Review of “Judas and the Black Messiah”
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a film about social revolution. The film, the allure of it, the controversy surrounding it, and the growing acclaim for it, its rising popularity over the past five weeks, each of these has contributed to this cinematic expression achieving the level of a cultural phenomenon. It is in this connection that we endeavor to contribute yet another review of this film.
Social revolution is the historic process whereby the people in their millions determine to bring down an oppressive social system and bring into being a system that is life-giving in the image of the ways we-the-people take care of ourselves and each other.
When revolutionaries communicate with the people, we want to reach them in their large, mass, character; we commit to go lower and deeper to the real majority. Revolutionaries use all manner of oratory, the written word, in news articles, essays, research papers; we use art in all manifestations, but particularly those manifestations which will reach the people — poetry, music, dance, theatre, movies. In each of these efforts to communicate, the purport always is to connect with the people’s understandings of the current and long-term situation, to get across how we the people can create a better world, what constitutes a system of human liberation — communication of this type is how revolutionaries prepare the people for this transition from an oppressive social order to one that is life giving.
Charles and Stacy King (Producers), Shaka King (Director), Will Berson, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas (Writers), LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuy, Dominique Fishback (actors), Deborah Johnson and others (living representatives of the historic period under examination in the film), together evidence a determination to communicate a revolutionary message to the people. “Judas was designed from the start to be a wide-release, commercial movie” (https://ph.news.yahoo.com/judas-black-messiah-reflects-charles-214148001.html).
The Black Panther Party (BPP) at its best placed the people first. In this cinematic presentation of the history, we the viewers, we the people, get to see the serve-the-people-programs, the logic and heart behind them. The movie succeeded in getting this core element through — the Black Panther Party was devoted to developing People’s Power: Free Breakfast for Children Program, the first of their kind Neighborhood/Community Health Clinics, Liberation Schools. They were devoted to creating images of the people in power.
Projections Before the opening gun, there was gratuitous pushback: “Hollywood cannot possibly get this right.” “Why would they spend so much time on the informant? It must be to drum up sympathy for him.” This is said before watching the film. “The title places the FBI informant in the first position; the film is about him first.” “This Brother [Shaka King, the film maker] is a millionaire. Millionaires cannot be revolutionaries…” This was some of the chatter, sidewalk clatter before release of the film.
While this type of projection is rampant with all media phenomenon on the verge of gaining the spotlight, we must take a little time examining the motives of critics who hold this opinion after having watched the film. I was in that group before the film. Two of my sons, particularly my youngest son Conrad, challenged me: “Pops, you haven’t seen it yet…”
Friday, February 19 at 7pm HBO MAX began its live streaming. It was time for the projections to stop. From that moment on, my phone was ringing off the hook.
Me and mine did not stop calling each other until 2am. Since the film came out five weeks ago, I have received no less than four calls from former students of mine, students with whom I thought I had lost contact. These are my high school students … In other words, when I was their History or English teacher (20–25 years ago) they were the same age as I was when Chairman Fred was assassinated. Each of them said, “Mr. Lynn, you told us the truth about Fred Hampton.” I’m recounting this, for one, because I thought, of the 1960’s-70’s BLM, this Fred Hampton moment was an apex point regarding our birthright to wage a freedom struggle. Here we are 50 years later, and the worm is turning again. History spirals, and we are clearly in an upsurge in our People’s Liberation Movement, and in the world-wide revolutionary socialist transition from capitalist decay.
Fifty Years Later When I awoke the next morning, the image of Deborah Johnson, Fred Hampton’s fiancé, was square in my face. Upon investigation of this sentiment, it turns out that the artist/director, Shaka King had framed the presence-role-personage in the film of Deborah Johnson for an actor/cultural activist named Dominique Fishback. He then invited Dominque to join the project. In other words, before inviting her to play the part, he envisioned and scripted a “Deborah Johnson” that he thought Dominique Fishback could embody. The first thing Dominque did in response to this invitation was to research Deborah Johnson, and then present Shaka with three essays she wrote on the countenance of Deborah Johnson.
We are fifty years later, and the result of Dominique’s work was to show that Ms. Johnson, today Mama Akua Njeri, was every bit the revolutionary as was her intended, Chairman Fred. Again, it is fifty years later. The revolutionary leadership of African American women has to be championed and exalted.
But, how to do this?
To prepare for Deborah Johnson, Dominique Fishback went to journaling/meditation. In these essays she went beyond bolstering the presence of Deborah Johnson. “They were essays about women’s voices. Shaka heard this. He made space for our voices.” In other words, the presence of women’s leadership of the Black Liberation Movement in general was augmented by a director who heard her.
According to Deborah Johnson, the writers and Shaka inserted conversation from her to Fred which she would/could never have said back then. “You just didn’t speak to the Chairman like that.” Dominique: “My research consists of finding the rhythm of how to say things to Chairman Fred,” so he can experience her wisdom, her intellect, her devotion. She learned this by communing with Deborah Johnson. Mama Akua supported Dominique and the writers in these lines added to what actually took place. Dominique, speaking of the core relationship in the film, observed “It’s an amazing story of Black Love…”
“I journaled about their first kiss.” She said that revolutionary leaders back then can appear superhuman. Dominique asked herself: “What is my mission?”, and answered herself: To show through her energy “the things that people don’t get to see about Chairman Fred,” about someone who otherwise appears superhuman… She said that, on the foundation of her thorough research, “women’s intuition played a major role” as she sought to make Deborah and Fred available, recognizable to today’s average viewer.
We are now in a time when looking back requires us to focus on Deborah Johnson. This is fifty years later, and Womanism has insisted on recognizing the always present leading role of women. Womanism has informed us to understand leadership from the perspective of the ways of women. Leadership is no longer standing out front beating your chest and yelling. Leadership is often the quiet, unseen, pulling at the shirts of the people on each side of you and bringing them closer together — unseen, without words being spoken. This is what Deborah Johnson has done. This is what Dominique Fishback offers us. On the other hand, while Black women have always been at the forefront of human progress from time immemorial, since humans have distinguished our species from that of apes (while going unrecognized for this leadership during class society most of the time), fifty years after the Fred Hampton/Deborah Johnson phenomenon reveals outstanding Sisters in outright, manifest leadership of our peoples liberation movement: Assata Shakur, Ilhan Omar, Angela Davis, Stacey Abrams, Toni Morrison, Septima Clark, Ella Baker, Audre Lourde, Lolita Lebron, Toni Cade Bambara, Fannie Lou Hamer, Afeni Shakur, Elaine Brown, Kathleen Cleaver, Erica Huggins, Winnie Mandela, Mama Akua Njeri, Alice Walker, Michelle Alexander, Ava DuVernay, Aretha Franklin, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Janelle Monae, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Amanda Gorman, “My Grandmother,” Tamika Mallory, Amanda Seales, Michelle Obama, Dominique Fishback, Henrietta Hodge, Curdina Hill, Harriet Henry, Paula Elliot, Yvonne Desmond, Mary Hodge, Josefina Vasquez, Donna Bivens, Julie Jones (of Juliana Jones fame), Queen Gloria Johnson, Jennifer Jones Clark, Samayah Harris, Louray Barton, Penny Hodge, Nia Evans, Ntanya Lee, Barbara Ransby, Claudia Jones, “Mommy”-Kathy Evelyn, Aya de Leon, Tua Nefer, Lisa Owens, Geanier Moore, Yolanda Lynn, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to name a few.
According to Dominique, the set, particularly the writers, director, producer and actors “was a boys club.” Her question then became, “How do we navigate this space [how do women show our true selves in all our power] without ruffling too many feathers?”
Going Inside In order to “get” Deborah, Chairman Fred and the Black Panther Party, Dominique journaled about the lines scripted for her, she found a song for every scene, and a poem to help her ingest, accept into her body, every event, moment or process.
And here Shaka King’s spirit, method and process must be revisited: Dominique wrote a poem to Chairman Fred, and petitioned Shaka to include it in the narrative. Again, Deborah Johnson wrote no such poem. But this is what revolutionary art is for. Shaka included this poem written by Dominique Fishback — “Deborah Johnson” recited this poem to “her fiancé Fred Hampton” towards the final scenes of the movie.
Implied in Chairman Fred’s commitment that “We put the people first in all things” was the fear, certainty, that he would die before he could even see his first child by Deborah. In response she reached for inspiration in Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do,” and the verse,
But you just do what you gotta do
My wild sweet love
Though it may mean I’ll never kiss your sweet lips again
Pay that no mind
Just find that dappled dream of yours
Come on back and see me when you can
This led her to go inside of that “dream of yours” which was pulling him away. The dream was of a People’s Government. For a “love affair,” this certainly breaks with the staple image we’ve all been fed regarding love affairs taking the two individuals, now joined as one, off into the sunset together, leaving behind such “trifles” as “What kind of government are the people, our people, our loved ones, our families, being crushed by?” To situate herself in this spiritual space, Dominique went to Langston Hughes, “Dreams”:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
One interviewer asked Dominique: “As an artist, what brings you joy?”
“Playing piano brings me joy; meditation brings me joy. Through meditation I gain direct access to God and the universe. Chairman Fred brings me joy. Through meditation I get to my truth. Chairman Fred was Love, he is Love. Chairman Fred has a macro-Love for the people, all people,” of all nationalities. “To love and bring more love into the world is an act of revolution. Activism begins within the body.”
On the subject of sexual love: “One of the most revolutionary acts one person can do with another is to share each other’s bodies…”
“How do I portray true love? I prayed for the ability to be a conduit, a vessel for that kind of love. So, I studied the way Daniel moved. Chairman Fred came through Daniel’s body.” Because she made that physical bond, she was pregnant with the build-up to the closing scene of the film. She recounts that the night before the final scene she had nightmares throughout the night — something terrible was going to happen to her partner, lover, fiancé Daniel. She came to realize that she had achieved the physical/spiritual connection from actor to Deborah-Johnson-the-proletrian-revolutionary-lover-of-Chairman-Fred. She said that she had to go to faith to believe that Daniel the actor was going to be OK, at the same time as Daniel — Chairman Fred — the revolutionary was going to be assassinated. “And I had to mourn that loss in order to realize Deborah in my body.”
It is Our Birthright to Stand on the Shoulders of Our Forbearers To make revolution of fifty years ago digestible for the kind of human beings we are today, requires being both the human of today and that of fifty years ago simultaneously. Dominique Fishback explains that this is an interior struggle that each of us has to wage with ourselves everyday: “Chairman Fred won the trust of the people on both a public and a personal level. And when you learn how to trust people in that manner, you don’t have to be defensive or on guard. So when I learned how to trust Daniel [Kaluuy playing Fred], and everybody who was beside me, I understood how a woman as fiery as her [Deborah Johnson, Fred’s fiancé], and like myself, could flow with this, could vibe with this. That influenced me in terms of how I wanted to express myself to Daniel in the scenes.”
The film showed Fred’s indominable exterior, and also probed who he was internally, in private. Fifty years ago, we did not, in our masses, probe the interior of our people’s movement. Voices like that of Toni Cade Bambara’s — “The revolution may not have been out there then, but it definitely is in here now!” — were ahead of their time. Bambara predates today’s Womanism and the recognition of Black Women’s leadership in all areas of the peoples cause (a leadership that has ever been there unrecognized). Today, we are standing on the shoulders of our forbearers. We must learn lessons, move forward. Shaka King determined to show this interior of Fred Hampton and he did so most poignantly through Deborah Johnson. Deborah was just as much a revolutionary as was Fred. By providing this image in detail, the authors, director and actors stood on the shoulders of our forbearers and gave us a more thorough and useful definition of revolution, and what it means to be a revolutionary.
What we learned from our forbearers is that a revolutionary loves her/himself enough to be able to love the people.
Projections Answered “How can a person be a millionaire and a revolutionary at the same time?” Shaka King is not a millionaire. He did receive millionaire backing for this project. He is, however, the birthchild of a revolutionary. His father was a member of the Black Panther Party, Jazz musician and life-long revolutionary himself. Shaka King’s father participated in making the soundtrack for the film Judas and the Black Messiah.
“How can Hollywood ‘get this story right’?” When a Director has so much financial support that he can do in Hollywood whatever the heck he wants to do. Producers Charles King and Stacey Walker King (Macro) went into the project “with a vision of empowering and supporting people of color and diverse storytellers,” Charles King says. “The vision was having people of color be at the center of the content that we would produce and finance.”
“Why would they spend so much time on the FBI informant?” To answer this question, I suggest you ask yourself, “How many people do you know today who are walking down the street talking about ‘I’m gonna die for the people,’ ‘I am a revolutionary,’ ‘You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution…’, ‘Off the pig’?” How many people do you know today who, upon seeing a phalanx of police cars coming down the street, will scream to their neighbors, “The pigs are vampin! The pigs are vampin!”?
Revolutionaries seek to connect our message to the people where they are. Shaka King wants to connect to the people where we are today. William O’Neal was not an exceptionally decrepit spirit. He was typical of his times. In other words, he was everyday decrepit. We are living in the period of denouement of Western Civilization. War and rumors of war are the norm. Today, who among us is free of the ill-spirit of commodity production? Who among us chooses righteousness at every moment? Each of us is faced with choices of whether to place our own selfish interests first or to put the needs of the vast majority ahead of our own immediate desires, daily and hourly.
Yes, Ted Cruz did look quite despicable in his Bermuda shorts waiting for his flight to Cancun while the people of Texas were freezing to death. But can any of us say that he is a wild exception? The Ted Cruz spirit is produced daily and hourly in the Debauchery Factories of America.
Shaka King wanted us to have the emotional/spiritual space to understand that the William O’Neal’s among us, or inside us, are normal everyday life in America. Remember, William O’Neal was not a demagogue; he did not have a political axe to grind. Shaka said that the image of William O’Neal reminds us all of “the danger of being a-political.” William O’Neal was not a political activist. He was not a right-wing political activist. He was an everyday Brother putting his own selfish interests first, as all of us are taught to do. Each of us, every day, is afforded the opportunity to sell ourselves as commodities, to turn ourselves into things, for our own immediate gratification, and for the long-term benefit of the U.S. monopoly capitalist ruling clique. This is common everyday life.
While each of us, every day, endeavors to act on principles which are life-giving, we are also encouraged to be that
upon the city wall,
who judges none,
while seeing all. …”
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
The Message: Make a Distinction “Were the authors of this movie trying to drum up sympathy for the police agent?”
As we offer you our grasp of the most important message of this film, we are conscious that we are merely quoting the script, the director and the actors. The movie closes with the following two scenes:
First is footage of the actual interview of William O’Neal by Eyes on the Prize: II. In other words, this is not Lakeith Stanfield acting. It is William O’Neal as Eyes on the Prize prepares to include his testimony in their second film on the 1950’s-1970’s Civil Rights/Black Liberation Movement. It is important to note that this snippet of the original interview did not make it past the editors cut, it was not in the final version, for the public, of Eyes on the Prize: II
The penultimate scene of “Judas” is introduced by these words printed on the screen:
William O’Neal remained an active member of the Black Panther Party and a paid FBI informant until the early 1970’s, earning today’s equivalent of over $200,000.
In 1989, he gave his first and only on-screen interview for the docu-series “Eyes on the Prize 2.”
The IP2 interviewer asks O’Neal: What would you tell your son about what you did then?
O’Neal: I think I’ll let your documentary put a cap on that story… I’ll let history speak for me.
The penultimate scene ends with these words printed on the screen:
Eyes on the Prize 2 premiered on PBS January 15, 1990, Martin Luther King Day. Later that day, William O’Neal committed suicide.
Judas’ final scene is actual footage of Fred Hampton in the flesh, intoning the following adjuration to a crowd of hundreds of his people:
You’re gonna have to say, ‘I am a revolutionary. I am the proletariat. I am the people. I’m not the pig. You’re gonna have to make a distinction…’
At age 68, this scribe read the words “Later that day William O’Neal committed suicide…” and cried. Did the producers of this film succeed in winning “sympathy for an FBI informant?” Did William O’Neal lead an ignominious life? Is that not sad? It is quite sad that he facilitated the execution of one of our loveliest sons. It is simultaneously true that such spirit resides in the people, in our millions today. Even in death O’Neal “sold us out” — he left his son alone to deal with it.
At age 68 I am against suicide, homicide, execution and killing people. I have become what a comrade, Richard Gray called “unviolent.” I believe that we the people in our millions will need to use force to move beyond capitalism. The political force needed (political force is violence) will be far less than the murderous violence meted out to the people by this decrepit system every day.
We must make a distinction.
No human is an island,
entire of itself;
every human is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main…
Any human’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in humankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee. John Donne (1624)
Martin Luther King, in his speech at Riverside Church, 1967, taught us this about revolution: “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience…”
This has been my inspiration. Let it be yours.