to educate politically – to convince and to lead in the struggle for socialism and freedom from exploitation and want.

Who was that revolutionary? He was Fred Hampton, affectionately known as ‘Chairman Fred’: activist, revolutionary socialist, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers (in Chicago), and national vice-chairman of the organisation – at the ripe old age of 20 years.

Judas and the Black Messiah tells the true story of the last year of Chairman Fred’s short life. We learn that he is a follower of Malcolm X as we watch him speak along with a recording of that revolutionary’s last speech – a speech that had been given in the period when Malcolm had abandoned the black nationalism of the Nation of Islam and discovered the truth that only when black and white workers unite to fight their common oppressor, the capitalists, can they achieve freedom from oppression. Fred meets his life partner, Debbie Johnson, another member of the Panthers, when she joins with him in the recitation of Malcolm’s speech.

We hear him quote Chairman Mao while he leads a study class of Panther members and points to what he has written on the blackboard:


“War is politics with guns; politics is war without guns,” he explains.

The Panthers adopted the right to bear arms, but they did so in self-defence; they were not organised as a militia ready for an armed insurrection so early in their existence and did not espouse terrorism or commit terrorist actions. They were aware of the hostility towards them from the police and other organs of the state and they were careful to commit no criminal acts, since they knew the state would seize any opportunity (or manufactured one) to prosecute and imprison their leaders – as had already happened to Bobby Seal and Eldridge Cleaver.

The film centres around the FBI campaign to silence Fred Hampton. The bureau had put Fred under surveillance as part of its ‘Cointelpro’ programme, which was aimed (among other things) at preventing “the coalition of militant black nationalist groups” and of “the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement”. J Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI until 1972, is shown speaking these words and describing the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. The BPP was not, however, a black nationalist party.

In the film, we see Hoover assessing the volatile situation in the US in 1968: the student movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement and the anti-draft agitation all made for an explosive situation and had already led to riots. There was also the continuing civil rights movement, with black leaders like Malcolm X (assassinated 21 February 1965) and Martin Luther King Jr (assassinated 4 April1968) having found a national audience.

All that was needed, Hoover told his senior staffers, was for a “black messiah” to come along and unite all these forces into a single movement. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr had been disposed of. But now young Fred Hampton was a new and charismatic leader who was gathering a following and – most dangerously – was uniting the Chicago Panthers with powerful black gangs and other community-based working-class organisations in the city to form an alliance.

In the film, Hoover describes Hampton and this alliance as a “greater threat to the established order in the US than either China or the Soviet Union”. In so far as the governments of neither of those nations could effect a revolution in the USA, Hoover was perfectly correct. Since there were no legal means of silencing Fred Hampton or of depriving the Panthers of his leadership, which was critical to their development at that stage, illegal means had to be found.

The film tells the story of the FBI campaign against the Chicago Panthers in general and Fred Hampton in particular: Fred was the charismatic black leader – the Black Messiah – Hoover so feared, and another African-American, William O’Neal, a petty criminal ‘turned’ by the FBI into an informant and planted into the Chicago Panthers under threat of imprisonment (and worse), was the Judas who ultimately assisted the FBI in silencing Hampton.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a beautifully made and acted film, bringing vividly to life the atmosphere of late 1960s Chicago and the attitudes and mores of the Panthers and of the people amongst whom they lived and worked.

Those who are familiar with the outline of Fred Hampton’s life and of the Panthers’ trajectory will find all the essential elements intact here: the terrible poverty and ignorance in which the black masses lived; the defensive use made by the Panthers of their constitutional right to bear arms; the social programmes they set up; the political education classes they ran and the newspapers they wrote; the organisation’s steady move away from black nationalism towards class-based politics; the influence of Mao Zedong and revolutionary China on the Panthers’ leading theoreticians; the fear with which the movement’s steady rise was met in ruling-class circles and the state’s ruthless and criminal approach to crushing it by any means necessary.

Given all this, and that so many of Hampton’s revolutionary messages are included in the film, the wonder is that it was ever made or distributed, never mind being made to such a high standard and with such fidelity to the truth.

Indeed, Fred Hampton’s partner Debbie, a lifelong activist now known as Akua Njeri, and their son Fred Hampton Junior, himself a political prisoner for nine years in the 1990s and now a leading figure in the Black Panther Cubs (an organisation of children and grandchildren of the original Black Panthers), were both cultural advisors to the production. As a result, the film vividly portrays the ruthlessness of the ruling class and its lieutenants when the interests of that class are threatened.

The acting of all those involved is excellent, but Daniel Kaluuya as the charismatic young leader is outstanding; we are rooting for him every step of his way. The film is shocking but not surprising to us now, after all these years and when so much that was hidden at the time (the film ends in December 1969) has since come to light.

Perhaps its backers assumed that enough time had passed for the story being told to be received as one that existed safely in the past, allowing it to become part of the ongoing attempt to cast the crimes of imperialism in a ‘that was then, things are different now’ light.

The events of the past year – the financial crash, the pandemic, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement – have crushed that illusion, however, and it is simply impossible in 2021 to receive this movie’s content as constituting merely an interesting historical footnote.

In the last year we have seen the burden of Covid (infections, hospitalisations, deaths, unemployment, evictions) fall disproportionately on the poor – and have in the process been reminded of the fact that black people in the US and western Europe are still disproportionately likely to be poor. This added fuel to the simmering tension over high levels of police brutality meted out towards the poor in the USA in particular, leading to the explosion of rage triggered by the particularly grievous murder of George Floyd, captured in slow motion and broadcast via social media to every corner of the globe in gory technicolour.

In this context, the film is not only a gripping account of an important moment in working-class history and a moving tribute to one of America’s finest sons, but it also serves as a searing reminder to all those who would right the injustices of our world of some fundamental lessons we must take to heart as we wage our struggle for emancipation from capitalist exploitation. In particular:

1. The system cannot be reformed, it must be overthrown; capitalism must be replaced with socialism.

2. Workers of all backgrounds must unite if we want to be successful in this mission.

3. The state will do anything and everything to try to stop us; we must have no illusions in the ‘fairness’ or ‘protections’ of its institutions or its laws.

Black and white, unite and fight!