New drama Judas and the Black Messiah harkens back to the late 60s, when the FBI labelled the Black Panthers as “the greatest threat to internal security of the country”. It sought to neutralise them by any means available: infiltration, surveillance and, ultimately, the assassination of Fred Hampton, the “black messiah” of the title, forcefully played by Daniel Kaluuya. In J Edgar Hoover’s mind, the FBI was protecting “our way of life”; to many in the African-American community and beyond, the FBI was the threat.
For decades, Hollywood has presented the FBI as the best of American policing, upholder – as per its motto – of “fidelity, bravery and integrity”, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Hoover was the master of controlling the message. There was James Cagney’s 1935 hit G-Men, for example, a pro-government riposte to those dangerous gangster movies. Or 1959’s The FBI Story, a “greatest hits” of the bureau’s achievements. Hoover, who was friends with the director Mervyn LeRoy, personally ordered reshoots of scenes he didn’t like, and pushed to cast James Stewart as the archetypal G-Man: athletic, straight, white, male.
It helped that the bureau kept files on stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Orson Welles. Who knows what leverage it had? When Hoover got wind of 1967 farce The President’s Analyst, which belittled him and the FBI, he reportedly “went ballistic”. The film disappeared from theatres. And look what happened to Jean Seberg. After supporting the Panthers, the FBI bugged and intimidated the actor, even spreading false rumours about her pregnancy. She killed herself in 1979.
Even after the Hoover regime, Hollywood went on serving up heroic FBI agents, from The Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice Starling to Netflix’s Mindhunter. Clint Eastwood and Leo DiCaprio’s biopic J Edgar seemed more interested in Hoover’s repressed sexuality than his racism, while in Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning the FBI was even painted as the white saviour of the civil rights movement, taking on the Ku Klux Klan.
Now we are starting to see alternative perspectives. A primer for Judas and the Black Messiah would be the recent doc MLK/FBI, which details the lengths the bureau went through to sabotage Martin Luther King’s movement. Kristen Stewart’s recent biopic didn’t exactly do Seberg justice, but was at least a sign that the industry could finally take on the bureau. In a similar vein, Lee Daniels’s The United States vs Billie Holiday details the singer’s persecution by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the FBI’s partners in crime prevention. Of course, the FBI has done good, too (it really did take on the Klan), but it can hardly complain about being the subject of further investigation.