Photo: Noname and ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’/Warner Bros Pictures
When Fred Hampton was killed in 1969 at the age of 21, many in America cheered. The Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party was seen as a radical threat to American values, and the joint-investigation into his activities by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Chicago Police Department, and the Cook County State Attorney’s Office that led to his death was seen as a huge success at the time, with many conservatives seeing the defeat of him and his associates as a victory against the spread of communism.
Many historians in subsequent decades have since re-evaluated Hampton’s murder, now considering it an outright assassination committed by the FBI, as well as an act of political warfare against Hampton’s social and economic politics. While radical at the time, many of the opinions Hampton held would not be all that uncommon among modern progressives, as well as the way he promoted community and organization among Chicago’s disparate street gangs, while also creating a rainbow coalition of like-minded activists from all backgrounds through his rousing speeches and unifying ideals are now viewed as way ahead of their time.
Hampton’s history is complicated, sure, as some of his more aggressive tendencies still remain controversial today, but the core of Hampton’s political message is relatively simple and easy to get behind: the man fought for class unity among poor people, economic equality, and self-determination for Black communities (who continue to be systematically deprived of said equality), and actively worked to reduce violence in those same communities. The criticisms of policing he had are now more relevant than ever, as discussions around police departments’ roles in enforcing and upholding systemic inequity have become commonplace following the state murder of George Floyd this past summer. While he may have been a difficult figure for many to contend with in the 1960s, the ideas Fred Hampton espoused simply aren’t that radical now, especially when put in the greater context of fighting for Black independence during a time so intrinsically tied to post-Jim Crow and Vietnam War-era paranoia.
So when the trailer for the film “Judas and the Black Messiah” dropped last year, I was very intrigued. I thought “here is a story about a figure once seen as deeply polarizing, and now Hollywood appears to be capitalizing on a perfect opportunity to contend with history and mend his legacy in the greater public consciousness, educating uninformed people about their own government’s role in silencing Black leaders.” At least, this is what it appeared to be doing.
While the film is undoubtedly an achievement in terms of its direction, acting, score, and other artistic flourishes, the film itself notably leaves out Hampton’s socialist leanings, choosing to ignore the economic aspects of his legacy (ie how he fought for a redistribution of wealth that would primarily benefit historically-oppressed Black Americans, or how he fought against big businesses exploiting Black workers, as well as the expansion of U.S. imperialism) in favor of painting him more as a Social Justice Warrior with guns. Daniel Kaluuya’s Hampton isn’t even a main character in his own film, as the film chooses to focus more on LaKeith Stanfield’s FBI informant character Bill O’Neal and his conflicts over the investigation and assassination.
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I don’t think this is the fault of Daniel Kaluuya, Director Shaka King, or anyone involved in the project. The move reeks more of studio meddling, with executives not wanting to alienate audiences by portraying Fred Hampton as the radical socialist he was. Again, these ideas he espoused are really not that controversial, especially given the greater discussion we as a country are going through about racial inequity, yet to me, this feels like the studio got cold feet and was nervous about a potential backlash to the film, and thus neutered aspects of Hampton to make him more palatable to a general audience.
While the situation is not surprising to me in the slightest, it is problematic, and I do not blame people for being upset. One of the most prominent critics of the film’s politics has been rapper Noname, a Chicagoan herself who has expressed socialist views in her work and social media content. She apparently turned down a spot on the film’s soundtrack alongside fellow Ghetto Sage members Saba and Smino, due to the film’s white-washed portrayal of Hampton and his politics. Her critiques mostly with the film’s ignoring of Hampton’s anti-imperialist messaging, but her statements have indicated pretty general displeasure of the film’s lack of coherent and accurate political messaging.
Noname herself has been the subject of controversy before, stemming from her decision to not perform in front of white crowds and her now-infamous beef with fellow rapper/activist J. Cole. She undeniably won both cases in the court of public opinion, as her expressions of personal autonomy over her art as a Black femme creator have garnered her serious recognition as an intelligent, thoughtful individual in the Black community. She has also been increasingly critical of establishment Democrat politicians, calling them out for the relative inaction performed on behalf of aiding those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Her decision to turn down the “Judas and the Black Messiah” soundtrack is in conversation with and fits in the greater context of her political expressions, and her commitment to her values and opinions is incredibly admirable for such a young artist.
Overall, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is not a bad film; Noname herself has praised the film’s acting and direction. But the issues with the film’s handling of political messaging and how it fits within the greater context of history’s whitewashing of Black leaders is deeply troubling and indicative of a larger systemic issue in Hollywood. If we are to truly work in support of Black people, then we must do so accurately and with close attention to detail, and that begins with how we tell Black stories.
By Patrick Nash
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