Rooting for (Almost) Everybody Black
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Suggests Wary Hope for Today’s Movement for Black Lives
Kendrick Lamar said on 2015’s To a Pimp a Butterfly (where it echoed like a wounded refrain), “I remember you was conflicted.” And in Judas and the Black Messiah (streaming since last Friday on HBO Max), just the opposite seems to apply: Fred Hampton, chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party has no conflicts about living and dying for the people; Bill O’Neal, the titular “Judas” appears to have none about completely throwing us under the bus.
Devoting even a little attention to such a morally bankrupt figure, based on the real-life O’Neal, a petty thief who became an FBI informant who helped plot Hampton’s assassination on December 4, 1969, while he and his pregnant wife were asleep, feels, at times disheartening in a film dedicated to the legacy of such a beloved freedom fighter. That the love and dedication are felt, despite the uneasy contrast between its two main characters is a testament to the film’s anticipatory power.
Beginning with a clip of O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) on “Eyes on the Prize II” in 1989 looking visibly shaken and sweating before responding to a question about his betrayal, director Shaka King utilizes the film-within-a-film approach (the real-life O’Neal that year egregiously claimed on the docuseries, “I was part of the struggle . . . I wasn’t one of those armchair revolutionaries”) to comment on the action which immediately unfolds. Before you know it, he’s in a political education assembly in 1968, with Hampton — a radiant Daniel Kaluuya — and other Panthers, shifty-eyed and conniving with a bandage over one eye.
Just a few scenes back, after a botched robbery attempt in a bar where he impersonates an FBI agent, he’s in the interrogation room with a real one, Roy Mitchell (played wonderfully, with amused menace, by Jesse Plemons). Before telling O’Neal he’s looking at at least five years and 18 months, Mitchell asks him if he was upset at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s recent murder. Desperate and scared, O’Neal is noncommittal.
Even if you don’t at all agree with his motivations, the suspense makes you follow the tight narrative and stick with his character, even as his ideological antithesis Hampton in the very next scene addresses an auditorium with a characteristically impassioned and demotic speech — Kaluuya nails his diction and fiery cadence — and completely wins you over.
What happens from there belongs, obviously, to the legacy of Fred Hampton, whose mythology is 50-plus years in the making. So there are no spoilers here. You should see the film, however, if you haven’t already, as well as read up on Hampton and the Black Panther Party.
With their history in mind, what Judas and the Black Messiah illustrates is how far we’ve come since the Panthers’ late-’60s heyday. (Agents provocateurs like O’Neal are still here sucking up air, but not nearly as effective to on-the-ground activists, let alone the rest of us in Black peoplehood, preoccupied as we are with harmful hot takes from Diamond and Silk, “Uncle” Ben Carson and others in the “Massa, we sick!” Militia. Speaking of history, if it’s taught us nothing else it’s that not everyone’s worth saving, every brother ain’t a brother, etc. — call it “progress” that now we just meme the shit out of you and move TF on as a culture.)
Our generation, like Fred Hampton, isn’t interested in reform. We demand the abolishment of prisons; the defunding of police; and the reallocation of resources in Black (and POC and poor) communities.
The Panthers, then, were a restless evolution from the civil rights agitation of Martin and the Black nationalism of Malcolm — less about a central charismatic “messiah” figure and more about the community. (Hampton was almost literally the last of a dying breed.) They were neither separatists like Malcolm for most of his public life (see also the BBP’s relations with white Berkeley students and fellow travelers in China), nor were they committed to nonviolence like Martin. The Black Panthers brought us to where we are today, with the loose and leaderless reach of the Movement for Black Lives in all its anxious incomprehensible glory.
We’re definitely media savvy, interested in celebrity, respectful of symbols (and the power of symbolism), reverent in our irreverence, possessed of a firm grasp of history translated into praxis — a whole humanistic hydra that much harder to get at.
This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive account of BLM or its history. But since it became a hashtag in 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman after he murdered Trayvon Martin in cold blood, the movement that it sparked put forth some immediate demands. Today, we like Fred Hampton are not interested in reform. We demand the abolishment of prisons; the defunding of police; and the reallocation of resources in Black (and POC and poor) communities.
But we improved on the BPP’s model by repping the many faces of Négritude: sometimes we’re ultamasculine, sometimes nonbinary or genderqueer. We’re definitely media savvy, interested in celebrity, respectful of symbols (and the power of symbolism), reverent in our irreverence, possessed of a firm grasp of history translated into praxis — a whole humanistic hydra that much harder to get at.
One benefit of our inheritance is that it allows us to bring back traditions that worked all along (but maybe fell by the wayside during the BPP’s most active period) while acknowledging that good-on-paper ideologies (see also: Huey P. Newton’s promotion of Marxism) with disastrous historical consequences need to be canceled along with those dead white men who forced them on us in the first place.
The authority of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. came, at the end of the day, from God Himself — when he gave one of his ardent and eloquently worded speeches, our folk knew how to hear him. Same with El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz who, after all, was a religious leader. Our generation is as open to staying prayed up as it is to petitioning. But we’re also as bound to the avenue as we are to the altar (K-Dot can, wonder of wonders, share the same psychic space with the Clark Sisters).
As Regina King showed us in her brilliant One Night in Miami, a fictional narrative based on real relationships, Malcolm was simpatico with celebrity. Not for nothing was he palling around with Ali and Jim Brown, who were both activists themselves with a massive influence on the world. His debates with Sam Cooke in the film — about the social responsibility of Black artists only prove how well he understood the symbolic power of public figures. And never forget: Martin, between risking his life for us, had time to crack jokes, albeit religious-themed ones on “The Tonight Show.”
Throughout Judas, a Hollywood film with massive and subversive influence (and a crucial co-sign from both its hero’s widow and son), Fred Hampton talks about socialism. But by 1968 — ’69, the years the film covers, a more appropriate substitute for socialism may have been “intercommunalism,” as Huey, the Party’s co-founder may have, by then, already settled on the former term after dismissing the latter, concluding, “socialism would require a socialist state, and if a state does not exist how could socialism exist?”
In the speech he gave at Boston College a year after Hampton’s murder, Huey kept going back to “Revolutionary Intercommualism,” insisting that we must “crush the ruling circle” by seizing the means of production from them because if they remained in power, the proletarian class will “definitely be on the decline because they will be unemployable and therefore swell the ranks of the lumpens, who are the present unemployable.”
Serious talk for very serious times. (I can’t help but think of Nikki Giovanni who ended her poem, “For Saundra” in 1968 — a time when revolutionaries might not have had much patience for God or mass-marketed humor or the television screen — with “perhaps these are not poetic times at all.”)
But from today’s vantage, Huey’s utopian vision of a society that is “‘essentially human,’” “that will serve the people instead of some god” did not materialize. And the proletariat did indeed become unemployable (evident everywhere post COVID but also on season 2 of “The Wire”). But they still refused to identify with the lumpen. As we saw with last month’s attack at the Capitol, resulting in the deaths of five people, these so-called “lumpen” venerated a president who encouraged their terroristic rebellion against any such classification.
The common bond, or uniting of the masses didn’t flourish after any kind of power seizure from the ruling class. But we — sustaining ourselves through God or the ancestors or yoga or YG songs — did form a multiracial coalition in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and manage to shift a cool $8 million from his Minneapolis hometown’s police department to violence prevention and mental health programs before voting the fascist who referred to Heather Heyer’s killers as “very fine people” out of office.
We’re in your city, in these streets, on whatever screen of whatever device of your choice. We crash town hall meetings, publish op-eds and talk cash shit on the Internet. We’re not always gonna get along (that at least someone at BLM, Inc. felt the need to greenlight a celebratory MLK Day Twerk — which the man would not have wanted to be associated with his legacy, his sense of humor notwithstanding — still gets the Peoples’ Side-Eye in perpetuity). But we’re still family (and we’re changing the world on our terms). Bill O’Neal, though he snitched, was still a victim of the state. We all could be. Meanwhile, I got your back if you got mine. Loving you is complicated.