Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah is a recently released historical drama that I recently viewed and feel very strongly about. Starring a plethora of extremely talented African American actors, Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of William O’Neal, a young man in the 60’s who makes a plea deal with the FBI that includes him infiltrating the rising Black Panther Party and getting closer to one of its most pivotal leaders, Chairman Fred Hampton. Although this is a movie directly about black history and portraying a pivotal time for black people in this nation, I feel its significance is much more than just that, as it speaks on and connects to our very understanding of African American History. Its primary themes of Power and Mindset are very well displayed and are imperative to contextualize many aspects of the history of Black people in this country. Also, the film serves a noble purpose of educating its viewers not only about these themes but also on who the black panthers are, what they stand for, and how and why their historical image has been minimized and skewed. It is a film that I enjoyed very much, and I feel needs to be viewed by anyone trying to better understand African American History.
Firstly, what I believe to be the most major and clear theme in the movie, is that of Power. Obviously, the movie is about a revolutionary group and one of its most notable leaders, therefore essentially everything in it revolves around either who holds power, ways to acquire more power, or ways in which to utilize said power. However, I feel like it explores this theme from multiple angles which is why the theme is shown so effectively. The first angle it takes to display the theme of power is from the perspective of the oppressor or those in power and how they abuse it. During the film, we see many white characters in high-ranking positions of government (J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Agent Mitchell, etc.) using and abusing their power to further suppress the black panther movement and push their personal agendas. In the opening minutes of the film, we are shown a brief montage of the good deeds of the black panther party including their medical clinic, lunch feeding programs, educational programs, and other community initiatives they were involved in. Yet, right after said montage it hard cuts to J. Edgar Hoover stating that “the black panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security, more than the Chinese, even more than the Russians” and deems the party a “Terrorist Organization” right after they showed all the good things the black panthers were doing for communities. This is a strong and effective way of showing how the people and institutions in power can abuse it to control narratives, events, and consequently, history. Also, during the rising action of the film, the police purposefully and unnecessarily burn down the black panther headquarters, doing so with no consequences or repercussions for blatant destruction of property and borderline terrorism. This is only possible because of the political and societal power that these people and institutions, as no one can punish them when they are the punishers.
On the contrary, Hampton and the Black Panthers believed that they could combat the power of the police, federal agencies, and government as a whole, with their own power, that being the power of the people. Repeatedly throughout the movie, Fred speaks on the power in unity, as he genuinely believed no matter the strength of the opposition, there will always be power in the gathering of the people. This is summed up greatly when Hampton says:
“The pigs do everything in their power to keep us isolated, because they know if we get organized it’s over for their asses” 54:22
Fred and the Panthers are aware of the power in the people gathering and are also aware the government is trying to do everything they can do to stop that from happening. This is best shown in this clip below where Hampton reaches out to groups of both white and Puerto Rican nationality to form the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ in an attempt to create a joint front against the police and oppressive government.
This clip and so many others throughout the movie display the importance of power in our society and does so by highlighting both sides of the fight for equality by African Americans in this country.
Secondly and lastly is the theme of mindset. This movie is a very character-driven movie and uses analysis of characters to represent different types of people and mindsets that were prevalent at that time. To do so it highlights the mindsets of different characters in different positions (Agent Mitchell, Fred Hampton, William, etc.). For example, when showing Agent Mitchell, the film is giving us insight into one end of the spectrum, the mindset of the oppressor. Agent Mitchell and his co-workers are stuck in a mindset of superiority, and to maintain this feeling of superiority they are willing to lie, cheat, kill, and essentially anything no matter the morality. This mindset is so strong that even at the end of the film when Fred is murdered and Agent Mitchell and William are sitting at dinner, Agent Mitchell feels as if he’s done a good deed and that he should be praised or thanked for doing so, displaying the pinnacle of his superiority complex/mindset. Then somewhere in the middle, there is William O’Neal, who at first has conformed to his life of oppression and is simply living to survive within a system that seeks to eradicate his people. He is stuck in that mindset until he sees and is surrounded by people like Fred and the Panthers who refuse to conform, and he begins to wonder if maybe he can aspire for more. Lastly, on the opposite end of the spectrum is Fred Hampton, where we see the mindset of black people trying to break out of the mindset of the oppressed and shift to a mindset to use the power that they must organize and fight for their deserved rights.
In this clip Hampton makes powerful statements surrounding the mindset of black people and how that is the true strength in their movement, one of these statements being:
“If you dare to struggle, you dare to win. If you dare not struggle, then goddamnit you don’t deserve to win!”
This quote perfectly captures the mindset of the African American freedom fighter and shows a reluctance to conform to the will of the white-run government and displays the importance of the presence of this mindset.
Connection to the Rest of Black History/Class
Although these themes are all well done and portrayed in the confines of the movie, I feel they expand so much farther than just this movie and that they connect directly to all African American history and how we perceive, comprehend, and understand it. These themes can be applied to most, if not all aspects of the history of Black people in this country, and with a better understanding of these themes we can start to better understand this history and grow from it. For example, in our class we were assigned a reading entitled “Making Slaves Document Project”, in which we read about the Codification and Legislation of Slavery, Racism, and Oppression. It details different case rulings, codes created, and laws put in place that took legally took away the freedoms of black people and provided consequences (many of which were death, beating, or worse) if said mandates were not followed. These were put into effect to “make slaves” as with those laws and mandates in place, Black people were not just being oppressed by people, but by the very society that they live in. They wanted to make it seemingly impossible for slaves to become free or feel equal as an attempt to create a “slave” mindset in African Americans so that they would stay stagnant and comfortable in their life of slavery and oppression, similar to that of William O’Neal in the film. This reading applies to our themes of Power and Mindset very directly. It connects to the theme of power quite easily, as the government and lawmakers used their power to create legislation to further oppress Black people in this country and simultaneously acquire more power for themselves. It connects to the theme because not only are the people in power stuck in a mindset of superiority to Black people but so much so that they are attempting to force Black people into a certain mindset of conformity when it comes to their disenfranchisement. This is just one example of countless that you can relate these two themes two, showing how important and imperative they are to the overall understanding of African American History.
This movie was meant to broadcast the themes of Power and Mindset, however, it also served to bring light to the black panther party and reeducate not only about the black panther party but the corruption and wrongdoing of the U.S. This movie effectively shows the black panthers’ actual goals and actions that the textbooks nowadays will never tell us. The Black Panther Party was not just about equality for black people, it was trying to tear down the system of oppression as a whole that kept majority black people but also all races under and this film highlights this well. Although I know more about the Black Panthers through personal research, yet throughout my schooling up to this point I have barely learned anything about them, their movement, or what they stood/stand for other than they were “Radical” and “Carried Guns”. Yet, in the movie they are shown educating, feeding the hungry, taking care of children, empowering the oppressed, exercising their rights to the fullest and so many other honorable and noble things especially considering the time they were in. One of my favorite scenes of the movie is towards the beginning when Fred is teaching a group of panthers in a classroom setting about the difference between War and Politics. He was educating the party on how “War is Politics with bloodshed and Politics is War without bloodshed” and teaching them deep political and social concepts and tactics, which was one of the true purposes of the black panthers. This movie helps rewrite this narrative and show what the Black Panther Party was/is truly about and shows all of the good they were doing for communities and their prolonged struggle against a system built to oppress them. History is written by the victors, yet now as we advance into new eras of increasing equality, we can begin to rewrite or bring light to sections of history that were not given justice beforehand and I believe this film is a great example of just that.
King, Shaka, director. Judas and the Black Messiah . Judas and the Black Messiah, 2021, play.hbomax.com/feature/urn:hbo:feature:GYBmsKA4FaUnDdQEAAAAj.
White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: a History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2021.