The Unsettling Message of Judas and the Black Messiah

The new crime thriller about a magnetic leader of the Black Panther Party is a sharp criticism of the FBI’s surveillance of social movements past and present.

Daniel Kaluuya stars in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
When Black groups agitate for better living conditions and an end to systemic racism and police brutality, they are quickly labeled a threat to national security.

“The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security. Our counterintelligence program must prevent the rise of a Black messiah from among their midst.” And so begins Judas and the Black Messiah, with an ominous speech from the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen) in 1968.

The film, which debuted yesterday in theaters and on HBO Max, is part crime thriller, part civil-rights historical drama. It tells the story of the rise of the Black Panther Party’s deputy chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), and the informant who helped the FBI orchestrate his assassination, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). Judas, directed by Shaka King, profoundly illuminates COINTELPRO’s legacy of repressing Black freedom movements, the effects of which can still be felt today with regard to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Through King’s masterful storytelling and Kaluuya’s and Stanfield’s stunning performances, viewers learn why the Black Panther Party, created in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to fight against state-sanctioned violence, was referred to as a “Black-nationalist hate group” and subject to the most aggressive targeting by the FBI.

Although Hoover also surveilled Martin Luther King Jr. and groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 233 of COINTELPRO’s 295 actions against Black groups were directed at the BPP. Judas provides an intimate view of what was arguably the most devastating of these COINTELPRO operations.

Early in Judas, O’Neal, who serves as the chief of security for the BPP Chicago chapter, is depicted serving breakfast to Black children (at one point, Hampton boasts that the chapter provided free meals to “3,000 kids a week”). O’Neal loads bags of food for Black families, and helps the organization provide medical care for Black residents. He attends political-education classes run by Hampton, who insists that “it’s going to take everybody” to win the war against “this racist, fascist, and nefarious U.S. government.” True to his inclusive politics, Hampton builds a “Rainbow Coalition” of “oppressed brothers and sisters of every color” with local Black gang members, the Young Lords (a radical Puerto Rican group), and the Young Patriots (a militant group of poor white people).

King’s depiction of the BPP in these scenes serves to undermine the FBI’s prevailing narrative about the Panthers. When the COINTELPRO special agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) brags to O’Neal that he helped investigate the 1964 murders of the civil-rights heroes James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner by the Ku Klux Klan, he asserts, “The Panthers and the Klan are one and the same. Their aim is to sow hatred and inspire terror.” Panthers did exercise their Second Amendment rights to carry guns and, as King shows, engaged in shoot-outs with police in self-defense. But when O’Neal brings Hampton explosives and suggests that they blow up city hall, Hampton responds, “Are you out your mind?” King’s cinematic choice to show BPP members providing vital resources and services to Black Chicagoans pushes back against the dominant understanding of the Panthers in the American popular imagination: that is, as an organization that wantonly killed police officers and spewed hatred against white people in an effort to foment the Black revolution.

As Hampton rises to power in Chicago and continues to disrupt the racial status quo, he becomes even more of a target for the FBI. In the summer of 1969, Sheen’s Hoover delivers another lecture to a packed auditorium, instructing his agents to get Hampton’s “Black ass off the street.” Later, Hoover tells Plemons’s Mitchell that “your GI [ghetto informant, referring to O’Neal,] is our best chance at neutralizing Hampton.” Under increasing pressure from Mitchell, who threatens to expose him to the Panthers, O’Neal eventually provides the FBI with the floorplan of Hampton’s apartment—crucial intelligence that made possible the chairman’s brutal assassination.

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