Fred Hampton vs. Judas & the Black Messiah
“If you ever think about me, and you ain’t gonna do no revolutionary act, forget about me. I don’t want myself on your mind if you not going to work for the people.”
— Fred Hampton
Soooo… I’m glad we finally got a movie on a grassroots revolutionary buuut…
We really should question the whole premise of such a movie having to be trojan horsed through the story of the guy that helped kill him. By that logic, where’s the biopic on Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Boothe, or even James Earl Ray? The writers, the twin brothers Keith & Kenny Lucas, they argue on behalf of “nuance” and humanizing William O’Neal, the coward snitch who complied with the FBI to help assassinate Chairman Fred Hampton. They even go as far as saying that most people can more easily relate to someone like O’ Neal as opposed to someone like Hampton. The issue is: why do we always feel the need to “humanize” and normalize the villains that do evil to Black & Brown people? There’s never the same drive to “humanize” anyone that does violence to white people. As a matter of fact, we double over backwards to vilify most folks that do even justified violence to wypipo on some liberal, “oh that’s just not the way” or “no we don’t condone [insert Nat Turner-esque clapback here]” type shit. There’s a double standard here for reasons we’re all familiar with but more on that later.
For now I’ll say that despite it all, I’m not even mad William O’ Neal got as much time as he did. I just needed another hour for Hampton. We give that same hour to obscure gangsters that we never heard of (Scorcese’s The Irishman, The Departed… that inspired this film no less…) just to watch them brutalize their working-class siblings and perpetuate derivatives of capitalist trauma. And yet for a Black “messianic” revolutionary who changed the trajectory of world history to the benefit of most of its citizens (particularly its 80+% Black and Brown people), we get a silhouette of his greatness. I just wonder what this movie would have been if it showed me young Fred. Before Chairman Fred. 14-year-old NAACP organizer Fred. Fred with his mama, his pops, his friends during his Maywood roots among the community that reared him. A community where an elder I heard speak on him will, to this day, rep glowingly how much he cared about her as a young woman, and would forewarn her of the kind of parties she needed to steer clear of to avoid trouble. Show us caretaker Fred. Gregarious socialite Fred known all throughout his high school and even in other schools. The nascent organizer that made way for the very young man who would bridge gaps across his city. What fed his heart and his mind, to nurture him into the giant that he became? What garden grew us this mighty tree?
Before they cut him down… that’s the story I’m more interested in.
When Chairman Fred sat at the table with his comrade’s mother after the comrade had been murdered, that’s when I lost it. All the good Black Love Us movies, (you know the ones…crafted by tender Black hands with keen Black eyes… molded for the mama’s and the papas of the Black people making em… the Fruitvale Stations… the One Night in Miami’s… the Women of Brewster Place’s…), they all have that one scene that makes you lose it. That makes you see us like the world always fails to. That mirrors how your family or the folk in your neck of the hood may have seen you. That holds you gently as your grandma did. That acknowledges how hard it is for us to get home. The director Shaka King and crew are brilliant. (Doesn’t hurt that his production was headed by Ryan Coogler, the same gentle giant that delivered us Fruitvale Station and Black Panther.) Because they really made two movies here: the prototypical Black Love Us movie entwined with the prototypical They Hate Us movie (you know the ones… indirectly framed by the gaze of those who would have us alive only to serve their whims… who would wear our skins like a fashion statement with no regard for the blood we shed in its theft… the Baby Boy’s… the Super Fly’s… the Django Unchained’s). When I felt them in the Black Love Us movie moments, I felt warmed or throat choked, wide grinned or wet eyed, and I goose bumped. But then there were the moments that rang of the proverbial They Hate Us movie. And when I felt those moments, my blood ran cold, my skin chilled, and goose bumped (in a bad way) and I quickly remembered all my childhood nightmares and suddenly, for the first time, understood their true source.
Whiteness — the horror it’s born of and the terror it bequeaths — is peculiar like that. It lingers in unseen places and still makes its casual evil felt. Like how every 6 o’clock evening news story with the usual “suspect was a Black male” narrative that scared the shit out of me as a young kid was really a white man’s nightmare projected into my six-year-old brain. That nightmare played out in perpetuity long after the news went off and the white men who created it were nowhere to be found. What I couldn’t have possibly known then was how deeply steeped that entire mythology was. That it ran back hundreds of years before I was even a twinkle in my daddy’s eye. That the same neuroses that birthed sundown towns, and slave patrols, and minstrel shows, and Drapetomania (the DSM sanctioned pathologizing of runaway enslaved Black folks), was equally responsible for men who looked like my daddy being cast as villains on the evening news. The view that fetishized Black flesh to the point of us being inherently superhuman or criminal or both was a key ingredient in all that laid the foundation of this country. One can see how if your whole empire is built off the theft of Black flesh and its labor for economic comeuppance, and the dehumanization of the owners of that flesh to justify your inhumane acts, then the threat of said flesh stealing itself back from the jowls of your oppression would inspire the fear of God in you… or death. Enter the Black Messiah… that must be slain. Enter the propaganda machine to make your warped views the views of even those you oppress, those very Black people, in order to reverse psyche them into fearing their own reflections, their own people, their own power. To then internalize your views and block their own ability to fully see.
Like many young, gifted and Black artitsts, the Lucas brothers are visionaries with the plank of white “supremacy” in their eye. Hence the duality of a Black Love Us movie cross-faded with a They Hate Us movie. They said a bunch of really telling things in their interviews that explain the process that led to them adopting so grim a view — the view of the white power structure. From Keith: “When you’re pitching a story to executives, usually white, you know that they don’t know who Fred Hampton is… You almost have to play this game where you’re not just pitching them a biopic; you almost have to put it into words they can visualize.” So, in the game of find success by any means necessary in Hollywood, the Lucas brothers’ play was to frame the movie as a crime thriller. To make it just sexy enough to sell while seducing people into the realer story of a revolutionary murdered by the racist capitalist state.
“What about the Black audiences…? What about the ways in which we’re literally triggered to remember the countless litany of Black bodies sacrificed at the altar of state sanctioned murder?
At a glance, this is understandable… in the short term. Upon closer inspection, it’s unnerving, if not repulsive… in the long term. But ultimately, it’s extremely telling if you consider the fact that the criminal in this thriller is the State itself. If that ain’t the perfect indictment of a metaphor for white “supremacist” capitalist society I don’t know what is. Look a little deeper into crime thrillers as a genre, or “crime” as a notion period in a capitalist society built on theft and exploitation, and you’ll have to reconsider every narrative and each of its characters (from the 6 o’clock evening news to the vilification of every “Black Messiah.”) Substitute “crime” for “justice” or “morality” or “whiteness” or “race” and you’ll fall down an existential wormhole of philosophical and ideological whirlpools where your wrongs becomes rights, your black becomes white, and vice versa and so on and so on. So in totality, considering the oppressive nature of present circumstances in late stage capitalist Amerikkka, considering the need to sell “massuh” his own noose disguised as a ribbon so he won’t know it’s a noose till he’s hanging from it, what the Lucas brothers and crew did here contains elements of genius. But at what cost…?
In commenting on the most brutal They Hate Us moment of the movie, the barbarically horrific killing of Chairman Fred,Kenny Lucas says this: “I had a rough time sleeping after watching the scene play out. But I think for a mass audience, especially a white audience, I think they need to see that brutality. I think they need to understand that the fight we’re engaging in against police brutality and white supremacy is a fight that is a long and arduous struggle. You can draw a direct line from Breonna Taylor all the way back to Fred Hampton. As in George Floyd and Emmett Till. None of this is in a vacuum. The more we remind whites of their brutality against us, the less of an argument they have against Blacks and Black Lives Matter. If they can understand that the historical record is not on their side, then that gives us a leg up.”
I get it Kenny. But what about the Black audiences within that mass? What about the ways in which we’re literally triggered to remember the countless litany of Black bodies sacrificed at the altar of state sanctioned murder? The thousands since the Black Lives Matter movement started. The well over 10,000 since slavery ended. That’s at least one a week for the last century. And no amount of pandering to white people’s conscience has lessened that state aggression from slavery to now. To remedy this blind spot of the Lucas brothers, to redirect their lens and those of future storytellers and filmmakers who may try to represent Chairman Fred or any Black revolutionary’s story, I’ll summon three pieces of evidence.
Exhibit A: Chairman Fred’s peer in struggle, the also late great Kwame Toure (of “Black Power” fame) warned us that “…in order for nonviolence [by allowing your opponent to see your suffering] to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” He told us that not long after all the pleas for peace and cries of we shall overcome failed to keep the bullets out of MLK’s face and throat. Kwame understood well what the Lucas brothers failed to. Power, like healing, is an inside job. It starts with self and with community and can never be commissioned from an outside source, much less a hostile one that has been so throughout its entire history of interaction with — not just you and yours — but the entire planet.
Exhibit B: the Lucas brothers own collaborator on this project, Shaka King, framed the entire narrative around William O’ Neal very differently than them. Instead of thinking of it as a “crime thriller” in the key of white people should be ashamed of themselves and feel bad for what they’ve done to us Black folks, he angled his gaze inward (towards Black folks and “progressives”) and viewed it as “a cautionary tale about the dangers of apoliticism.” In other words, what you don’t know can and often will get you fucked up out here in these streets. As it clearly did William O’ Neal aka Wild Bill as he fell for the malicious seduction of the feds and looked salvatory revolutionary socialism literally in the face, as embodied by one of its greatest ever messengers, and still couldn’t manage to fix the folly in his ways. Not too far from his cinematic makers who stared eye to eye with the legacy of a Black revolutionary who literally said, “If you don’t dare to struggle you don’t deserve to win,” and yet still failed to struggle to render more of his bare bones story and socialist ideology available to the masses.
Exhibit C: Yes Hampton looooved his people, as Daniel Kaluuya helped us witness with his powerful depiction. But a lot of that love was powered by his political theory. It gave him a strategy and a roadmap for that love. There’s a lot to be said for the fact that ultimately Chairman Fred’s politics were watered down from the revolutionary 150 proof they were to freedom fighting kool-aid. This is achieved by effectively diluting his theory and reducing it to powerful quotable phrases — that yet and STILL neuter said phrases from their revolutionary potency. Case in point: one of the most powerful things Fred ever said was, “We not gon fire with fire. We not gonna fight racism, we gonna fight it with solidarity. We not gon fight capitalism with Black capitalism, we gon fight it with socialism.” The movie failed to include this quote of course. And while it kept the solidarity thread within that quote (and even then, opted to focus more on Hampton’s building with the white Young Patriots than the equally as famous building with the Latinx Young Lords), it all but deleted the part about being socialist (others than a brief mention in the beginning speech scene at Malcolm X College and a quieted joke muffled through his pillow talk with Mama Akua). This is intentional. The capitalist run movie industry isn’t about to hand over all the keys to our liberation. On the contrary, it’s their job to dangle the keys in front of us long enough that we think we’re in the car driving down freedom lane when in actuality we never even started up the engine. They let Wild Bill steal that ride from us.
If the power structure can set us back that far, then being able to distinguish a real socialist revolutionary like Chairman Fred from the reactionary nonsense that the media would have us confuse him with, is horizons away.
But when one considers all the socio-historic and ideological forces that conspired to manipulate the Lucas brothers’ perception before they could ever take up this task, it’s no wonder they would be so malleable. They’re not unique in being puppet-strung by Hollywood agendas. The same could be said of their producer Gary Coogler in his Black Panther movie. If you’re anything like me, you walked out of Black Panther with giddy Wakanda forever vibes mixed with a bit of stank from getting pissed at the clandestine agendas. Obnoxious neoliberal agendas ridiculously obvious to the trained eye: like slipping in a CIA agent as white savior OR the respectable negro T’challa killing the more thuggish 6 o’clock evening newsy Kilmonger right before he goes back to Kilmonger’s hood and cleans it up with a non-profit (thereby preventing the rise of another untamable Black mess — ahem… Kilmonger aaaand fulfilling the counterrevolutionary goals of the nonprofit industrial complex in the first place). Doing too much with all these correlations, am I? Maybe. But I’d just as easily say the CIA and Pentagon be doing too much sending agents to Hollywood sets to influence their scripts. And yet, whether or not that was the case on the set of Judas, it wasn’t necessary. Because if the subject is already willing to kowtow to the pressure of the norm, then the oppressive state can just wait for them to fall in line. As the Lucas brothers did.
This is clutch because when the Lucas brothers come back saying things like, people relate more to William O’ Neal than Fred Hampton, or “more people would be likely to react like O’ Neal than Hampton,” it’s an obvious sign of a stance that has already been compromised, a mind that has already been bought. It makes me want to show them the Venezuelan people’s response to US mercenaries trying to infiltrate them only to get abducted by the masses at gunpoint. Or China’s version of Rambo movies that got their population feeling like they could take on the biggest military in the world’s history. Or the way Cuba won that staring contest of a missile crisis back in 62. It’s a matter of will, backed by knowledge of self and your own power and worth. And when you got it, you don’t let nobody take it from you. Problem with this reactionary, post Civil Rights Black Power outage of a generation is we let the US turn our revolutionary lights out and believe all the capitalist propaganda that’s been pumped in our heads for the last 50 years. This was achieved by mainstream media, Hollywood, and the same 6 o’clock evening news screens that had me scared of men that looked like my daddy at 6, that had the Lucas brothers kowtowing to white power before the ink even dried on their script. If the power structure can set us back that far, then being able to distinguish a real socialist revolutionary like Chairman Fred from the reactionary nonsense that the media would have us confuse him with, is horizons away.
A young comrade of mine pointed out the danger of this to me even more pointedly. This is why, she noted, folks are apt to confuse a revolutionary socialist like Hampton with any other popular figure they’ve heard affiliated with the ideology (i.e., Bernie Sanders, AOC & the Squad, god forbid… Barack Obama… egads!). When in actuality there are game-changing differences between the brand of quasi-socialism that Bernie and his ilk espouse, and the purer form that Chairman Fred and the Black Panthers embodied. The former blood-lets socialist theory and exploits it for reforms to a capitalist system. Meanwhile, the latter is beholden to what has always been espoused since the formation of socialist ideology through the publications of Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels and the many revolutionary struggles that preceded them: full blown socialist revolution, destruction of the capitalist state, and replacement of said state with a socialist state that will slowly give way to global communism. Nothing less than retaliatory war against the rich ruling class on behalf of the oppressed poor. These were Chairman Fred’s terms of engagement.
As were Lenin’s in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1919. As were Che and Fidel’s in the Cuban revolution of 1959. As were Mao’s in the Chinese Civil War (1949) and the Chinese cultural revolution (1966–1969). As were Ho Chi Minh’s and the Vietminh and Vietcong in the Vietnam War against French imperialist forces (1944–1964) and U.S. imperialist forces (1964–1974). As were Kwame Nkrumah’s in Ghana (who claimed independence in 1957), and Julius Nyere’s in Tanzania (who claimed independence in 1961). As were Guinea Bissau’s Amilcar Cabral (murdered by the Portuguese government in 1973), Guyana’s Walter Rodney (murdered by his own US backed government in 1980), Grenada’s Maurice Bishop (murdered in 1983 amidst a US coup), Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara (murdered by the French government and the CIA in 1987). There’s a clear distinction between the ilk of Chairman Fred and that of so-called Democratic Socialists like Bernie and gang. A distinction marked in blood.
And even further away from the mark are dreamy artists — no disrespect to my tribe — without a political compass who fall victim to their own apoliticism (or lack of political education — another pitfall Chairman Fred warned us of) and thus become inadvertent puppets of ruling class agendas. One thing the movie got right was when Kaluuya’s well played Hampton quoted Che and said, “Words are beautiful but action supreme.” Chairman Fred’s politic required ACTION. It wasn’t, as Kaluuya said in an interview, “trying to win the articulation Olympics.” It was, like any true revolutionary socialist, aiming itself towards the sleeping giant that is the working class, encouraging us to become conscious of and then act on our own power. He didn’t have time for petit bourgeois academics, revisionists, misinformed artists, or opportunists of any facet, trying to fetishize him nor his words or ideas. He needed us, the people, to own those ideas and their power so we could win the class war. Otherwise, he left clear instructions: “If you ever think about me, and you ain’t gonna do no revolutionary act, forget about me. I don’t want myself on your mind if you not going to work for the people.” By that metric, I mean if we really listened to Chairman Fred, and adhered to what he was saying, then this movie might never be made. We’d be too busy living out its sequel. Fighting to create the socialist world where that movie had the right to exist in a purer form. And that movie… it might actually be about Fred.