I’ve been hearing about Fred Hampton for years but I’ve never sat down and really engaged with him and the real purpose of the Black Panther Party until watching Judas and The Black Messiah. Shows like The Boondocks and podcasts like Throughline have made sure that my knowledge of black history didn’t stay relegated to the narrow teachings from school. But even then I didn’t know everything. I don’t wanna say I’m glad I waited until now, but it feels perfect that I saw this now of all times.
Right now, America is down particularly bad. A pandemic that seemingly will never end has exacerbated economic inequalities that had always been there. The last four, or really twelve, years have exacerbated political (read: racial) differences more than in the last few decades. But while many people doubled down onto their flawed and harmful traditions, I and millions of others have been pushed to the left politically by these events.
Those of us in this category, or at least just me, have gone from hoping that the capitalist system we’re a part of can reform to be fairer to demanding we throw the whole system out completely in favor of something that isn’t fundamentally broken. And the further exposure of just how corrupt our system of law enforcement is for blacks and others who are either too dark or too poor has lead to an increasing distain of all law enforcement by people of all races.
None of that is super important for the movie but I mention all of it because this is the context I saw this movie in. I’ve already been thinking about how socialism could help better our society. I’ve already been thinking about how my disdain for police has steady grown to outright hatred as I’ve gotten older. And I’ve already been thinking about how much more powerful those of us at the bottom of society would be if we worked together across race and societal divides. So, seeing all of those concepts tackled in this movie just resonated with me on such a deep level.
Of course, Daniel Kaluuya was a damn near perfect Fred Hampton. He managed to bring a comforting intimacy to some scenes while bringing thunderous energy to others. Of course, Dominique Fishback was a wonderful Deborah Johnson. The burden of loving a man whose existence was a threat to those in power, culminating in a final heartbreaking scene, was visible in every nuance of her performance.
Of course, LaKeith Stanfield was a great Bill O’Neal. He expertly straddled the line between the cowardice and fear of someone who could commit such an incredibly heinous betrayal and the sincere pride and commitment one would have after being inspired by the Party. He’s as easy to hate as he is to sympathize with, and I found myself conflicted with his characters up to the very end. Even Jesse Plemons, who I loved in Fargo Season 2, perfectly portrayed the kind of well-meaning white man that so quickly trades their morality for the preservation of their comfort.
The film was satisfying paced, with way more action scenes than I expected and essential plot points coming on a consistent basis. The use of a documentary frame, though noticeably inconsistent, really paid off in the very end. And the same undercover suspense you’d find in a movie like The Departed can be found here in spades. It’s the kind of historical film that enriches my understanding of the historical figures without sacrificing the entertainment value of the film itself. And I’m glad for it, as I’m sure the love for the leads and the ease of access of HBO Max will help it see a lot more eyes.
But as I alluded to earlier, this movie was so much more to me than a few great performances and a satisfying plot. It showed me how concepts considered so extreme today were the very same ideas that revolutionaries of the past, the same ones we idolize today, we’re fighting for. It showed me just how much can be accomplished with collective action and positive intent. And it also showed me how the brutality of America, from its corrupt system of policing to its intentionally uneven economic hierarchy. wipes away any real moment to better it. As I said, I already had all of these things in my mind, but seeing once again just how long these injustices have been fought against reality did something to me.
My parents already don’t have the same tastes in movies as me, but they’ve always had a particular dislike of slave movies. They’ve always said that they don’t want to watch them because it’d just make them mad. It even took my mom years to watch Django Unchained despite me telling her explicitly of its happy ending, and my dad has still yet to see it. Well, I feel like Judas and The Black Messiah is the closest thing I may have to a slave movie.
Despite still suffering from the repercussions of slavery without proper reparations and those who fought to keep it still having yet to be properly punished, it’s long enough ago that it’s far too easy to detach myself from the suffering. But Fred Hampton was assassinated a little more than 50 years ago. His fight was so recent that every single injustice he wished to eradicate is still a major issue in my life now. And, much like my parents with slave movies, watching just how the momentum of his movement was cut short pissed me the fuck off.
But while I can’t take direct action to stop these past atrocities, I can still try to make the present better. I may not know what I can do alone, but I do know any action will be much more easily taken if we work together. And the anger that this film lights inside of me can hopefully be fostered into the will to do something about it. And if all of us get pissed off enough to do that, then…maybe we can actually finish what he started.