In March of 1968, J. Edgar Hoover issued a memorandum to the agents of COINTELPRO, a covert and illegal series of counterintelligence operations: “Prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.”
Hoover’s directive went on to caution that Martin Luther King Jr “could be a very real contender for this position”.
King had in fact been the subject of surveillance and discreditation campaigns by COINTELPRO since 1963 their shady efforts detailed in Sam Pollard’s 2020 documentary MLK/FBI.
Shaka King’s stirring and distressingly relevant docudrama Judas and the Black Messiah depicts the rise and FBI-orchestrated fall of another, lesser-known Black civil rights leader.
Fred Hampton played here by Daniel Kaluuya, who’s already bagged a Golden Globe for his work was armed with precisely the kind of oratorical and organisational skills that had Hoover so worried. At the time of the FBI director’s memorandum, he was putting both to use as the Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Unbeknownst to Hampton, there was a rat in the ranks.
Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Sorry to Bother You) told Level that playing FBI informant William O’Neal was “one of the hardest things Ive ever had to do”.(Supplied: Warner Bros
King’s film comes loaded with Departed-esque intrigue, with Hampton’s head of security, William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), squeezed for intel by Jesse Plemons’ strategically chummy, moon-faced FBI agent, under the threat of jail time for a bungled attempt at grand theft auto.
Where “Bill” is driven by self-preservation, Fred is committed to the cause above all else.
“I believe I’m gonna die doing what I was born for,” declares Kaluuya’s Hampton, addressing a rapt assembly. (The occasion: his release from prison, where he was doing time for the heinous offense of stealing ice cream.) “I’m gonna die for the people because I live for the people!”
Kaluuya turns in a full-bodied performance that Hoover who lurks at the film’s periphery in the form of a reptilian, glassy-eyed Martin Sheen would no doubt have found alarmingly ‘electrifying’.
At times the gusto of the actor’s delivery seems to cause his heels to lift off the ground, pitching him closer in towards the mic.
Kaluuya told the Washington Post that Hampton has “been silenced and … assassinated, physically and culturally. This is an opportunity to put him in his rightful position”.(Supplied: Warner Bros
His declaration of Hampton’s fatalistic rallying cry “I’m gonna die for the people!” stings with dramatic irony: the revolutionary activist was shot and killed by police officers during an FBI-sanctioned raid carried out in the predawn hours of December 4, 1969, while he lay sleeping in bed next to his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (portrayed onscreen by Dominique Fishback). He was just 21 years old, and Johnson was nine months pregnant.
(Johnson, now known as Akua Njeri, served as the film’s cultural advisor together with son Fred Hampton Jr, a community organiser in his father’s mould, and the current Chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs.)
Of the eight others in the apartment at the time, four were critically injured, and Mark Clark, the Panther on security duty, was also killed.
The Chicago Police Department attempted to justify the bloodshed by claiming that their officers had been attacked. Subsequent investigations would reveal, however, that just one of the 90 plus shots fired came from the Panthers Clark’s gun had discharged into the ceiling as the result of a death convulsion.
King told Variety the film was an opportunity to counter the decades of lies, spread by the FBI, about the Black Panther movement.(Supplied: Warner Bros
King and co-writer Will Berson are unequivocal in their presentation of Hampton’s death as entirely premeditated, and not the ‘justifiable homicide’ ruled by a coroner’s jury in 1970.
We see Deborah escorted from the bedroom and handcuffed, a pistol jabbing her bulging belly. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt keeps the camera trained on her face while officers go back for Fred.
“Looks like he’s gonna make it,” comes a muted voice from offscreen; then two shots ring out, each accompanied by a burst of light, and the flickering of a flinch across Deborah’s pointedly blank visage. “He’s good and dead now,” comes the half-quipped reply.
O’Neal had slipped barbiturates into the Chairman’s drink that night, leaving him incapable of warding off his attackers; he had also furnished the authorities with the floorplan of the apartment. (For his “uniquely valuable service,” he would be rewarded with a bonus of $300.)
After seeing the film, congressman Stephen Cohen has revived efforts to remove J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI building in Washington, DC.(Supplied: Warner Bros
But Bill sitting slouched in his FBI handler’s living room, fidgeting under Plemons’ blandly patronising gaze, puffing inexpertly on a proffered cigar is not quite the villain of the piece.
He was a pawn in a game that he didn’t, or didn’t want to, understand though an unquiet conscience is suggested through the skittishness, deftly played by Stanfield, that occasionally rumples his assured facade, and by the revelation of his suicide in 1990, at age 40, given amongst the film’s surfeit of textual codas.
There can be sympathy for O’Neal, despite his cowardice, where there can be none for Hoover and his lackeys.
“I want to challenge people to think about the ways they might be ONeal-esque,” Stanfield told Level.(Supplied: Warner Bros
Under Hoover’s decades-long reign, the FBI cultivated a firmly hands-on approach to its representation in Hollywood. From James Cagney in 1935 hit G-Men through to Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, onscreen Federal agents have traditionally been clean-cut, valiant, and dedicated to a fault.
The fact that Judas and the Black Messiah which was produced by none other than Warner Brothers, the studio that the FBI director found most amenable to his propagandistic ends is unafraid to take the Bureau to task can be understood as a heartening sign of the times; together with films like MLK/FBI and Benedict Andrews’ Seberg (2019), it functions as evidence of a cultural reckoning in the works.
The film is not quite a revisionist history, however: that Hampton was murdered was always the contention of the BPP, and they found some support in the media of the day, even if the scummy details of the FBI’s involvement would take years to bubble to the surface.
What Shaka King offers is instead a timely reminder, written in the slick, bold font of a major studio production, that racism is systemic, and it goes all the way to the top and, crucially, that it feeds on the underdeveloped political consciousness.
LoadingJudas and the Black Messiah is in cinemas from March 11.