Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead for Judas and the Black Messiah
HBO Max’s Judas and the Black Messiah is the heart-wrenching odyssey of black activist Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and the violent atrocities carried out against the group by the Chicago Police and the FBI. Shaka King’s directorial debut chronicles the role played by FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) in the assassination of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), which was largely orchestrated by the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO operation, as formulated by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen). The socio-political relevance of Judas and the Black Messiah does not require elucidation, as the film exposes the continued legacy of repressing black freedom movements in U.S. history.
While the ending of Judas and the Black Messiah touches upon the aftermath of Hampton’s assassination, which, in part, is touched upon in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, the jarring truth about COINTELPRO remains integral to this chapter of the civil right’s movement. After founding the multicultural Rainbow Coalition, Hampton went on to bring up the ranks, owing to his electrifying rhetorical abilities and wide-ranging efforts to end infighting and bring about true social change. This caught the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who views his presence among the Panthers as “the single greatest threat to national security.”
Notorious and ever-controversial, Hoover plays a seminal role in the systematic targetting and persecution of black socio-political and activist groups, such as that of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and The Nation of Islam, which human rights activist Malcolm X was closely associated with at one point. Moreover, it is important to note that Hoover’s motivations to thwart and suppress Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah is merely a sliver of a larger covert operation that engaged in targeted atrocities and psychological warfare. Here’s J. Edgar Hoover’s war on black activists, explained.
After joining the Black Panther Illinois chapter in November 1968, Fred Hampton and his associates were responsible for significant achievements with regards to Chicago’s socio-political scene, the most prominent being a non-aggression pact among the city’s most powerful street gangs. Armed with a nuanced understanding of government-enabled wealth disparity in the nation, Hampton attempted to forge a class-conscious, multi-racial alliance, which eventually led to the Rainbow Coalition. Rallies and demonstrations against poverty, racism, corruption, and police brutality rose in numbers, with Hampton at the helm, who was also instrumental in BPP’s Free Breakfast Program. Desperate to get Hampton off the streets, and garner key intel about the Panthers’ organized activities, the FBI recruits Bill O’Neal as an informant, who quickly rises up the ranks and grows close to Hampton himself.
Hoover’s COINTELPRO targeted groups and individuals deemed subversive, which included feminist organizations, anti-Vietnam war organizers, civil rights activists, and other independence movements. Consequently, Hampton emerged as a major threat to the FBI, especially due to the fact that he displayed effective leadership qualities and had a penchant for cogent, impactful communication. Due to these factors, Hoover was determined to disrupt the formation of a cohesive Black movement that could bring about revolutionary change in the U.S. government, as he sought to “prevent the rise of a Black messiah from among their midst.”
Hampton, the black messiah in question, was marked in the Bureau’s files as a “key militant leader”, which was only the beginning of the FBI’s endless attempts to wrongfully paint The Black Panthers as a group that thrived on spewing hatred and terror. A combination of these factors contributes to Hoover’s decision to assassinate Hampton, which is carried out with the aid of O’Neal, who, like countless others, have been used to historically undermine and sabotage social movements from within.
O’Neal’s infiltration allowed him to relay intel to Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who in turn, wrote a letter to the then Director of the FBI, Hoover, reporting that the Panthers were primarily involved in feeding breakfast to children, along with providing vital reimgs and services to members of the community. In response, Hoover insisted on fabricating a narrative that reinforced his views that the Panthers were “a violence-prone organization seeking to overthrow the government by revolutionary means” – a statement that is a flat-out, grotesque lie. Additionally, the authentic portrayal of the BPP’s attempts to simply empower impoverished black children with food and reimgs in Judas and the Black Messiah pushes back against the corrupt, orchestrated narrative that the FBI managed to instill in the American popular imagination.
While the film does not touch upon the full extent of Hoover’s insidious COINTELPRO operation for the sake of narrative focus and brevity, it is important to acknowledge that the reality of the planned attack at 2337 West Monroe Street was completely misrepresented by the media. Prior to Hampton’s murder, the FBI had been successful in sowing seeds of distrust between the Panthers and the Blackstone Rangers, with O’Neal personally instigating an armed clash in April 1969. Moreover, Hoover also launched a disinformation program to forestall the formation of the Rainbow Coalition, demanding that COINTELPRO personnel “destroy” what the organization stands for. Following the planned murders of Hampton and BPP member, Mark Clark, the raid was framed by the media as a “ferocious gun battle” wherein the Panthers open-fired on law enforcement officers, positioning the deaths as a by-product of the incited violence.
However, the truth was revealed when all seven surviving members of the raid came forward with their own testimonies, and the federal grand jury found that the Chicago Police had fired between 83 and 90 rounds, as opposed to the Panthers who fired a maximum of one shot. This revealed that Hoover was not only responsible for warping the truth and hiding systematic atrocities in plain sight, but also actively enforced covert operations that banked upon forged documents, false narratives, orchestrated instigations, and pre-arranged murders.
After the events of Judas and the Black Messiah, the COINTELPRO continued its covert, illegal activities until 1971, two years after Hampton’s murder. Then on, the operation was exposed by an activist group, and Hoover was forced to officially dismantle the operation. However, the damage was done, as the program’s mission statement revealed that the goal was to “prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the black nationalist movement”, which, in turn, were thwarted by orchestrated clashes and disinformation campaigns. This only serves to highlight Hoover, and by extension, the FBI’s fear of a powerful black messiah figure like that of Hampton, along with the unified strength of the Black Panthers. Ultimately, the U.S. Senate concluded that the COINTELPRO clearly intended to foster violence among black activist groups and pit factions against each other. While the COINTELPRO does not exist today in America, its inner machinations still do.