Aside from being well-made and effective as a movie, Warner Bros.’ “Judas and the Black Messiah” has a goal: to counter decades of government lies about the Black Panther Party.
The party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, and ceased operations in 1982. The film, which started streaming Feb. 12, centers on the 1969 murder of BPP leader Fred Hampton and his betrayal by colleague (and FBI informant) William O’Neal.
“Judas,” directed by Shaka King, who wrote the script with Will Berson, from a story by Keith Lucas and Kenneth Lucas, is a contender in the Oscar races.
King had been interested in a project about Hampton, and found out Berson had already written a script; they worked together to merge their two approaches.
King tells Variety, “CoIntelPro was out to destroy the Black Panther party and the radical left. This is an opportunity to shed light on an important topic, to create a piece of counter-propaganda, if you will.
“It’s a Fred Hampton biopic inside of a crime-drama narrative, which is inside of a genre film. Give people a history lesson and entertain them. It’s a subject matter I always wanted to explore, to marry my political passion with an aesthetic passion.”
The government started its campaign of deceit about the events immediately after Hampton’s murder. But there were also immediate skeptics.
The Cook County State Attorney’s police staged a Dec. 4, 1969, raid that killed Hampton and colleague Mark Clark. Variety reported that a few days later, Chicago station WBBM gave the police a lot of air time to present their version of events, including a segment in which police “re-enacted” the raid. A federal grand jury later said the “re-enactment” was full of holes and chastised the station for airing it.
About 18 months later, on May 11, 1971, Variety reviewed a documentary “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” saying the events had been officially described as a shootout between Panthers and the police, but it was “in fact, more of a massacre.” The police fired more than 90 shots at the 10 people sleeping there; the Panthers fired one shot.
When King talked to Variety about CoIntelPro, he was referring to Counter Intelligence Program, a secret group within the FBI that operated from 1956-1971 and targeted the Black Power movement, antiwar protesters and feminists, among others. Because its work was so clandestine, most people didn’t know about it.
Reviewer Tony Scott said the show made clear “Hoover insisted on an all-white, all-male, all Christian Bureau, but no one seemed to oppose this policy.”
Berson said, “Intellectually we always knew this kind of stuff was happening, but now we’re seeing it on a daily basis from cell phones. It felt more and more urgent and necessary.”
Berson said he expects “overt criticism [of the film] from the fascist fringes, which are not so fringe any more. But if we can honor Fred Hampton’s legacy and purpose, that’s OK.”
The writers pay tribute to stars Daniel Kaluuya (as Hampton) and LaKeith Stanfield (as William O’Neal, who betrayed him), and to Ryan Coogler, one of the film’s producers whose “juice and passion got the film made,” the scribes say.
For another incisive look at the movement, see Stanley Nelson’s 2015 docu “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.”