Culture Trips

Fred Hampton was a radical revolutionary. Judas and the Black Messiah ignores that | Culture

The war to own the legacy of Fred Hampton, the charismatic Black Panther leader killed in his sleep at age 21 by Chicago law enforcement agents and the FBI, has begun. Senator Cory Booker, the gentrification-loving neoliberal former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, has already staked his own claim. In an embarrassing 5 February tweet that he still somehow hasn’t deleted, he partly quoted Hampton:

“We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.” Fred Hampton #BlackHistoryMonth

Anyone even remotely familiar with Hampton will note that Booker left out the next line of the famous quote:

“We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”

Given Booker’s work as a foot soldier of capitalism and the privatization of public goods in Newark, it makes sense that he would attempt to decontextualize Fred Hampton and strip him of his radical anticapitalist politics. As Hampton becomes an increasingly popular name in the United States, efforts to sanitize his worldview and actual theories must be resisted, especially given the long history of prominent leftwing figures being distorted and co-opted.

A lot of Americans may soon learn about Hampton for the first time. A new film, Judas and the Black Messiah, dramatizes his work as deputy chairman of the Illinois Black Panther party before his killing in 1969. The film is an engrossing, chair-clenching and relatively accurate depiction of one of the most important young leaders in the history of the United States. But it dances a little too close to stripping Hampton of the radical politics that made him a large enough threat to be targeted and assassinated by the FBI and the Chicago police department. While Judas and the Black Messiah does a better job by far than most, its downplaying of Hampton’s Marxist-Leninist politics does him – and the larger American leftwing movement – a disservice. In fact, it’s not so surprising that a communist rapper like Chicago-based Noname would turn down the opportunity to associate with it.

The movie does make clear that Hampton was a socialist. But in our current political moment – when the term “socialism” can mean anything from universal healthcare to workers controlling the means of production – it is important to understand and respect that Hampton had a very specific understanding of the world and what must be done to make it a place worth living in, and dying for.

Like the Black Panther party as a whole, Hampton was not just a socialist, but a communist and a Marxist-Leninist who subscribed to many of the theories laid out by the German philosopher Karl Marx and by Vladimir Lenin, father of the Russian Revolution. Hampton believed that the people needed to seize the state and usurp the power and wealth of the ruling class, and that only by doing so would Americans establish a truly democratic government and economic system. He also believed that a vanguard organization, composed of the most politically developed of the working class, would lead the way – helping to guide the masses of disgruntled people to ensure that they were not led astray by reformist leaders who sought to maintain the same underlying exploitative system.

Unlike some Marxist-Leninists before, however, Hampton and the Black Panthers believed that the poorest of the poor – the unemployed, the hustlers and others outside the confines of traditional work – were best suited to carry out this revolution. He believed that we did not need rulers, and that electoral politics could not get us to a revolution. And he believed that race, gender and class work together to keep the masses of people poor and divided.

To the much-deserved credit of Shaka King and the other creators of the film – who consulted with Hampton’s widow, Akua Njeri, and his son, Fred Hampton Jr – much of Chairman Fred’s politics shine through the camera lens. Scenes show him leading political education courses and rejecting unstrategic reactions to police violence. His belief in organizing the poorest of the poor, the lumpenproletariat, is why he is seen talking to gang members at pool halls instead of workers in factories. Similarly, his belief in a multiracial working-class revolution is put on display as he interacts with the Puerto Rican gang turned political organization, the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots, an organization of poor white youth who migrated from Appalachia. One of the first scenes involves him tearing down the ideas of non-socialist Black Nationalists, whose politics, he argues, are misguided and do not address the real material problems of the Black community.

Despite all this, the movie could and should have spent more time with Hampton, the politics of the Black Panther party and the exciting developments of his multiracial Rainbow Coalition. The political education scenes could have lingered even for a minute or two longer on the ideas of Marxism. The film after all, did have plenty it could have cut. The focus on the FBI and the black FBI informant William O’Neal was useful at times to show the depravity of the nation’s internal intelligence agency, but that angle got a few scenes too many. This seems to follow the trend of movies like American Gangster, the 2007 portrayal of the Black mafioso Frank Lucas, which devoted a superfluous amount of screen time to the white cop investigating Lucas.

The film’s soundtrack is nearly completely devoid of the Panther ethos, which speaks to a larger issue of the Black radical aesthetic being used by Black capitalists and artists aspiring to become the Black capitalists that Hampton loathed. The album includes an important introduction by Fred Hampton Jr as well as thoughtful tracks from some of my favorite artists – from old heads like Black Thought and Rakim to newer obsessions like HER. and JID. Aside from two songs, however, the soundtrack falls more into Black capitalist nationalism and descriptive politics that speak to the plight of poor Black people without any real substantial solution or politics present. This is not a moment in history in which Black people can afford to be non-ideological, let alone in an album tied to one of our greatest and clearest ideological leaders.

I know my criticisms may strike some readers as unfair – perhaps as striving for a “more radical than thou” ideological purity. But the danger of political co-optation is very real. Lenin himself made that point in his work State and Revolution:

“During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them … robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”

The United States continues to promote and celebrate figures like Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr and Helen Keller while obscuring their radical political commitments. They were all, in one way or another, socialists, but their radical politics have been purposely erased from the historical narrative.

We must ensure that the same is not done to Hampton. In an age in which the solutions of capitalism have proved inadequate for fundamental tasks like preventing the slow annihilation of life on the planet and the containment of Covid-19, a plague that is disproportionately killing Black Americans, his politics are especially invaluable. And while Judas and the Black Messiah is fantastic as a whole, and does a great job at holding the line, the fight to preserve Hampton’s legacy has only just begun. Protecting his childhood home – and protecting and aiding the Panthers and other Black radicals we still have with us today – are just some ways to start.

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