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How 'Judas and the Black Messiah' rejects Hollywood clichés about the Black Panthers

Shaka King's drama tries to deepen our understanding of the revolutionary political party, film writers and artists said.
Image: Daniel Kaluuya in a scene from \"Judas and the Black Messiah.\"
Daniel Kaluuya in a scene from "Judas and the Black Messiah."Glen Wilson / Warner Bros.

In the half-century since Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton was killed by Chicago police, no major Hollywood studio has released a movie about his life — and only a small handful of narrative films have chronicled the revolutionary group he helped shape.

But a new chapter begins with the debut of Shaka King's "Judas and the Black Messiah," a complex dual portrait of Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), the FBI informant who betrayed him. Warner Bros. released the movie simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters Friday.

In recent interviews, film writers and artists described "Judas and the Black Messiah" as a welcome corrective to mainstream American movies that portrayed the Black Panthers as one-dimensional militant caricatures — or excluded them altogether from stories about the social upheavals of the 1960s.

"In so many movies, the Black Panthers are sidelined or ignored," film critic Odie Henderson said. "You see the raised fists, the guns, the leather jackets. It's fetishistic. But who were the Panthers?"

King attempts to answer that question, emphasizing how Hampton and his peers in Chicago saw themselves as community organizers who were dedicated to ambitious social programs (including free meals for local children), grassroots activism and a philosophy of Black self-determination.

The film also highlights the charismatic Hampton's natural skills as a leader, showing how he deftly forged the Rainbow Coalition, a multiracial alliance that fought economic injustice and police brutality, and the way he rallied local activists with soaring speeches.

Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., a co-founder of the Illinois Black Panther Party, who is portrayed in the film by Darrell Britt-Gibson, said in a phone interview that he hopes viewers will gain "an appreciation for the seriousness of the Panther Party's ideology and philosophy."

"The leaders of the Black Panther Party were dedicated social change agents" who studied ways to remake society, Rush said, later adding: "We weren't just a bunch of nonthinking automatons."

"Judas" is wide in scope. In the words of Chicago Tribune columnist William Lee, the movie "does not shy away from Hampton's anti-police rhetoric or the violence," including a dramatic standoff and a 1969 shootout that left a party member and two police officers dead.

"The movie isn't a rah-rah pro-Panther narrative or an anti-Panther narrative. It's very much steeped in historical understanding," said David F. Walker, a comic book writer whose graphic novel about the Black Panther Party was published last month.

Hollywood has long been accused of misrepresenting American history, centering stories on white saviors while downplaying — or occasionally erasing — the lives and legacies of Black people, even in some movies about the struggle for racial equality.

In recent decades, Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" (1992), Ava DuVernay's "Selma" (2014) and other Black-led projects have helped audiences better understand the icons of the civil rights movement.

But few narrative features have concentrated on the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the revolutionary organization co-founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in 1966 in Oakland, California, which ultimately expanded into a national and international party.

Of course, there have been notable exceptions. Mario Van Peebles followed the organization's arc in "Panther" (1995), which is not available on any streaming services; Tanya Hamilton told the story of a fictional former Panther (Anthony Mackie) in "Night Catches Us" (2010); and several acclaimed documentaries have explored the group.

But the more typical (and stereotypical) fictional depiction of the Panthers, critics say, appears in Robert Zemeckis' Oscar-winning "Forrest Gump" (1994). In a brief but telling scene, Tom Hanks' title character attends a gathering of gun-toting, leather-clad Black Panthers, all bluster and sloganeering.

King, who has directed episodes of comedy series such as "High Maintenance" and "Shrill," has expressed dismay at that kind of sensationalized presentation, telling The Atlantic in a recent interview: "I hate it. I hate it. They're always glowering."

"They're caricature," said King, who wrote the "Judas" script with Will Berson (from a story by Keith and Kenny Lucas). "I think that a lot of times, that caricature is supposed to be a substitute for actual entertainment."

Walker, the comic book author, pointed to "The Black Gestapo" (1975) — an exploitation picture about a Black vigilante who starts a "people's army" to defend the residents of Watts — as a particularly "laughable" example of the way popular entertainment has distorted the imagery of the Black liberation movement.

Henderson, who reviews movies for, said he believed that "Judas" offers an important counterbalance not just to older titles but also to at least one high-profile release that's in the running for Oscar nominations this year: Aaron Sorkin's docudrama "The Trial of the Chicago 7."

Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who was briefly the eighth co-defendant in the eponymous trial, plays a supporting role in Sorkin's film, and Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is seen just fleetingly. In a narrative about the radicalism of the 1960s, the anticapitalist aspirations and antiracist aims of the Panthers seem to be "afterthought," Henderson said.

Interestingly, several notable Hollywood personalities of the 1960s and the 1970s — Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, "Easy Rider" producer Bert Schneider — supported the Panthers.

"In some ways, Hollywood liberals were instrumental in giving money to the Panther cause. But in terms of when it came to making movies about them, it was just easier to make them a cartoon," said Trey Ellis, a two-time Emmy-winning screenwriter and novelist who teaches at Columbia University.

And yet, given the way popular movies shape our understanding of history, today's filmmakers have an opportunity to revisit the past, re-evaluating the people and social movements that loom large over present-day America.

Ellis recalled that when he first co-wrote the script for a 1995 HBO movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American combat pilots in the Army Air Corps, very few movies or television shows had dramatized their heroics.

"When I wrote it, nobody knew who the airmen were, although there had been a couple documentaries," Ellis said. "The fact that now they have become part of the American conversation about Black history — I'm really proud of that.

"I think that, hopefully, 'Judas and the Black Messiah' will do the same thing," Ellis said.