Who was Fred Hampton? How and why was he murdered at the age of 21?

My overdue education in Black American History continues in reading, listening, and moviegoing.

A new subject for me is the history of the Black Panther movement. And Fred Hampton is a name I haven’t known until now. As is so often the case, it’s at the movies that I am learning about significant and astonishing events that happened during my childhood. Events I never heard growing up among white American evangelicals — either because they weren’t aware of them, were made uncomfortable by them, or just didn’t care. Great injustices, carried out with the blessing of law enforcement and the government right here in my country — the land that congratulates itself on offering “liberty and justice for all.” You might think that the private Christian schools in which I was raised would have bothered to teach me about the abolition of slavery, the righteousness of the civil rights movement, and the long road still ahead of us in “loving our neighbors” through the ongoing consequences of racism and inequality. Such subjects should be at the center of contemporary Christian conversations. They provide a perfect context in which we can answer Christ’s call to stand with and suffer alongside the vulnerable and the persecuted.

But I am getting my introduction to the martyrdom of Fred Hampton from director Shaka King and his co-writer Will Berson. And they bring to vivid life the rise and “fall” of this charismatic young leader of the Black Panthers with raw early-Scorsese energy and a fantastic cast.

I said “rise and fall,” but, by my lights, the violent conclusion to Fred Hampton’s story doesn’t look so much like his fall as it does another kind of rise — the hero-making stuff of martyrdom. A leader who is murdered by a conspiracy of cowards doesn’t fall — he becomes more of a symbol for generations to come, and becomes beloved in a way that will be remembered long after those who hated him are forgotten.

Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) forms a “rainbow coalition.”

And this movie certainly helps me understand why Hampton’s name might be revered today. King and Berson track the young man’s strategic progress in connecting factions of Chicago’s fractious tribalism — the Crowns, an African American uprising; the Puerto Rican radicals called Young Lords; and disillusioned white Southerners known as Young Patriots — and building “a rainbow coalition” to stand up against the flagrant tyranny of local law enforcement and government rooted in white supremacy.

I wish the movie had the courage to dig deeper into the “revolutionary” tactics of Hampton’s Panthers. It seems pretty clear to me that by following Malcolm X’s movement — one armed to the teeth and easily triggered — Hampton’s way was bound to perpetuate and heighten a cycle of violence rather than promoting real change. But the movie has other things on its mind that are well worth our attention.

Judas and the Black Messiah is about Hampton, yes — but it may be an even closer examination of the reprehensible tactics used by white supremacists under the protection of their badges and government letterhead. And, as the title makes plain, it raises up Hampton as a savior. But the film is even more interested in the “Judas”: Bill O’Neal, a car thief who, in 1968, was bought by the F.B.I. to infiltrate the Illinois Black Panthers and lay the foundations for a violent overthrow of the organization.

Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) is a poet who partners with a prophet.

As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya delivers in his most demanding role yet — he’s charismatic and energizing; if this plays in theaters, it might have audiences shouting right along with his call-and-response campaigns. And his relationship with Panther poet Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) brings out some quieter, softer notes to his character. (Deborah is more than likely to bring to mind Breonna Taylor for contemporary audiences, as she finds herself caught in a violent crossfire where police are shooting first and never asking questions.)

And yet I can’t say I am convinced by Hampton’s character as written — he seems more Icon than Human. (And he never, ever looks like he’s the 21-year-old that Hampton really was. He never looks younger than 30.) A bit more of the nuance we saw in David Oyelowo’s turn as Martin Luther King in Selma might have been helpful here — and that has more to do with the screenplay than with Kaluuya.

Lakeith Stanfield gives us a more persuasive, three-dimensional human being as O’Neal, a weak-willed opportunist who, as he plots Hampton’s ruin, finds his conscience tweaked if not transformed by what he witnesses in that furnace of righteous anger. Stanfield’s iconic turn in Jordan Peele’s 2017 breakthrough Get Out makes this performance even harder to watch; we so want O’Neal to break the spell that has been cast over him, to seize Kaluuya’s Hampton by the shoulders and whisper, “Get out!” We so want to see him rescued from himself and the pressures persuading him to do the wrong thing.

As the “Judas” of the title, Daniel Kaluuya is electrifying as Bill O’Neal.

Jesse Plemons is here as Roy Mitchell, the conflicted F.B.I. agent who discovers O’Neal and sees the potential to make a “rat” of him. I say “conflicted” — you can see the dismay in Mitchell’s eyes, as if he senses that he is losing his soul but has no capacity to save himself. But it doesn’t take long for the last glimmers of conscience in his character to be stamped out by the peer pressure of his superior, Agent Carlyle (Robert Longstreet). The killing blow comes from F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover (a chillingly effective Martin Sheen under heavy makeup) who poses a question to Mitchell that could only come from the Devil himself: “What are you going to do when your little girl brings a [insert a racial slur here] home?”

So the heart of the film is about the compromises that lead to moral collapse for two crucial characters: the Black American who will turn against his own oppressed community to better himself, and the White American who realizes that he will lose whatever privilege and power he has enjoyed if he listens to his heart.

I love film critic Sam Van Hallgreen’s Letterboxd take on this film: “More proof that the Amadeus school of biopics is the best school of biopics.” The POV here, while inconsistent, does indeed make this more interesting than a standard biopic. (And now I’m distracted by the idea of seeing him play Salieri in a Lin-Manuel Miranda remix of the Mozart play.)

But anyway, back to business: I think the “Salieri Template” works well here in giving us exciting access to the whole map of this historic battle and its tragic consequences. O’Neal’s zigzagging reveals him to be rather a tragic figure as well — he’s so alone, so desperate, and so terrified, that his slow enslavement to the F.B.I. is painful to behold.

All too familiar: “Law Enforcement” leaps at an excuse to wage war on those who inspire the oppressed.

I come away an admirer of the film as a thought-provoking contribution to the growing cinematic study of American racism, but I’m not exactly enthralled by it. My mixed feelings about this movie can best be summed up by its borrowing of a Taxi Driver flourish during its climactic violence. In reminding me of a classic film during a key sequence like that, it does not raise up its material — it dilutes the drama and distracts me. At times, throughout the film, its familiarity made me a little too comfortable in ways that Spike Lee would never have allowed me to be. Shaka King will make more movies and bigger movies. But does he have the vision to go beyond firing up the crowd and make a movie that is, itself, “a revolutionary”? Maybe that’s asking too much, but this never seems quite subversive enough or reckless enough to spark the response Hampton would have hoped for.

Still, I do admire it. Compelling, occasionally impressive in its cinematographic finesse, occasionally obvious in its allusions, often too familiar in its form, eventually painful in its truth-telling, Judas and the Black Messiah is, ultimately, a necessary testimony. All we need to do is turn on the news to see another government official willfully conspiring with racists and fascists — and if you don’t see one, wait five minutes. I often wonder how many of them are aggressively promoting hatred because they like being part of a club of bullies who really think they’re going to “win,” and how many of them are playing along out of fear, under some kind of threat of blackmail or retaliation. Stories like this one remind us of the truth: To wage a war of hatred under the guise of goodness will hollow out a man’s heart, and to die for the love of the people is to rise, and rise, and rise again.

This movie won’t inspire a revolution. But I suspect it will inspire, in some, the kind of curiosity that can lead to investigation and deeper understanding. It is doing that for me, helping me learn lessons that I really should have learned decades ago. My rude awakening, my humbling re-education, continues.

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