Review: History Isn’t Black and White


“Judas and the Black Messiah” Captures Complexities of the Civil Rights Movement

Many people are unfamiliar with the parts of the Civil Rights Movement that do not pertain to Martin Luther King, Jr.. It is accepted that he led peaceful protests to successfully fight for civil rights, which led to reforms across the country. However, this is incredibly simplified, and “Judas and the Black Messiah” adds complexity to this narrative, displaying an abrasive, violent, and radical facet of the Civil Rights Movement.

The movie is based on the true story of Fred Hampton, the deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter. The Black Panthers were a small political party that arose during the Civil Rights Movement, making waves in the media for its radical displays. Hampyon is the centerpiece of this movie and the party. He is a revolutionary that unites the members of the party, and he espouses socialist ideas, Black nationalism, and violent action against the police and the state. Very out there, I know, but justified when contextualized by the centuries of oppression that African Americans have faced and the assasination of MLK. These are people who want to be free, and they unapologetically believe that peace will not make progress. 

The movie shines the most in displaying the Panthers as a good-intentioned organization for change. The party is shown supplying childcare, schooling, and healthcare for the impoverished of Chicago. Hamtpon gives speeches promoting the freedom of not just Black Americans but all members of the working class. The party even creates a coalition of Blacks, Whites, and Mexicans, fittingly known as the rainbow coalition, that is anti-racist and anti-class. But, they are also open-carry, use violent rhetoric, and are not afraid to shoot back at the police. This aspect of the Panthers led to media demonization and condemnation, but the movie shows that their intentions are not evil, even if their actions can be morally ambiguous.

Now contextualized, I can describe the tragedy of the movie that makes it so frustrating but so important. Because of their beliefs, the Panthers were targeted by the FBI. To put it into perspective, there are FBI agents in the movie who draw parallels between them and the KKK. So, they task a man, Will O’Neal, to infiltrate the party and act as an informant, facing five years in prison unless he does. What follows is a chronicling of the rise and fall of the party at the hands of the U.S. government.

The story is heartbreaking. What the Panthers build, everything they do for their community, crumbles. I will not describe exactly what happens, but it is violent, and it is clear that what the government does is purely racist. There are no negotiations, no compromise, only brutalization.

But, There is still space for the humanity of the characters to shine through. Hamtpon falls in love; Panthers mourn the losses of those who are killed by police; and O’Neal even begins to identify with the Panther’s cause despite his arrangement with the government. This aspect of the characters could easily be lost in the violent politics, but the characters are not misrepresented as shallow.

There are not many good feelings to be found in this movie, but it is better that way. People want to pretend the Civil Rights Movement was easy and allow the harsh aspects to fade out of the picture. Recognizing movements like the Panthers is crucial to understanding the diversity of ideas in Black history. Movies like these should make us revise what we think we know about the past.