Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★½

There’s dishonesty in the idea that movies like this are good because they expose the masses to supposedly hidden histories.

For one, “the masses” is just a euphemism for white moviegoers who find radical politics distasteful. In order to appeal to that audience, the content is distorted and obscured, further hiding the history that movies like this are supposed to be unearthing.

Rather than revealing anything, the MLK treatment just perpetuates ignorance. When someone like Fred Hampton is made palatable to the “mainstream”, we should ask if it’s because his ideology is finally being communicated without fear or because it’s not really being disseminated at all.

Unfortunately Judas sticks with the latter approach. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is more radical than most simply by virtue of letting Hampton speak. His recruitment speech early in the movie is the first time I’ve really seen a Hollywood movie hint at a politics somewhat distinct from the Black Nationalism vs. Integration dichotomy we always get. But that’s all the movie ever does; hint. Aside from a few superficial lesson scenes, a sprinkling of some anti-capitalist rhetoric (including I think one mention of the word socialism?), the movie doesn’t engage with The Black Panthers as much more than an aesthetic.

It’s a frustrating experience to watch a movie skirt around the meaningful political drama of community organizing against white supremacy (imagine the Lincoln treatment here, focused on the process of building The Rainbow Coalition) to instead center on Bill O’Neill, a teenager who was coerced by the FBI into becoming an informant. Maybe I’d feel more down with this approach if we didn’t keep cutting back to the FBI as though their side of the story were relevant. Maybe if the movie engaged with the conflict between O’Neill and Hampton. Or maybe if O’Neill or Hampton were ever provided an actual inner life by the script. Alas that work is left entirely to the actors.

So let’s talk about them. They’re enthralling, some of the defining actors of this generation (Dominique Fishback is so good). I think the two leads both give powerhouse performances in this movie. Stanfield even looks a lot like Bill O’Neill. And I think their casting was a bad decision. That O’Neill was a teenager and that Hampton was 21 is something the movie ignores entirely. By prioritizing buzzy performances by actors a decade their characters’ senior, the movie perpetuates a harmful absence of Black youth as a key part of this history. When the FBI systematically dismantled TBPP, they assassinated kids.

So the question I’m left with is whether the movie is engaging enough to compel an ignorant audience to do any extra-textual work and learn the truths the movie won’t touch. The depth of that ignorance is hard to challenge.

But for one class in African American history and politics I elected to take in college, I’d know next to nothing of the Black Panther Party myself. So I hope this movie helps to challenge the arrogance of whiteness; the idea that what I do not know cannot possibly be so important or else I’d already know it. I hope this well made movie inspires people to learn, and to desire to learn. I fear it will placate people instead.

So let’s go donate some money to this gofundme aimed at preserving Fred Hampton’s childhood home and eventually turning it into a museum.

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