A “messiah” won’t save us
A response to Judas and the Black Messiah
There’s a film I’ve wanted to talk about since it appeared on HBO Max last year. That night, I lay on the carpet of my three bedroom Humboldt park home, with a space heater at my feet, snuggled under a blanket, as the snow of Chicago’s February winter came as a blizzard. I was giddy. As a revolutionary socialist, I had become familiar with the phenomenon that was (and still is) Chairman Fred Hampton Sr. I knew, with my comfy joggers on and a baked sweet potato in front of me, that history was happening on screen. Socialism—that idea that in years past had been taboo in the mainstream—now found comfort in the minds, the souls, and the tongues of my generation. So much so that the ground had been set to have a film that spoke of socialism as the necessary alternative: Judas and the Black Messiah.
I’m taken aback that this film made it through the barriers of the Hollywood film system. But, there’s something more. Socialism is an all-encompassing framework to assert values and to fight for workers owning the workplace; community ownership by the community; ownership of our bodies, also ourselves; and the majority of the people owning the means of production. In other words, as Chairman Fred would say, “all power to the people.” But a word like socialism can be twisted, bent, and interpreted in such a way that the meaning becomes obsolete. This film, though, attains its power from what we see, hear, and feel from the narrative. In that way, filmmakers—Shaka King, Will Berson, and the Lucas Brothers (Kenny and Keith Lucas)—use Hampton to uncover an ideology that is love in motion. Socialism is the tangible, concrete realization of the late Michael Brooks’ dictum: be ruthless towards systems, with empathy and compassion for each other.
Let’s start here: After a failed car-jacking attempt and arrest by the police, William O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield) is offered a plea deal from the FBI. His job is to serve as an informant, with the task of infiltrating the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and gathering intelligence on Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya). His infiltration of the party leads to deep personal conflict as he juggles the responsibilities entrusted to him by the FBI and the moral conundrum of betraying the Black Panther Party. Throughout, we are shown the work of the party, and more importantly to this film, the messianic nature of Chairman Fred. The film crescendos with O’Neal’s ultimate betrayal of the Party: the FBI murders the Black Messiah using information provided by O’Neal.
Individualism v. Solidarity
This film presents an ideological clash of sorts: individualism vs. solidarity with the community. As early as the second scene, we find O’Neal, robbing someone of their car. He’s shown in a film noir brown trench coat and a fedora. He’s cunning, somewhat skilled, but the film also shows a level of incompetence—ie. having his disguise busted at a bar and barely escaping, only to then be detained by the police. O’Neal, in many ways, is a person, quintessentially born of the U.S. experience, who is pushed to their financial limits and sees robbing and stealing from people as his only recourse. This is an individual who is a participant in a system that robs resources such as public funds for jobs, for schools and textbooks, for mental and physical health, for clean and affordable homes. Also, this “quintessential American” is a part of a system that steals history and dignity from Black poor and working people, exposes them to harassment and murder by cops, and veils the broader economic structure that exploits oppressed people of their labor. In this crucible, the individual who is exploited by that system might respond by robbing and stealing from the community to which he, she, or they belong. O’ Neal is a symbol of this archetype. He does not see those Black men at the bar as human beings who are autonomous and worthy of hanging out in a venue without being harassed. He sees these men as objects who hold the key to his material needs. Here, our film narrative, the portrayal of a kind of individualism, takes shape.
Chairman Fred is portrayed as O’Neal’s complete antithesis. The film goes to great lengths to not only show Hampton’s message of people power and solidarity, but to show the power of community organizing and how it buoys the Chairman’s leadership. We first catch a glimpse of Hampton in what appears to be a Black student union meeting. The film wants us to know that Chairman is cool. His disposition is relaxed, uninvolved. He leans to one side and wears a brown coat and camouflage bucket hat. The students are celebrating reform measures they’ve received from the university once named Herzl Junior College in their struggle for recognition. Such reforms include getting a Black professor from Howard University to be the college president and renaming the college after Malcom X. Daniel Kaluuya is captivating in his embodiment of Hampton. He arises out of his chair and rejects the microphone, but grabs the student congregation’s attention. Notably, he steps down from the platform as the camera shows him at eye level with the students. His Chicago accent communicates an authenticity that gives him authority to impart his message: political clarity. He speaks with precision about the difference between taking power in a political struggle and merely receiving symbolic concessions from the college that are better described as a “candy-coated facade of gradual reform.” He’s charismatic, down-to-earth, and clear-eyed in vision, but the message of this scene is about building solidarity with each other and understanding that winning fundamental change to the institutions is most important. Even more, Hampton makes it clear that we should understand that a capitalist can be of many colors—Brown, Black, white—but the goal of a capitalist is to exploit the people. What I appreciate about the film is that it reframes the mission of the Black Panther Party to center it as it truly was. The Party’s mission was to produce a revolutionary culture that would free the people. So, here we see Hampton’s individual brilliance as a thinker, orator, and revolutionary. But, his talents are shown alongside the actions of the party.
We are then guided into the activism of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party: collecting donations from the people at the student union meeting; then on the streets of Chicago, canvassing the community to bring them into the movement; Chairman Fred recruiting the woman with the afro who becomes a Party secretary; feeding the kids of the community while politically educating them; and giving political education to the grownups. This scene works because it thematically dichotomizes the narrative of solidarity (Fred Hampton and the actions of the Party) vs. individualism (O’Neal’s own individualistic ideas of the world, as well as the lies told to him by the FBI). What’s brilliant about the scene is how it is framed. The camera positions us, the audience, as students in the class learning about the party and their revolutionary mission. It then pans to O’Neal, who is both undercover and has misinformed assumptions about the Black Panthers. Chairman Fred asks the students a trick question: Is our most lethal weapon in the fight for liberation “guns, grenades, or rocket launchers?” O’Neal leans in to see if what he’s been taught about the Panthers is true. Instead, Hampton writes that our most important weapon is the people. At this moment, O’Neal’s assumptions are met with the truth. His mind is blown. But that’s not all. In this way, the camera represents the audience as people who, just as O’Neal, have been misinformed by the government, the schools, even some of the books we read, not only about the Black Panthers but also about our collective power. O’Neal is someone who was essentially taught what a lot of us are taught under capitalism: the false notion that it is “every person for themself.” In all of these scenes, Fred Hampton is front and center in presentation and in words, but it is the party and the community that act in tandem with his form of leadership.
Now, let’s keep this last assertion in mind, as we have noted that William O’Neal represents the ideology of individualism. This, however, is not a one-dimensional rendering of a character; the film also explores his complexity. There’s another scene that humanizes O’Neal’s struggle with being an agent for the FBI while working undercover as a member of the Panthers. It’s a magnificent scene where Hampton has just gotten out of jail following his sentencing on bogus charges for stealing ice cream. In this scene, the camera positions the audience behind the Chairman, looking up to him. He approaches the stage to the cheers of Panther supporters calling his name. Their cheers resemble the applause of a pep rally, a congregation of people gathered to welcome their brother and to hear the word from him. The camera centers on Chairman Fred’s face. He looks determined. But, his determination has a texture of depth now. Remember, he was wrongfully sentenced for his commitment to fighting for liberation; he fought the cops in jail; most importantly, his faith in the revolution has been sustained. Hampton begins his sermon with a statement that’s almost spiritual. He says, “I’m free.” In this scene, Chairman Fred is positioned like a preacher under the cross (on the wall in what appears to be a church), delivering the holy message of revolution. The people respond back to him, saying, “I am a revolutionary.” They are high off the energy and comradery of each other. Then, the camera moves to O’Neal who, reflexively, repeats every word out of the Chairman’s mouth. He’s moved. At this moment, his internal conflicts are revealed—the lies he’s been told by the FBI and his own individualism clash with his experience with the party. He puts his fist in the air in solidarity as the Chairman preaches about sacrifice. But, the connection he feels with the revolutionary sermon and the people is interrupted as the camera’s focus shifts and a representative of the FBI and organizer of the infiltration, Roy Williams (played brilliantly by Jesse Plemons), appears in the crowd of people. Williams wears a maroon beanie and is camouflaged amongst the people. The conflict is apparent on O’Neal’s face. He wars internally with being a revolutionary and being tied to his coercive financial agreement with the FBI.
Similarly, in the scene before, we see O’Neal, Deborah Johnson (Fred Hampton’s wife and a member of the party, whose name is now Akua Njeri), and another member of the party, Bobby Rush. Hampton walks out of the jail to the joyful sounds of piano keys and what appears to be a symphony of instruments. The Chairman gets into the car and we see the joy on all of their faces. Then, he says, take me to “Headquarters,” which, to his surprise, has been rebuilt by the community after being burned down by the Chicago Police Department. The scene then moves to an interaction between Hampton and O’Neal that is quite intimate. They stand in the rebuilt headquarters after Hampton learns that O’Neal played a pivotal role in restoring the building. ChairmanFred says to O’Neal, “Thank you, brother.” Here, we see that aforementioned conflict written on O’Neal’s face, as he’s speechless. What is revealed in these scenes is O’Neal’s conflict with being a part of the movement and also being a “rat.”
By seeing O’Neal’s motivations, his ambivalence in an extremely tough and coercive situation, his struggles and joy working with the Black Panther Party, and his ultimate decision to betray the Chairman and the movement, we see a morally conflicted human being that is squeezed to his limits under capitalism. Faced with the difficulty of this situation, he chooses to take the money and betray the movement. Furthermore, by portraying his struggle, the film also calls on us to reckon with our own individualism. Although O’Neal faces a very specific dynamic as an agent of the FBI, he serves as a tragic conceptualisation of individualism vs. solidarity. In all his complexity, he chooses individualism. The movie calls us to learn more about the Panthers, unlearn the individualism that capitalism pushes onto us, and to choose community and solidarity with each other.
What Solidarity Looks Like
There’s a scene towards the beginning that’s magnetic, so much so that the studio featured it in its main trailer for the film. The Black Panther Party, led by Chairman Fred, is going into “enemy” territory to encounter a group of poor, white nationalists. They are dressed in that iconic Black Panther, Black Power, all-black regalia—berets, boots, fresh-picked ‘fros, and coats. The intent of the party is to build a multiracial coalition in Chicago. They pull up to the location in O’Neal’s black Cadillac, which (unbeknownst to the Panthers) he received from the FBI. A member of the Panthers, Jimmy, voices the perspective and ambivalence a lot of us would have in this situation. He says, these ain’t your regular old “hippies playing bongos in the park.” However, Hampton’s mission is still clear as he advises Jimmy to stay in the car. He ends up joining them inside, anyway.
Jimmy speaks bluntly, as he says that the confederate flag is “some motherfucking bullshit.” Sensing the overall frustration amongst the members of the party and the poor whites, and the challenge of establishing solidarity amongst the groups, Chairman Fred speaks. He underlines the reality of living in underfunded, marginalized, unsanitary ghettos that both Black and poor white folks are subject to; he speaks to the “bullshit” education given to their children; the irony of paying state taxes only to feel the pain of a police officer’s nightstick. Again, in a matter-of-fact and clear fashion, he points them to the reality of their circumstance and asserts a revolutionary politics that focuses on material needs and solidarity. He ends by saying, “America is on fire right now, and until it’s extinguished, nothing else means a Goddamn thing.”
Here, the film wants us to grapple with the legacy of solidarity exemplified by the Black Panther Party. Specifically, the film wants us to grapple with Hampton’s leadership and the multiracial, cross-class emphasis of the Rainbow Coalition (depicted in the scene directly after the one I just mentioned). As Tana Geneva writes, the party believed that
“[A]s poor people trying to survive in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s racially segregated Chicago, they had more in common with each other than not. They banded together to protect members from the cops, fight against police brutality, run health care clinics, feed the homeless and poor kids, and connect people with legal help if they were dealing with abusive landlords or police.”
Along with this scene, we get a small glimpse into the other organizing efforts of the Black Panther Party that included the Breakfast for Children program. These scenes highlight the organizing efforts of solidarity, while showing what the Panthers understood about politics. With their medical assistance programs, educational opportunities, community, and tangible sense of empowerment, the party’s aim was to build political power among the poor people the government discards and marginalizes.
This is a strength of the film. We are left, as the audience, and as “the people,” with a more accurate picture of the organizing done by the Black Panther Party. We are left to reflect on how we, in our current moment, can enact a politics of solidarity that emphasizes our collective struggle against racial capitalism. A politics that calls us to develop long-standing relationships with each other that embody the beauty of joy, the vulnerability of building trust with each other by struggling together, and the arduous battle against the interlocking systems of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, transphobia, queerphobia, and militarism. Solidarity, then, becomes work, our labor of Love. This is far-removed from some anemic gesture a corporate brand might show, which pays attention merely to the aesthetics of “love,” while disregarding the structural exploitation of workers, the need for the abolition of the racist, anti-Black systems of policing and prisons, the need to structurally eradicate poverty, the need to create a medical system that works for everyone, and the need to change the relationship of power and actually have a system controlled by the majority of people. Love has to reckon with these structural realities. Love has to be embodied by the people as a practice that centers empathy, compassion, and accountability towards each other. This politics of Love is a struggle that moves us away from uplifting individuals over the collective. This, I feel, is the message of solidarity shown in the strongest parts of the film.
These scenes give us tangible examples of solidarity for us to uncover and follow; it flows logically from the film’s message to choose solidarity over individualism; and it is undoubtedly these scenes that make the film a joy to watch. However, the film undercuts its strongest parts by focusing on the messiah narrative.
The Appeal and Problem with “the Messiah”
The idea of Fred Hampton as the Messiah is paradoxical, especially in a narrative that centers a revolutionary historical figure. On one hand, it makes the themes accessible and brings both the history of the Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton into the public’s imagination. The accessibility of such a narrative — one that seeks to situate an entire organization, fighting for a world-changing goal (socialism), in the midst of systematic and often clandestine state repression—is invaluable to our understanding of the history of resilience. However, the choice to embrace the messiah narrative also suggests that a movement that aims to dismantle capitalism has to have “a savior.” The idea of a savior undoes all the valuable nuance of a film that pushes against individualism and offers a more capacious view of solidarity. Why can’t a movement be composed of everyday people who, with their individual skills and passions, collaborate and organize with each other? Why can’t we celebrate the genius of Fred Hampton as an orator, leader, and organizer without elevating him above the people? The focus on the “savior” narrative works against the stronger elements of the film that proved Chairman Fred’s people-centric message. Showing the Panthers canvassing to the people on the street is strong; the imagery of the Breakfast for Kids program and the political education measures the party used works even better; highlighting the resilience of the community to build back the Chicago headquarters after the violent raid from the police embodies people power. All these scenes do the work of countering the FBI’s repression and propaganda against the party.
Moreover, when we tell historical narratives of resistance, we have to be precise in showing the work that normal people do. The idea of what could have been if we still had a leader such as Fred Hampton flattens the important collective work the Panthers did during the 1970s. It also erases the fact that women represented the majority of the Black Panther Party, including the leadership of Elaine Brown, Ericka Huggins, and other women in the party. We do a disservice to the powerful and mind-blowing medical and spiritual practices of the party (including studying yoga in jail and teaching poor Black kids about empowerment and education in the Oakland Elementary program) that many of us haven’t processed.
A revolutionary movement of solidarity—global solidarity—is accessible when understanding that bus drivers, factory workers, community members, college students, athletes, retired folks, doulas, just everyday folk, can organize together. Personally, it’s empowering for me to understand that I don’t have to be unblemished, or have mastered and perfected my knowledge of Marxism, or that I have to look for a Fred Hampton when I have myself and other people who want a better world.
There is no one person, no small group of billionaires, no cosmic force of nature that will authorize history for us. We have to quarry our history of resistance that has been purposefully entombed. More than that, we have to make our history. Angela Davis said, “freedom is a constant struggle.” So, if freedom is our mission, then we are tasked to be revolutionaries who collectivize, who organize, who collaborate as the global poor and working class to construct a truly democratic system.
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Brian Young Jr. View All
Brian Young Jr. is a Black, non-binary, socialist writer and artist based in Chicago, Illinois.