Midway through Judas and the Black Messiah, writer-director Shaka King’s new film about the life and death of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and deputy chairman of the national BPP who was shot dead by police at the age of 21 in 1969, its ostensible lead character temporarily disappears.
He’s sent to prison, joining many other Party members such as Assata Shakur and Huey Newton who were deemed threats to American society and jailed with little to no evidence. But as King’s film shows, Hampton’s struggle continues in his absence, as he would insist it should – for him, the fight had always been about the collective endeavour rather than individual glory.
As Daniel Kaluuya’s magnetic portrayal of Hampton in King’s film captures so well, the real-life figure was an inspiring orator and intensely charismatic young man who worked tirelessly to advocate for the socialist, community-oriented values of the Black Panthers.
Hampton’s experiences in law school and with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People primed him to weaponise his knowledge of the American legal system in an effort to build solidarity among disparate marginalised groups – he went to great lengths to form alliances with historically warring Chicago factions. This Rainbow Coalition, built on radical socialist and communist politics, pledged support through presence and common action. If one group demonstrated, all groups would attend. Solidarity here meant material commonality that could withstand racial and ethnic allegiances. You can see the real Hampton espouse those beliefs in the 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton: “We said we’ll work with anybody, form a coalition with anybody, that has revolution on their minds,” he says.
Such focus on collective action and responsibility is at the heart of King’s film, the Brooklyn-born-and-raised director’s second feature, following Newlyweeds (2013). It’s also just one of the reasons the film is so arresting and convincing as a document of radical Black action.
“As a socialist-communist organisation, they [the Black Panthers] do not believe in messianic figures,” King explains when I speak to him in late 2020, at the end of a tumultuous year that was originally supposed to have seen his film released in the summer, only for the pandemic to push it back to 2021. “Their ethos was about collectivism and everyone being equal. So it was important to us – even if we weren’t able to name all of those individuals who were the lifeblood of the Illinois chapter – that you got the sense that it was a collective movement.”
King even admits to some discomfort with the film’s title, for the way it suggests a more traditional biopic focus on Hampton and his antagonist William O’Neal, an informant for the FBI, played by LaKeith Stanfield (who also starred in the director’s well-received 2017 short LaZercism). As the former Black Panther chairwoman Elaine Brown said in the 2011 documentary The Black Power Mixtape: “We are not here to create heroic images for people to make posters out of and that they can glorify. The point is for the struggle to be waged between the oppressed people and the oppressor.”
King, who co-wrote the screenplay with Will Berson from a story they developed with Keith and Kenneth Lucas, felt a responsibility throughout production to honour that sentiment. “We ended up having to sacrifice a lot of characters, a lot of storylines, just to get this entire story in there,” he says.
“The truth of that is there’s this movie and there’s Mario Van Peebles’s Panther , in terms of fictionalised versions of the Black Panther Party that are in the public consciousness. And we knew that this movie, for better or worse, was going to do a significant job of bringing back the Black Panther story into pop culture consciousness. It was like, ‘Well, you gotta really get the politics right.’”
The decision to prioritise the collective over the individual in Judas and the Black Messiah feels especially striking for being so rare in cinematic works of historical fiction. In such films, dramatic requirements have usually resulted in a decision to hinge events on the thoughts and decisions of a single person. Harder to depict, and more intriguing because of it, is the organising and maintenance of a community through the perspective of multiple people, both leaders and their adversaries. Even harder still is the exploration of the multifaceted reasons why people come together.
In Judas and the Black Messiah, once Hampton is sent to prison, he no longer holds the story. Instead, we follow the machinations of FBI informer O’Neal, who has infiltrated the Party to gather information, sow discord and destroy the group. O’Neal – bravely performed by Stanfield without concern for garnering sympathy for his character’s cowardly actions – was a petty criminal coerced into informing by FBI agent Roy Mitchell after he was caught with a stolen car at the age of 17.
For me, it was the idea of contextualising the conditions that the Black Panthers were fighting against. It’s the same conditions we’re fighting against now, you know?Shaka King
It would have been easier to portray the Mitchell character, played by Jesse Plemons in the film, as a typically wicked racist, but King resists the obvious. “We chose to frame that character that way because to me it was important that white liberals see their uncle, you know what I’m saying?
“Roy Mitchell was also assigned to the Freedom Riders case in Mississippi. He worked that case. He’s essentially a centrist. And for me, a centrist is, in many ways, more dangerous than a white nationalist, because they’re really silently propping up the system. Their inaction contributes to Black people’s demise just as much as that of a Dylann Roof [the white supremacist who murdered nine African-American worshippers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015]. And they actually can be weaponised. It’s easy to dismiss a villain and then not see yourself or a relative. It’s a lot harder to do that when it’s a fully realised human being.”
The stories of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party have been framed as ones that need to be told. But, interestingly, Judas and the Black Messiah does little to explicitly address why that should be so. It takes the importance of its subjects as givens and largely dispenses with exposition, instead splicing in footage from documentaries such as Agnès Varda’s 1968 documentary Black Panthers and other archive footage as texture. “I realised we could do the exposition with stock footage,” King explains.
“Even though I’m a filmmaker, my passion has always been music. I used to make beats, and I loved sampling. So I always looked at assembling stock footage as like sampling. I got excited about that being a way that you could get the exposition in there – to give it to you up top, so that we can just get into the movie.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the Black Panther Party’s core tenets, its key leadership figures, or Cointelpro (the various covert projects conducted by the FBI aimed at infiltrating domestic American political organisations like the Black Panthers), there’s no title card to explain things for you in King’s film.
Instead, the director’s ambitions lie in fashioning a different kind of protest art, the kind that invites the audience to recognise themselves in either Hampton’s passion or O’Neal’s cowardice – or both. There are no stirring fades to black as large crowds chant for freedom here. Instead, the film’s galvanising factor comes from observing how committed people can be to a common cause. And, in the case of O’Neal, to a selfish one.
This avoidance of the exposition that marks so many historical dramas and biopics was something King had to fight for. “The producers and the studio would say, ‘Look, this is a period in world history, not just American history, that people are significantly unaware of. So you have to contextualise things,’” he recalls. “For me, though, it was the idea of contextualising the conditions that the Black Panthers were fighting against. It’s the same conditions we’re fighting against now, you know? That was always important to me from the outset, being very clear on the gaze.”
Arguably no biographical projects are more didactic in their efforts to educate than those about Black people – specifically Black public figures. Films such as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), focusing on Martin Luther King Jr and the voting rights marches in Alabama, chart key figures in the American civil rights movement and try to add nuance and complexity to the popular understanding of their iconic protagonists. The historical truth, in some cases quite distinct from the official historical record, is often much harder to parse.
The conditions these films depict – virulent and violent racism, bureaucratic ambivalence at one end and ceaseless institutional intervention at the other, psychic trauma and anguish – persist. But the effect of some – such as The Hurricane (1999), with Denzel Washington as Rubin Carter, the boxer wrongly convicted of murder; The Rosa Parks Story (2002), about the civil rights activist who helped kick off the Montgomery bus boycott; Marshall (2017), the story of Thurgood Marshall, a crusading lawyer who would become the first African-American Supreme Court justice; Notorious (2009), about the rapper Notorious B.I.G.; or Ray (2004), the biopic starring Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles – can often feel too much like big-budget public service announcements.
And when we consider a form like the biopic alongside the documentary, an important question arises as to what justifies dramatising real life. Documentaries – such as Garrett Bradley’s prison justice film Time (2020) or Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s Whose Streets? (2017), an on-the-ground look at the Ferguson uprising following the murder of Michael Brown – focus on the everyday, often unremarkable, details of their subjects’ lives, building up well-rounded portraits of what it takes to be an activist. They indict systems of oppression by homing in on their ubiquity and disturbing ordinariness.
Fictional depictions of similar circumstances usually can’t seem to trust their audiences to understand nuance. The effort lies in depicting difference, otherness, isolation (while stressing “Doesn’t this seem familiar?”) and, by the end, emphasising similarity, unity, that which makes us all ‘human’.
A greater challenge is in writing against expectation, against narratively satisfying truncations of a real person’s life. And it’s here that Judas and the Black Messiah situates itself in the gaze of the Black viewer, allowing it to bypass the supposition present in other movies that one can trust their institutions and rely on a few singular people to lead you in a struggle.
For the people who already know how Hampton’s story ends, such a film might seem like a non-starter. But King and his collaborators reject the idea that the story is really about Hampton’s death at all. Judas and the Black Messiah’s power is in depicting the everyday dangers and struggles of Black radicals and organisers, in sitting between those moments in stillness, and in imagining the Black political biopic as something that exists beyond condescension towards different modes of Black life.
Black filmmakers often have to struggle against what is expected of them. Most often, there is implicit pressure for the director to comment on the present political moment, no matter what period their film is set. In these situations, a white and non-Black audience seems to desire some sort of lesson, though not one that offends their sensibilities too much.
That these people may otherwise be ambivalent to the many forms of unrest and Black advocacy happening around them feels potent to the contemporary moment. How else to explain a general public’s embrace of protest on one hand and the disavowal of the damage of property in tandem with that protest on the other? What does it say about a public that circulates countless videos of Black execution as a means of consciousness-raising without questioning their own culpability in sharing such traumatising images?
A film like Judas and the Black Messiah seems less interested in when such questions should be asked than how. And to whom. Any time is the right time, it says, if you’re paying attention.
Judas and the Black Messiah lays bare the criminality of a US police state
By Devika Girish
Time is a powerful distillation of lives divided
By Nadine Deller
Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.