“The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security. Our counterintelligence program must prevent the rise of a Black messiah from among their midst.” And so begins Judas and the Black Messiah, with an ominous speech from the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen) in 1968.
The film, which debuted yesterday in theaters and on HBO Max, is part crime thriller, part civil-rights historical drama. It tells the story of the rise of the Black Panther Party’s deputy chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), and the informant who helped the FBI orchestrate his assassination, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). Judas, directed by Shaka King, profoundly illuminates COINTELPRO’s legacy of repressing Black freedom movements, the effects of which can still be felt today with regard to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Through King’s masterful storytelling and Kaluuya’s and Stanfield’s stunning performances, viewers learn why the Black Panther Party, created in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to fight against state-sanctioned violence, was referred to as a “Black-nationalist hate group” and subject to the most aggressive targeting by the FBI. Although Hoover also surveilled Martin Luther King Jr. and groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 233 of COINTELPRO’s 295 actions against Black groups were directed at the BPP. Judas provides an intimate view of what was arguably the most devastating of these COINTELPRO operations.
Early in Judas, O’Neal, who serves as the chief of security for the BPP Chicago chapter, is depicted serving breakfast to Black children (at one point, Hampton boasts that the chapter provided free meals to “3,000 kids a week”). O’Neal loads bags of food for Black families, and helps the organization provide medical care for Black residents. He attends political-education classes run by Hampton, who insists that “it’s going to take everybody” to win the war against “this racist, fascist, and nefarious U.S. government.” True to his inclusive politics, Hampton builds a “Rainbow Coalition” of “oppressed brothers and sisters of every color” with local Black gang members, the Young Lords (a radical Puerto Rican group), and the Young Patriots (a militant group of poor white people).
King’s depiction of the BPP in these scenes serves to undermine the FBI’s prevailing narrative about the Panthers. When the COINTELPRO special agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) brags to O’Neal that he helped investigate the 1964 murders of the civil-rights heroes James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner by the Ku Klux Klan, he asserts, “The Panthers and the Klan are one and the same. Their aim is to sow hatred and inspire terror.” Panthers did exercise their Second Amendment rights to carry guns and, as King shows, engaged in shoot-outs with police in self-defense. But when O’Neal brings Hampton explosives and suggests that they blow up city hall, Hampton responds, “Are you out your mind?” King’s cinematic choice to show BPP members providing vital resources and services to Black Chicagoans pushes back against the dominant understanding of the Panthers in the American popular imagination: that is, as an organization that wantonly killed police officers and spewed hatred against white people in an effort to foment the Black revolution.
The film also explores the idea that COINTELPRO could not have won its war against the Black Panthers without the assistance of other Black people. Indeed, informants and spies such as O’Neal have historically undermined and sabotaged social movements at the behest of white authorities. Enslaved people prevented the separate rebellions plotted by Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey in 1800 and 1822, respectively, by providing information to white slave owners. The first Black man who worked for what would become the FBI was a spy named James Wormley Jones, whom Hoover hired in 1919 to gather information on Marcus Garvey. With intelligence supplied by Jones to the FBI, Garvey—known as “Black Moses” to followers of his widely popular “Back to Africa” movement—was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually deported to Jamaica. In the 1960s and ’70s, O’Neal and some 7,000 other Black informants worked with federal agents to suppress Black radicalism until COINTELPRO ended in 1971, after the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI exposed its operations.
As Hampton rises to power in Chicago and continues to disrupt the racial status quo, he becomes even more of a target for the FBI. In the summer of 1969, Sheen’s Hoover delivers another lecture to a packed auditorium, instructing his agents to get Hampton’s “Black ass off the street.” Later, Hoover tells Plemons’s Mitchell that “your GI [ghetto informant, referring to O’Neal,] is our best chance at neutralizing Hampton.” Under increasing pressure from Mitchell, who threatens to expose him to the Panthers, O’Neal eventually provides the FBI with the floorplan of Hampton’s apartment—crucial intelligence that made possible the chairman’s brutal assassination.
The Black Lives Matter movement rose to national prominence during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the August 2014 killing of the Black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. Similar to its response to the BPP, the FBI almost immediately began monitoring activists associated with the BLM movement and used Black informants to gather information on their activities. On August 3, 2017, the FBI’s counterterrorism division released a report declaring that “Black Identity Extremists” were a new threat to national security. Even though—as numerous lawmakers, civil-rights advocates, law-enforcement executives, and scholars have pointed out—Black identity extremism doesn’t exist, the FBI used the “BIE” concept to instruct agents on “how to police young Black activists.” (The agency has since discontinued use of the term.)
Less than a week after the 2017 report was released, a new violent social movement emerged. Beginning on August 11, militia groups and neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. One white supremacist at the rally rammed his car into a group of counterprotesters, injuring 19 people and killing a 32-year-old white woman named Heather Heyer. At a press conference in the aftermath of Heyer’s killing, former President Donald Trump declared that “there were very fine people, on both sides.” White-nationalist, militia, and extremist movements have grown substantially in the United States over the past two decades, but have not experienced the same relentless pursuit by the FBI as groups designated “Black” and “radical.”
Like the false equivalencies that FBI agents in Judas draw between the Black Panthers and the KKK, the government responses to Black activists in contrast to white supremacists today are lopsided and misguided. When Black groups agitate for better living conditions and an end to systemic racism and police brutality, they are quickly labeled a threat to national security. Whether violent or nonviolent, many Black movements are criminalized, and law enforcement tends to become consumed with eliminating groups challenging white supremacy. The white supremacists, however, have managed to avoid the same level of surveillance, infiltration, and deadly outcomes. The state’s refusal to take serious action against the very real threat of white extremism helped culminate in the storming of the Capitol on January 6. Even allowing the president of the United States (Donald Trump) to fan the flames of white extremism and get away with no repercussions from it.
As Americans come to terms with one of the most destructive attacks against the state in U.S. history, Judas and the Black Messiah makes an urgent case for why the FBI, and, by extension, American law enforcement, must change priorities. Violence from white extremists poses a far greater threat to the country’s safety than activism from groups that seek to improve the living conditions of the most marginalized people. Judas deftly brings the disparities engendered by a surveillance state into focus, leaving audiences to wonder what this country would look like if the war on white supremacy were fought with the same implacable intensity as the one against the Black Panther Party some 50 years ago.