The revolutionary life and politics of Fred Hampton, and the violence of the state against him, provide timely lessons for the movement today, writes Shabbir Lakha
Shaka King’s biopic of Fred Hampton is making waves. Now available to rent online in the UK and nominated for six Oscars, Judas and the Black Messiah is a must-see film on the Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party.
Though I was looking forward to watching the film, I was also wary that revolutionary figures like Hampton are often sanitised when it comes to telling their story. I was positively surprised at how raw and political this film is. There is no shying away from Hampton’s politics, and there’s no attempt to obfuscate or justify the FBI’s actions.
It comes as no surprise then to find out about the difficulty in getting this film, which had been pitched since 2014, produced at all. Shaka King recounts,
“I was under the impression that if you make a movie about a Black Panther, produced by the director of [Marvel’s] ‘Black Panther,’ which made a billion dollars, starring two of the best actors of our generation, and you have a producer and co-financer in Charles King, who is willing to put up half the budget, it’s going to be a bidding war. That was not the case.”
With the current backdrop of the protests against the Police and Crime bill, the SpyCops bill which will soon become law, and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the last year, this film could not be more timely. The violent lengths the state will go to to suppress dissent and to stop us uniting is a bleak but necessary reminder.
The title of the film is derived from a 1968 memo from the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro) in which the stated goal of the program was to “prevent the rise of a black ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement”. The memo mentions Malcolm X who “might have been such a ‘messiah’” and “[Martin Luther] King could be a very real contender for this position”. Dr King was assassinated a month later.
Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were subject to constant surveillance from Cointelpro. A 6-part series on Netflix which came out last year, Who Killed Malcolm X?, documents the role of the FBI in his assassination, and a recently released documentary MLK/FBI shows how Martin Luther King was surrounded by FBI informants.
But as the film shows, the FBI focused even more heavily on the Black Panther Party which was seen as having “the potential to unite the communist, anti-war and new left movements”. This is said by J Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI and mastermind of Cointelpro in a speech to a room full of FBI agents at the beginning of the film. “The Black Panthers,” he says, “are the single biggest threat to our national security”.
The revolutionary Fred Hampton
The portrayal of young Fred Hampton leading the Black Panthers in Chicago gives a glimpse of just why he was seen as such a threat. Played brilliantly by Daniel Kaluuya, Hampton is an extraordinary orator who fires up and inspires people whenever he speaks. But just as impressive, and therefore dangerous in the eyes of the ruling class, is his politics.
Fred Hampton was a socialist and a revolutionary who took inspiration especially from Malcolm X. In one scene he’s seen listening to one of Malcolm’s speeches which he's memorised, and in a letter he tries to send his fiancé while in prison, he says that in the absence of having any books to read, he finds himself playing Malcolm’s speeches in his head.
In a riposte of the identity politics and sectarianism that is sometimes prevalent in the movement today, Hampton showed that it was both necessary and achievable to unite people in common struggle. The film gives us a snapshot of Hampton’s work uniting the gangs of Chicago in defence of the people, together with the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the white socialist Young Patriots to form the multicultural, radical Rainbow Coalition.
In the film, when a Black Panther is offended by the Young Patriots’ chosen symbol of the Confederate flag, Hampton points out the commonality in the exploitation of the black and white working class and their mistreatment by the police, and why they need to work together. The Rainbow Coalition soon became a national organisation joined by various socialist, anti-war and other groups on a common platform against poverty, bad housing, police brutality and corruption.
This is what made Hampton and the Black Panthers so dangerous for those in power. Kermit Coleman, an ACLU lawyer who defended several Black Panthers in court, noted in 1969,
“You’ll notice that other black groups that are just as active in the community are not getting busted because they are talking about opting for black capitalism. As long as you talk about black capitalism, you don’t go to jail. But when one comes out of a revolutionary bag that does not encompass the present political and economic structure, that’s when the powers of repression are brought to bear.”
In a now famous speech, Fred Hampton made this view of the Black Panthers quite clear:
“We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”
The real face of the state
The Judas to Hampton’s messiah is William O’Neil, played by LaKeith Stanfield, an FBI informant embedded in the Black Panthers. Although there is a lot unknown about the real O’Neil, the film goes with the likely theory that he was recruited as an informant following an arrest and threatened with several years in prison if he didn’t cooperate.
O’Neil’s handler, played by Jesse Plemons, attempting to justify their actions, tells him that the Black Panthers are simply the “other side of the coin” of the Klu Klux Klan – a common depiction of the Black Panthers in the mainstream even today. There is an attempt to suggest Plemons’ character as not personally racist and similarly O’Neil as increasingly hesitant to do the FBI’s dirty work. But in the end, they both do what is asked of them.
Under Hoover’s direction, the FBI’s Cointelpro carried out 233 ‘actions’ against the Black Panthers. In one scene in the film, Hoover boasts that Huey Newton was in prison, Eldridge Cleaver was in exile, Bobby Seale was on trial as part of the Chicago 7. He goes on to say that “if the judgement doesn’t go our way”, they had another FBI informant ready to falsely testify that Seale had shot a police officer.
Hampton himself was arrested for apparently stealing $71 worth of ice cream, for which he was given two to five years in prison. At his trial, the judge made clear why he was being incarcerated: “This defendant admits to me that he advocates armed revolution… I cannot take the responsibility of allowing him to remain at large.”
To Hoover and the FBI, prison was not enough, Hampton had to be “neutralised”. As a result, the FBI sets up the assassination of Fred Hampton, aged only 21, by the Chicago police – drugged so he couldn’t fight back, lying in bed next to his pregnant fiancé, shot point blank in the head and executed. The police fired 99 bullets at the other Panthers in the flat, killing Mark Clark and seriously wounding four others – who were then charged with the attempted murder of the officers who did the shooting.
This movie, like Hampton’s life, doesn’t have a happy ending. But as well as the grim reality of state violence and the forces we are up against, we can also see the hope in what Hampton was fighting for. Hampton’s electric “I am a revolutionary” speech will have you putting your fist in the air and ready to fight.
The film is, as Hampton’s legacy is, a feature-length polemic for the need for multicultural, working-class unity, the importance of education and organisation, and the necessity of revolution.
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Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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