We understand that most of the people who do not study and participate directly in our national liberation movement are the same people who could be offended by the opening statement here. That’s why we always say people’s hurt feelings cannot and do not substitute for our objective reality as an oppressed people.
That’s the context from which we waited, holding our breath, for the release of this movie; “Judas and The Black Messiah.” We had some optimism because we knew Fred Hampton Jr. and Sister Akua Njere – the son and widow of assassinated Illinois Black Panther Party Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton – had played some role in the development of the film project. And, we can now sigh with relief that we could find no serious issues with the general premise of the movie, the acting, and general portrayal of Fred Hampton and the Illinois Black Panther Party throughout the movie. Hampton’s character, played by Daniel Kaluuya, was handled with the dignity and respect that Hampton’s courageous and principled real life existence demands. And, the retelling of the key historical events (with the exception of the Chicago Panther shootouts with police), such as Hampton’s imprisonment, and of course, the fateful Federal Bureau of Investigation/Chicago Police raid on Hampton’s apartment on December 4, 1969, in which Hampton and Mark Clark were killed, and several Panthers, including Akua Njere (Deborah Johnson then) were injured, was carried out with alarming intensity and focus.
I also completely enjoyed how the movie cleverly, although briefly, included the Illinois Panther’s efforts to work with African Chicago street organizations like the Blackstone Rangers (portrayed in the movie as the “Crowns”), the White Patriot Party, and the Puerto Rican Young Lords. The scene depicting the Panthers working through a crisis with the African street organization brought moisture to my eyes. This scene spoke to the potential of our movement once efforts like this are successful.
The creators of this movie are to be commended as the movie stands heads and shoulders above the other movie manifestations of real life soldiers for African liberation. Only the ancestors know what challenges and obstacles the creators encountered in attempting to handle this story around Chairman Hampton with integrity, so their effort does indeed need to be heavily acknowledged. Still, the movie was not without issues. And, it should be said that to the casual observer, these issues will probably go completely unnoticed, but to those who have spent significant time learning and articulating this history, and building organizations based on the positives and negatives we learned from the Panthers, these issues must be discussed among anyone serious about our people’s liberation.
The first issue is the aforementioned brief depiction of the Illinois Panther’s efforts to forge bonds with the Blackstone Rangers, White Patriot Party, and Young Lords. It can be argued that besides the early police patrols in the Bay Area and the service programs, this work by the Illinois Panthers was among the most noteworthy from the Black Panthers. This work certainly separated the Panthers from the traditional “Black Power” organizations (as well as other non-African so-called social justice organizations) by demonstrating the Panthers understanding (at least on a broader level than most radical organizations) of the connection of class struggle to white supremacy and the need to center the destruction of capitalism in our fight. Beyond the Hampton character’s brief, but brilliant, articulation of this at the White Patriot Party meeting, and the ability of Hampton and the Panthers to stall out the previously mentioned FBI instigated effort to turn the Panthers against the Blackstone Rangers, this important work was quickly left behind in the movie. This is a shame because we are convinced that it was this work that solidified the U.S. government’s targeting of Hampton for murder. There was nothing then, and still today, that U.S. capitalist/imperialism fears more than a serious effort to create working solidarity between movements fighting for justice within their communities. The capitalists understand clearly, even if most of us do not, that the day this solidarity comes into existence is the day their time in power is marked for destruction. By quickly moving through this critical work, the subtle, even if unintended, result is that this work did not hold the monumental significance that it still holds today.
The absence of a serious core focus on the Panthers work to build with African street organizations and create revolutionary alliances (it was Jesse Jackson who eventually stole the Panther’s genuine “Rainbow Coalition” theme to coopt it with the petti-bourgeoisie/bourgeoisie version that represented Jackson’s presidential bid in the 80s) was a serious flaw of the film, but because movies can only be so long, in light of the movies strong points, I can live with that. What was particularly irking was the confusing effort to portray FBI informant William O’Neil and FBI Field Agent Roy Mitchell’s characters (O’Neil’s character was also well done by Lakeith Stanfield) as somehow conflicted about their roles in setting up Hampton for murder. Yes, we are aware that the real life William O’Neil allegedly committed suicide by running in front of a speeding vehicle in 1990, but that does not say to us that he was terribly conflicted about his role in setting up Hampton and Clark for murder. For 21 years after the assassinations, he lived with and cashed all of the checks he received from the FBI and even in the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary he was interviewed for in 1989 (which the film makers suggested may have led him to supposedly take his life) O’Neil, even in the actual clip displayed in the movie, expresses his dysfunctional view that he made a contribution to the Black Panther Party. This approach doesn’t line up for someone who is as conflicted and questioning of their role as the film portrays O’Neil. Another flaw in how O’Neil is portrayed in the movie is along with his supposed moral crisis, the actual aggressiveness and militancy O’Neil displayed in attempting to get the Panthers to precipitate violent acts against Chicago police is reduced. By all accounts, O’Neil was a mad dog who constantly instigated more and aggressiveness against the police, against the constant urgings of Hampton and others to rebut O’Neil’s efforts.
Even more offensive was the portrayal of FBI Field Agent Mitchell. There is a disgraceful scene where Mitchell appears to question the need to push harder against Hampton once its acknowledged that Hampton will face further prison time for the FBI inspired frame up (for Hampton being falsely accused of stealing $71.00 in ice cream from an ice cream truck). This is where creativity and art in the face of actual political history always seems to clash in these movies. Perhaps the creators wanted to transfer their own humanity onto Mitchell in this depiction, I don’t know, but truth is truth. FBI Field Agent Mitchell had absolutely no concern or moral dilemma behind his role in ensuring Fred Hampton was assassinated. Mitchell had risen within the FBI by playing a consistent role as instigator against our struggle for justice. He was a chief “investigator” for the murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi, U.S. in 1964. The FBI praised Mitchell for his work there, but no one was convicted for those savage murders until 1989, 25 years later. And, those eventual sham convictions had nothing to do with anything Mitchell did. The FBI role in sabotaging and dragging their feet on any of the investigations of terrorism against our people are well known and documented. Mitchell should be seen for what he was. A vicious terrorist who brutalized our people for standing up for our rights at every turn. That devil had no second thoughts or moral conflicts about repression against us. If anything, the evidence demonstrates that he felt it was his moral obligation to terrorize us. Also, the reference in the movie to George Sams, a known psychopath and FBI informant who participated in numerous brutal beatings and the savage murder of Alex Rackley in the New Haven Black Panther Chapter, was sorely lacking. In this instance, Mitchell is again portrayed as having some moral conundrum about being connected to Sams and his savagery. In truth, Sams and his “work” was well known to the FBI and if anything, Mitchell wanted O’Neil to demonstrate the same type of brutality that Sams was known for within the Black Panther Party.
Whether intentional or not, any effort to portray the FBI and their informants as anything other than what they are – coldblooded murderers – is an effort to humanize them because in humanizing them, we consciously and subconsciously do not see them as the enemy they are. An enemy that certainly doesn’t deserve the humanizing that they have never provided to us.
We strongly recommend that you see this movie. It’s a wonderful effort. The shortcomings we mention are as much an issue with all of us as the filmmakers. Its up to us to see it as our responsibility to study our history and understand it objectively. There are numerous books about the life and contributions of Chairman Fred Hampton that most of us are completely unaware of. This is a problem that is not the responsibility of these filmmakers. Ward Churchell and Jim Vanderhill’s “The FBI’s Secret War against the Black Panther Party and American Indian Movement” was released in 1987. “The Assassination of Fred Hampton” by Jeffery Haas was released in 2011. There are many other books that we need to start seeing as our responsibility to study collectively and understand completely. Any film should always be seen as an addendum of our actual studies of historical events. In other words, if this movie is the primary source you experience about Fred Hampton, and you can read, you should be ashamed of yourself. As Sister Assata Shakur correctly told us “only a fool lets their enemy tell them who their enemy is.”