The Revolution Cannot Be Dramatized
Radicalism can’t be dramatized by an industry it exists to abolish.
Judas and the Black Messiah spoilers ahead:
During a touching scene in Judas and the Black Messiah, slain Black Panther Jake Winters’ mother asks Fred Hampton to “tell ‘em about my Jake,” because, “it don’t seem fair, that that’s his legacy.” That same lamentation can be made about the film in relation to Hampton.
The Chaka King-directed film is ambitious but ultimately falters under the weight of an unfeasible task: telling a Hollywood story about Black Radicalism. Daniel Kaluuya shines as Fred Hampton in a manner that makes you wish he was in every scene. Hampton has been the focus of the film’s marketing. But he’s de-centered in the 2-hour movie which closely follows William O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield), the FBI shill tasked to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and help the government take Hampton down.
Lakeith Stanfield does a solid job as O’Neal, depicting him as a sneering car thief who only becomes emotionally conflicted about his treachery later in the film. But the writers would have been better served to portray him as the 17-year-old he was when the FBI first ensnared him. That’s a major error in a film that can’t be saved by its creator’s good intentions. King only explores a surface-level depiction of Hampton which focuses on his anti-police stance and efforts to unite Chicago activists but doesn’t dig deep into his anti-imperialist ideologies, maybe because Hollywood doesn’t want those projected on HBO Max.
What the movie amounts to is a watered-down retelling of a story that may in fact inspire some people to read about Hampton — where they’ll wonder why the depth of his politics was omitted from the film. And while some people may give the film an E for effort, acknowledging that Hampton’s politics couldn’t be fully portrayed in a Warner Bros-backed film, those limitations reflect why his story isn’t meant to be told in this format. Judas and the Black Messiah again demonstrates the confines of Black storytelling in Hollywood. Radicalism can’t be dramatized by an industry it exists to abolish.
Stanfield pops up onscreen first with a badge (instantly vilifying him in a Black Panthers film), before being collared by an FBI agent who we learn propositions him to infiltrate the Panthers organization. He’s instantly seen in a Panther meeting and then trusted with driving Hampton around (despite them previously having a disagreement about O’Neal’s treatment of women). There’s too little development to O’Neal’s character, especially when his actual story is more compelling.
O’Neal reflected in his 1990 tell-all interview that he was 17, doing "everything from car theft and home invasion to kidnapping and torture," when an FBI agent nabbed him for taking a stolen car across state lines. He said his “recruitment by the FBI was very efficient, very simple,” perhaps because he had his own ambitions of ”wanting to be a policeman, admiring and respecting policemen,” as he said in an unaired segment of his interview. His motivations would have been better explained with a bit of context about his law enforcement ambitions. And while Stanfield depicts him as a weathered conman, he was actually a child.
The creators should have nabbed a young actor to properly demonstrate O’Neal’s youth. He would have ultimately been seen as vermin no matter how old his actor was, but a younger actor would have offered more context to the FBI’s ruthlessness in using him to go after Panthers who were barely in their 20s themselves. But perhaps other agendas muddied the storytelling. The FBI probably doesn’t mind being portrayed in a slightly less sinister light turning a fully grown Stanfield instead of a kid. Hollywood needed a neat hero-villain binary and a well-known actor opposite Kaluuya. But what was needed for people desiring to learn their history (supposedly the film’s purported target audience) was accuracy. We deal with white people depicting teenagers as men to pathologize us all the time — we shouldn’t be doing it in our own stories.
O’Neal’s story was incomplete, as was Hampton’s. Kaluuya mirrored Hampton’s vocal cadence, passion, and mannerisms in awe-inspiring fashion. He made the most of a limited script. The film lets us know Hampton hates pigs, he mentions socialism several times, and he’s seeking to unite movements across racial lines. All three of these are ideas mirrored by today’s nationally known progressive movements; he’s basically depicted as an earlier model of a Black Lives Matter activist.
But the film doesn’t reflect any of Hampton’s anti-imperialist views. Only once near the end of the film is it mentioned that Hampton had previously discussed creating an “international proletariat movement,” but he hadn’t actually mentioned that onscreen. Hampton and the Panthers’ beef wasn’t just with local police departments — they were staunchly against America’s worldwide colonialism and imperialism. They stood with freedom fighters all over the world. The film’s omission of his anti-imperialist politics reeks of Warner Bros trying to sanitize his legacy.
America and Europe destabilized huge swathes of the world. Innocent people in every continent have been the victims of droning and other nefarious acts committed in the name of America gaining resources and seeking to police the world’s ideologies. Colonialism is at the root of racism, colorism, social and economic inequality, and purposeful miseducation—like in Hollywood biopics that won’t tell the full story.
The film’s inability to broach Hampton’s views on America’s worldwide assailing leaves a stench. While domestic policing is a known scourge, scenes showing Hampton address the American establishment’s worldwide pillaging would be too self-condemnatory. Even today’s mainstream news media is reticent to report on the depravity of America’s foreign relations.
And while Kaluuya was rousing in his portrayal of Hampton’s speeches, the film didn’t give a true scope of the revolutionary’s righteous anger. Hampton once discussed beating Black capitalists to death with a Black Panther Party Newspaper. That’s gold that a scriptwriter didn’t even have to make up. But his disdain for Black capitalism is left out of the film — probably because of the number of Black capitalists involved in its creation, as evidenced by the official soundtrack.
The film’s most distressing scene is the grisly depiction of the CPD’s attack on Hampton, Mark Clark, and other Panthers. In a movie defined by abrupt jumps and surface-level writing, they were uncharacteristically patient in their portrayal of Hampton’s final moments. They even included cops gloating that he was good and dead after shooting him point-blank. Perhaps King was trying to stir anger with the scene. He did — at him. We’re inundated with Black death every day. Scenes like this contribute to dangerous desensitization to images of our demise. This was the worst possible venue for a reminder that Black death is fodder for American entertainment. King could have used the ominous shot of O’Neal leaving Hampton’s home, then skipped to someone retelling what happened. But in a film that was supposed to celebrate his legacy, their recounting of his death wasn’t commemorative, it was cruel.
It was clear that there were lines the film wasn’t going to cross at risk of not being signed off on by Warner’s white executives. Some may simply accept the restrictions as a cost of doing business with Hollywood — but then, why do the business?
Judas And The Black Messiah feels like another piece of media in a long line of recent films and documentaries seeking to capitalize on America’s renewed interest in social justice, that seeks to edify but ultimately reminds us of white supremacy’s ongoing treachery. With Hampton dead at the end of a film depicting the FBI’s plot to kill him, one can’t help but think “whiteness won” by virtue of the story being disseminated via a white institution. The film is a sobering reminder of the challenges revolutionaries face against the American empire. Are we supposed to believe J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Mitchell’s present-day successors are any less ruthless?
Creating a Warner Bros-backed film about an anti-capitalist movement is oxymoronic from the gate. Hampton would rather have had the film’s $26 million budget spent on the Black community. The plague of whiteness — and the praxis of radical movements fighting it — is too vast of a threat to be contextualized in a 2-hour film. These stories are best told in a literary fashion, where the full nuance and context breathe on the page.
Telling a Black Panther story isn’t like giving N.W.A. their flowers or compositing the Harlem drug trade like Paid In Full. These stories are too vital to our salvation to be subject to Hollywood’s period piece machinations, being manipulated for mass appeal. This is a retelling of a struggle that’s still ongoing. The FBI is still harassing “Black identity extremists,” and young Black activists are still being killed under suspicious circumstances. O’Neal’s story reflects COINTELPRO tactics that are likely still taking place. None of this is fodder for entertainment, especially from the very establishment that figures like Hampton were seeking to abolish. Revolution isn’t a commodity, it’s a necessity.
Hollywood doesn’t deserve the right to depict our ongoing fight for salvation, especially when its emissaries benefit so greatly from the sustenance of our oppression. The longer that white people (and “seat”-seeking Black people) uphold capitalism, the more stories they’ll get to tell about those who fought the system. I’m not excited for them.
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