The Socialist 17 March 2021 |
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Judas and the Black Messiah - taste of Fred Hampton's politics, with lessons for fighting oppression today
Deji Olayinka, Socialist Party Black and Asian group
Before watching the movie, my expectations were set low by Hollywood's history of diluting radical politics, but also by the movie's soundtrack which included track names like "Rich N*gga Problems". That Noname, a popular anti-capitalist rapper, turned down featuring on the album because of the movie's political representation seemed to confirm my fears.
However, a review of the movie was perfectly summarised in her tweet that read: "It was shot beautifully, the acting was amazing. But it's a movie about an informant, Fred is secondary and his radical communist politics are [not] central, at all."
That said, focusing the camera on his murder rather than the party's politics is probably the only way that Hollywood would release a movie about a black radical socialist without diluting their politics. It's within these constraints that we could see cinemas play Fred Hampton's speech, all the way up to him saying: "We're not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we're going to fight it with socialism", and for that I'm grateful.
The movie is about 'Judas' first and 'the black messiah' second - the individuals and not the radical movement. The plot flows through the steps that led the two main characters to their fate. But it's in these scenes and dialogue that the unfiltered politics of the Black Panther Party bleeds through.
In his first scene, actor Daniel Kaluuya channels the spirit of Fred Hampton in a speech to a room full of students feeling triumphant because a college was getting a black leader and being renamed after Malcolm X. Fred is unflinching in attacking these empty symbols of change. He argues in favour of "the revolution that will free you" versus "the candy-coated facade of gradual reform", and warns against "capitalists... in dashikis".
Fred was shown as brave, he wasn't afraid to negotiate with gangs, armed with nothing but his words. And even in the face of impending imprisonment and death, he remained committed to the people and their liberation.
The movie made it clear that Fred wasn't a black nationalist, instead he was determined to build a multicultural rainbow coalition with groups like the 'Young Patriots Organization', and Puerto Ricans in the 'Young Lords'. The full range of the Black Panther Party was shown, including scenes showing the school breakfast programme, discussions on building health clinics, and sections in the party's political education classrooms.
Lessons of the Black Panthers
It was a good taste of their politics, but I share Noname's hope that watchers will "go study Fred Hampton's analysis ... beyond just seeing a movie", and that their hunger will direct them to learn the lessons from the Black Panther Party (see 'Lessons from the Black Panthers' at socialistparty.org.uk).
The action in the movie is balanced by scenes that focus on some of the personal challenges faced by the victims of capitalism's racism and police brutality, as well as showing the challenges for those fighting against it.
One scene exposes the struggles of a mother whose son was killed in a firefight with the police. She had to battle grief while facing prank calls and the media's destruction of her son's legacy. Her words: "He did that, but that ain't all he did ... it doesn't seem fair that that's his legacy" could be uttered by many today whose loved ones end up on the wrong side of the law and the media.
The movie stayed true to Fred's politics, but it wasn't the great inspiration a movie on the Black Panther Party should be. Many watchers will be frustrated by the amount of time spent on Bill O'Neil and the FBI officer using him.
But while the conspirators of Fred's murder were humanised, their crimes certainly were not. The director, Shaka King, was unrestricted in depicting the crimes that the police and capitalist state committed to stop the socialist movement - disinformation, false arrests, murder and entrapment - before finishing with the brutal and bloody home invasion to assassinate Fred Hampton.
Despite being a dramatised version of a political assassination, many of the events of the movie could easily be recreated today. British spies can legally commit these very same crimes, thanks to a law that Keir Starmer whipped Labour Party MPs into abstaining on.
And the conditions that led to the formation of the Black Panther Party are still with us, which shows that many of the same battles still need to be fought and won. The Socialist Party is helping to lead that fight. Our black workers' charter contains the ideas needed to fight against the oppression black people in the UK face today.
- 'Judas and the Black Messiah' is available to rent online