Dare to struggle: Judas and the Black Messiah (***)

by Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 27. 2021)

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Kay: You know how naïve you sound? Presidents and Senators don’t have men killed.

Michael: Oh. Who’s being naïve, Kay?

— from The Godfather

While it is based on a true story and billed as a “biopic”, Shaka King’s new film Judas and the Black Messiah feels more akin to fictional early 70s conspiracy thrillers like The Conversation, The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor. Those three films (released in proximity of the Watergate break-in scandal and President Richard Nixon’s consequent resignation) are permeated by an atmosphere of paranoia, distrust and betrayal that mirrors the climate of the Nixon era. That is not to imply Judas and the Black Messiah is made up from whole cloth. From a recent Democracy Now broadcast:

[Host Amy Goodman] Newly unearthed documents have shed new light on the FBI’s role in the murder of the 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969, when Chicago police raided Hampton’s apartment and shot and killed him in his bed, along with fellow Black Panther leader Mark Clark. Authorities initially claimed the Panthers had opened fire on the police who were there to serve a search warrant for weapons, but evidence later emerged that told a very different story: The FBI, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Chicago police had conspired to assassinate Fred Hampton. FBI memos and reports obtained by historian and writer Aaron Leonard now show that senior FBI officials played key roles in planning the raid and the subsequent cover-up. “It was approved at the highest level,” says attorney Jeff Haas.

Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies conspiring to assassinate an American citizen as he slept in his apartment? It happened. Haas, a founding member of the People’s Law Office in Chicago and one of the lead lawyers in the (posthumous) Fred Hampton civil rights case elaborated to host Amy Goodman (from the same broadcast):

But what [documents] showed was that [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover, [director of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division William] Sullivan and [head of the Extremist Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division George] Moore were following Roy Mitchell, a special agent in charge, very closely with regard to [FBI informant Bill] O’Neal. And they were complimenting him and rewarding him from the moment he gave the information and the floor plan [for Fred Hampton’s apartment] to special agent Mitchell. They were congratulating Mitchell on what a wonderful job he did with this informant. Of course, Mitchell got the floor plan, gave it to Hanrahan’s [Chicago] police, and that’s what led to the raid. The floor plan even showed the bed where Hampton and Johnson would be sleeping.

So, we knew much of this. We knew O’Neal had gotten a bonus. We never knew Mitchell got a bonus. And we never knew that Hoover and Sullivan and Moore were starting to watch this in November, 10 days before it happened. They were monitoring exactly what went on. And so it was approved at the highest level. And during the trial, we had sought to go up to Sullivan and Moore and Hoover, but the judge wouldn’t allow us. And we thought perhaps even John Mitchell and Richard Nixon were involved. We didn’t have these documents, so we couldn’t uncover that. This also shows that after the raid, the head of the FBI in Chicago met with and congratulated the informant, O’Neal, thanked him for his information, which led to the success of the raid.

Possible direct involvement by the White House certainly qualifies as the “highest level”. It is also interesting that an “Extremist Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division” existed in 1969 to keep close watch on the Panthers and other organizations that shared what present-day Fox prime time hosts might sneeringly refer to as “radical extremist socialist agendas” (BTW if such a special section still exists…where was their vigilance this past January 6th?).

That is a lot to unpack; much less in a 2-hour film. Perhaps wisely, writer-director King and co-writers Will Berson, Kenneth Lucas and Keith Lucas focus less on the complex political machinations and more on the personal aspects of the story.

More specifically, the filmmakers construct a dual narrative that shows how the life paths of charismatic Marxist revolutionary Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the man who would ultimately play “Judas” to his “black messiah”, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) converged.

There isn’t much backstory offered explaining Hampton’s rapid transformation from aspiring law student who joined the NAACP in the mid-60s to founder of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers in 1968; but then again, considering that he was dead and gone by age 21, his historical impact seems all the more remarkable.

On the other hand, O’Neal (who was one year younger than Hampton) is a man with less lofty ideals and negligible passion for politics. He is a career criminal whose luck runs out when he gets nailed for a felony beef after driving a stolen car across state lines. The arresting officer is FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who offers O’Neal a way out: infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, become an FBI informant, and win fabulous prizes (like having his felony charges disappear). O’Neal accepts the deal.

O’Neal ingratiates himself with Hampton, to the point where he becomes a member of the Chairman’s trusted inner circle. Along the way, the filmmakers offer a Cliff’s Notes summary of Hampton’s brief but productive tenure as head of the Chicago Panthers; his implementation of a program providing free breakfasts for schoolchildren, establishment of a free clinic, and (most impressively) mediating a peace treaty between long-time rival Chicago street gangs (ultimately leading to formation of the original multiracial “Rainbow Coalition”).

Ironically, it’s not so much what Hampton “does” that matters one way or the other to FBI director Hoover (Martin Sheen) and the rest of the posse out to “neutralize” the threat (perceived or otherwise) Hampton represents to the status quo, but rather what he says…which is at times incendiary and what some might even call seditious (Hoover is on record declaring the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”).

Just months before his death Hampton is arrested for (of all things) stealing $70 worth of candy. He is convicted, but the charges are overturned. There were several police raids on the Black Panthers’ HQ the same year, although the filmmakers distill them into one shootout incident. Clearly, the authorities were circling their prey, culminating in the fateful late-night raid in December of 1969 that left Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clarke dead and several people wounded. The reenactment of the incident is harrowing and affecting.

Ballistic evidence revealed one shot fired by the Panthers…and 100 (one hundred) shots fired by the police. Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds more like a police “assault” than a police “raid”. One of the people in the apartment that night was Hampton’s eight-month pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson (wonderfully played in the film by Dominique Fishback, who was a standout in the HBO series The Deuce). No matter how you may view Hampton’s place in history (hero or villain) the circumstances of his demise should dismay anyone familiar with the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which says (among other things)

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Judas and the Black Messiah is not a definitive biopic but does convey that what happened to Fred Hampton was an American tragedy…sadly, one that continues to occur to this day.

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