“Judas and the Black Messiah” reviewed: Call to build an African Internationalist film industry

On February 12, 2021, “Judas and the Black Messiah” released on HBO Max and theaters in North America, to a long-awaited fanfare.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a biographical film that depicts the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) efforts to defeat Chairman Fred Hampton and the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party through surveillance, infiltration, discrediting, disruption and assassination. 

In an interview with The People’s War Radio Show, Chairman Omali Yeshitela noted many positive things about the film.

Directed by Shaka King, an African man, “Judas and the Black Messiah”  was a captivating film.

It showed the bravery of Fred Hampton and raised important public discussions about the U.S. war of counterinsurgency against the African Revolution.  

The film juxtaposes the life of Fred Hampton to Bill O’Neal, the FBI agent provocateur placed in the Illinois Black Panther Party. The centering of O’Neal as the lead character caused some people to boycott the film. 

Notwithstanding this contradiction, Chairman Omali Yeshitela raised another important criticism of “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Chairman Omali stated that the film overlooked Fred Hampton’s position as an anti-colonial revolutionary involved in an international movement.

The U.S. counterinsurgency is also reduced to J. Edgar Hoover’s subjective fears of race-mixing. Hoover’s personal fear might have been real, but it was not the core contradiction. 

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” as well as the other progressive films and television series produced in the recent years, are the clear result of the revolutionary upsurge of the African masses. The contradictions embedded in “Judas and the Black Messiah”  and other films are the result of the colonial-capitalist domination of the mainstream film industry. 

This article revisits an earlier period of revolutionary filmmaking, explains the ways these films exposed the depth of the counterinsurgency and places these films alongside the Working Platform of the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP). 

Colonialism, counterinsurgency and neocolonialism in 1960s films

Half of the APSP’s Platform lays bare colonialism as the core contradiction we face. Points 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 12, and 13 identify problems of colonial and neocolonial domination of African people. 

Frantz Fanon’s masterpiece on anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, “The Wretched of the Earth,” was posthumously released in 1961 and translated to English in 1963.

Fanon’s writings on colonialism, revolutionary national consciousness, African working class character and armed struggle influenced the African revolution of the 1960s.

Author Sohail Daulatzai also argues that Fanon influenced the films of the period. 

Fanon’s influence can be seen in the filmmaking of Italian Communist Gillo Pontecorvo and his films “The Battle of Algiers” (1966) and “Burn!” (1969). 

“The Battle of Algiers” exposed the French colonial domination of Algeria and their brutal counterinsurgent assault on the African community of the Casbah. It also shows the unified African resistance. 

“Burn!” displayed the role of neocolonialism in crushing African revolution.

In it, African revolutionary Jose Dolores rose from slavery to lead his country to independence, only to be undercut by a cabal of colonial forces and the petty bourgeoisie on the fictional island of Queimada.

Ousmane Sembène, the African filmmaker from Senegal, produced important anti-colonial films. Sembène’s 1966 film “La Noire De” (“The Black Girl”) exposed French colonialism and the special oppression of African women.

Similar to Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Mask” also, the film highlights the colonial-capitalist effects on African identity and mental health. 

Sembène’s 1968 film “Mandabi” exposed neocolonialism and labor exploitation in Senegal.

The film’s protagonist Ibrahima Dieng, an unemployed African man, gets swindled out of his 25,000 franc money order sent to him from his nephew in Paris. 

The counterinsurgency in LA Rebellion films

The LA Rebellion, also known as the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers, was a collective of African radical filmmakers from the late-1960s to the early-1990s.

The LA Rebellion was influenced by the works of Fanon, Pontecorvo, and Sembène among others.

These films also display the clear influence of the Uhuru Movement and The Burning Spear newspaper. 

Haile Gerima’s “Bush Mama,” filmed in 1975 and released in 1979, Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (1978) and “Bless Their Little Hearts” (1983) directed by Billy Woodberry chronicle the impact of the U.S. counterinsurgency on African communities in California. 

The films chronicle African unemployment and lack of true economic development in the African community, the mass imprisonment of African people, the plight of political prisoners, the police occupation of the African community and the special oppression of African women.

These films can be watched alongside points 2, 6, 7, 8 and 9 of the APSP Platform. 

“Bush Mama” told the story of Dorothy, a working class African mother in South Los Angeles. Dorothy’s partner TC was wrongfully imprisoned by Los Angeles cops.

The special oppression of Dorothy and her daughter is directly related to the other forms of colonial domination and genocide Africans face in “Bush Mama.”

Africans are murdered by the cops, the community is under constant surveillance, a neocolonial African welfare worker attempts to force Dorothy to have an abortion to keep her cash-aid, and a white cop attempted to rape Dorothy’s daughter. 

Dorothy’s daughter brought home an African Liberation Day poster and the iconic poster of the African mother from Angola holding a rifle in one hand and her child in another.

African anti-colonial struggle influenced Dorothy. “Bush Mama” ends with Dorothy committing an action of revolutionary violence in defense of her daughter, echoing the 1975 case of Dessie Woods.

“Killer of Sheep” and “Bless Their Little Hearts” address the impact of the economic exploitation of African people.

Poverty caused disarray in the African families, reduced African workers to hustling and day-laboring, and produced horizontal violence.

In “Bless Their Little Hearts,” older African men logically debate committing crime to feed their families. 

Julie Dash and Zeinabu Davis are two African women LA Rebellion filmmakers. Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” (1991) and Davis’ “Compensation” (1999) move beyond the immediate overthrow of the African revolution of the 1960s to expose a longer history of African resistance and colonial domination. 

Set, at least partially, at the turn of the century, these films show the impact of lynchings, poverty and the global pandemic on African people. African unity and African women leadership are amongst the political ways forward in the films. 

These are only a few films. Other great LA Rebellion films are “Sankofa,” “Ashes and Embers,” “Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation” and scores more. 

Build 21st century African Internationalist film

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is well-done and worth watching. It sheds important light on the life of Fred Hampton.

What we need is an African Internationalist film industry that tells the stories of our heroes but also helps create more Fred Hamptons. 

It is a good thing to learn about anti-colonial leaders like Fred Hampton, especially with the understanding that he stood as one of many revolutionaries engaged in the struggle to overturn U.S. and European colonial domination of African and other peoples around the world.

It is a better thing to learn to become anti-colonial leaders like Fred Hampton and bring the struggle that he was taken from to its conclusion.

African filmmakers, scriptwriters, photographers, and other cultural workers need to join the Army of African Internationalist Propagandists. 

The films reviewed above contain useful content that expose the role of counterinsurgency and the contradictions of colonialism and neocolonialism in the lives of African people.

They serve as a good political education tool if studied alongside the APSP Party Platform, the Revolutionary National Democratic Program, The Burning Spear, and other African Internationalist literature.


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