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The story of a civil rights activist who deserved a biopic long before now, told from the perspective of the man who killed him. Fred Hampton chaired the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and using his oratorical skills and powers of persuasion formed the Rainbow Coalition, a political movement in which black, white and Puerto Rican organisations combined and worked together. Hampton was identified as a threat by the FBI and his death is considered an assassination under COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal programme of disruption of domestic political organisations. He was killed in December 1969 at the age of 21.
We ask whether it’s a problem that Judas and the Black Messiah frames his story as part of his murderer, William O’Neal’s. For José, the entire story is badly conceived, as Hampton should be the clear focus; for Mike, the problem is in the execution, with O’Neal underdeveloped – but it’s possible that this informant thriller genre structure is what allowed the film to get made in the first place. Mike remarks upon Hampton’s pragmatism in contrast to the narratives around Martin Luther King Jr., murdered only a year before Hampton, which arguably tend to convey idealism for the future as opposed to action in the here and now.
Judas and the Black Messiah is an imperfect but important exploration of an extraordinarily impressive man we should have known more about before now.
With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.