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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Princes, Judases and Black Messiahs

by Philip Martin | February 21, 2021 at 1:59 a.m.
(From left) Darrell Britt-Gibson as Bobby Rush, Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panthers Illinois chapter leader Fred Hampton, Algee Smith as Jake Winters, Ashton Sanders as Jimmy Palmer and Dominique Thorne as Judy Harmon star in the film “Judas and the Black Messiah.” FBI informant William O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), who infiltrated the Panthers and spied on Hampton, went on to commit suicide years after Hampton’s death at the hands of the FBI and Chicago police. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • "This Prince left us dense and went home to God too soon."
  • — Chadwick Boseman, "Deep Azure," 2002

We watched "Judas and the Black Messiah" the other night.

It's a story that should be familiar to all Americans — the story of how the FBI and Chicago cops essentially assassinated Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers in 1968.

This is a remarkably well done major motion picture that, by and large, sticks to the facts (as does Howard Alk's sobering and disturbing 1971 documentary "The Murder of Fred Hampton"). While we shouldn't get our history from Hollywood, there's not much in "Judas and the Black Messiah" that needs correcting.

One thing though: The actors who play the principals, Daniel Kaluuya (Hampton) and LaKeith Stanfield (FBI informant William O'Neal, who infiltrates the Panthers and spies on Hampton) are, at 32 and 29 years old respectively, about a decade too old to play their characters. But casting age-appropriate actors would have distracted audiences, and maybe 50 years ago teenagers seemed older than they do now.

I was living part time in Chicago when O'Neal committed suicide on Jan. 15, 1990 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He had been drinking beer at a friend's apartment when he became distressed. First he tried to jump out of a second-story window, then he ran out of the back of the apartment building and onto the bustling Eisenhower Expressway. He was struck and killed.

It was the second time O'Neal had run out onto the expressway; a few weeks earlier he'd been grazed by a vehicle and sent to the hospital.

What's interesting about the timing of O'Neal's suicide, and this is pointed out in a note at the end of "Judas and the Black Messiah," is that it occurred the same evening PBS aired the civil rights documentary "Eyes on the Prize 2," which features the only on-camera interview O'Neal ever gave. (You can read the text of the interview here:'neal.html. And you can see a portion of the video of it here:

In that interview, O'Neal recounts how the FBI recruited — or coerced — him to spy on Hampton. At one point the interviewer asks him if he thinks he's a "hero" for what he did.

"I'm not a hero, no," O' Neal says. "I don't think of myself as a hero for what I've done. But at the same time, I don't feel ashamed. It was my role during that time. There were a lot of different roles, a lot of different positions. There were actually a lot of Blacks fighting in Vietnam that felt like they should have been there and was proud to be there, fighting for the country.

"I felt like there was a war here in the street and I was recruited early and I joined sides early and I didn't straddle the fence. I gave it all, all I could, as long as I could ... Do I feel like I betrayed someone? Absolutely not. I had no allegiance to the Panthers. I didn't even know what they were about when I joined. I joined at the instigation of the FBI, who I had scant knowledge of.

"So no, I don't feel like I betrayed anybody. I don't feel like I'm a hero. Am I proud? I'm proud of some of the things that I, that we, that I had done. There were certain things that we'd done that prevented a lot of violence."

That interview aired, and O'Neal ran out into traffic.

Director Shaka King (low center) poses on the set of Warner Bros.’ “Judas and the Black Messiah.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)
Director Shaka King (low center) poses on the set of Warner Bros.’ “Judas and the Black Messiah.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

When Chadwick Boseman died of complications from colon cancer in August, many Americans probably had an idea of him as an up-and-coming movie star, a sought-after leading man who, in a few short years, had portrayed a number of iconic American historical figures — Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown — but was best known for playing Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero T'Challa in "Black Panther."

This is the way the media industrial complex works; artists are invariably associated with their most popular and accessible roles. But Boseman was the rare movie star who was also a versatile actor capable of submerging his own identity into characters. If he had a trademark, it was the banked yet smoldering dignity with which he invested all his characters.

Some of the movies he made were better than others; "Marshall" seemed simplistic, almost like a fable aimed at young readers, but none were truly bad. Boseman was almost always the best thing in the movies he made, as well as one of those actors whose name in the credits vouchsafed a certain quality.

Because he kept his illness private, his death came as a shock.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2016, he continued working and completed production for several films, including "Da 5 Bloods" and the posthumously released film version of August Wilson's play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," both of which seem likely to draw attention when the nominations for the 93rd edition of the Academy Awards are announced March 15.

There is much speculation that Boseman will be nominated as Best Supporting Actor for his work in "Da 5 Bloods." He is considered the front-runner to win Best Actor for his role as mercurial cornet player Leevee in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

His last performance was his best.

Levee is the youngest and the most provisional member of Ma Rainey's band. He is — like Ma Rainey — a songwriter as well as a virtuoso performer. He is given to flashy shoes and transgressive affairs, and the old hands in the band mock him for his dreams and impudence and acknowledge he has qualities they themselves do not possess.

He is living fast, a young man in a hurry, with the talent to match his ambitions. More than that, he is willing to play the white man's game in order to accrue economic wherewithal. He has watched Ma, with whom he clashes artistically and against whose discipline he bristles, prosper in the transactional music business. He's ready to go out on his own.

But Levee also has a deep primal wound and can't accept disappointment or ridicule. In the third act, he ruins what might have been a beautiful future if the white record company people would only have let him have it.

Boseman's eye-magnetizing performance as Levee (an allegorical character who has no direct historical counterpoint, although he evokes Louis Armstrong, Charley Patton, Jelly Roll Morton and every other Black musician economically and psychologically abused by the music industry) is remarkable — angry, intelligent, vulnerable and proud. Knowing all we know (and don't), Boseman's anguish, channeled through Levee, is nearly too much to take.

Levee is the sort of Black protagonist we see too often in real life: damaged, self-destructive and twisted into inauthenticity by the authority. Another kind of Bill O'Neal, spying on himself.

Chadwick Boseman (foreground) portrays Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Boseman, who died of complications from colon cancer in August, proved himself a versatile actor capable of submerging his own identity into characters. (David Lee/Netflix)
Chadwick Boseman (foreground) portrays Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Boseman, who died of complications from colon cancer in August, proved himself a versatile actor capable of submerging his own identity into characters. (David Lee/Netflix)

In the early-morning hours of Sept. 1, 2000, a Maryland police officer working undercover spotted a black 1998 Jeep Cherokee driving through an area of the District of Columbia known for the drug trade. The officer decided to follow the suspect because the Jeep matched the description of one involved in a case where someone — the police suspected a local crack dealer — had stolen a detective's service revolver after he'd left it on the seat of his unmarked car.

This was an embarrassing scenario, and the detectives put a high priority on retrieving the weapon. They wanted cause for a search warrant to search the suspect's apartment. This was top of mind as late night rolled over into morning. Even though the black Jeep had Pennsylvania plates, which didn't match the suspect's, the officer decided to tail it.

He put his gray Mitsubishi Montero Sport into gear and followed the suspect for about 25 miles into Fairfax County, Va., to a suburb of Washington known as Seven Corners. There, the Jeep pulled into a driveway in a nice residential area, apparently to let the car trailing him pass. The officer drove past the Jeep, then circled back.

What happened next is unclear; according to the police version, the man in the Jeep got out of his vehicle and began to approach the officer's unmarked car. The officer identified himself as a police officer and brandished a gun, but not a badge. The suspect, for that's what he was at that moment, then got back in his Jeep, threw it into reverse and rammed the Montero at least twice.

The officer fired 16 shots into the Jeep, hitting the suspect six times and killing him.

Eyewitnesses dispute the official version. They say the Jeep was stationary. An autopsy commissioned by the dead man's family suggested that the angle of the bullet wounds in the dead man's body indicated he was moving away from the shooter.

Prince Jones was 25 years old when he died. He was a Black man, 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds. He worked as a personal trainer at a D.C. gym. He was on schedule to graduate from Howard University in December and planned to enter the U.S. Navy's Officer Candidate School. He had a notion that he might then go to medical school and become a radiologist like his mother, who practiced on Philadelphia's Main Line.

He was a good student when he put his mind to it, but tended to meander. He had taken incompletes and semesters off and had been at Howard for seven years. He was able to do so because he came from a privileged background — he carried an ATM card linked to one of his mother's accounts. His father, who'd divorced his mother when he was a child, was an oil company executive who also doted on his son.

He was a vegetarian and a churchgoing Bible student who practiced tai chi. He was so popular among his classmates at Howard that they called him "Ferris Bueller" after John Hughes' remarkably personable protagonist.

He had been on his way to visit his fianceé and mother of his infant daughter when he was shot — he pulled off the road a few driveways away from the apartment complex where she lived.

The police pointed out that he'd had run-ins with the law before; there had been four domestic violence calls. When his girlfriend was seven months pregnant, he had allegedly punched her in the jaw. Even his friends admitted he had some anger issues.

But those same friends rankled at the police explanation. There were lots of black Jeeps around. There were a lot of neighborhoods in and around Washington that could be described as "known drug areas." Prince Jones was not a drug user; he had no record of drug arrests. He was a victim of profiling, of systemic racism.

The police officer who shot him did not have an unblemished record. Early that year he'd been disciplined for lying about evidence in an investigation. He could have been fired, but was instead temporarily demoted. He'd only recently returned to work as a detective.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the officer called 911. He reported what had happened: His car had been rammed and he'd fired his weapon in self-defense. He admitted he was "scared half to death." When the 911 operator asked him who he had shot, he paused for a long moment.

"Chenier Hartwell," he ultimately replied. "That should be his name, Chenier Hartwell. I've got his case file somewhere in my car. Jesus."

The officer's name was Carlton Jones. He was 32 years old.

He was dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans. His hair was styled in dreadlocks — the effect the undercover cops were going for was that of a Jamaican drug dealer. Carlton Jones was a Black man. He too had attended Howard University, leaving without graduating to join the Prince George's County police department. He claimed to have been inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.

Carlton Jones was eventually cleared in the shooting, though he was removed from public duty and reassigned as a computer tech. In 2006, a jury awarded Prince Jones' daughter and her mother $3.7 million in a wrongful death action against Prince George's County.

Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, King of Wakanda and the holder of the Black Panther mantle. Boseman also wrote a hip-hop poem-turned-play, “Deep Azure,” about a Black woman whose fiance is killed by a Black police officer. (Courtesy of Marvel Studios)
Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, King of Wakanda and the holder of the Black Panther mantle. Boseman also wrote a hip-hop poem-turned-play, “Deep Azure,” about a Black woman whose fiance is killed by a Black police officer. (Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

If the story sounds familiar, it may be because you've read the work of one of Prince Jones' Howard University classmates and friends, Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose 2015 book "Between the World and Me" — an open letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori, about the perils of growing up Black in America — recounts the killing of Prince Jones.

In the book, Coates describes how the incident so shook him that a year later, when al-Qaeda attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001, he wrote that he "could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died [as a result of the September 11 attacks]. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body."

As Coates has noted, emotions have no morality. We feel as we feel, and that's likely the best argument for insulating our legal processes from emotional appeal. Justice is not the same thing as satisfaction.

But Coates was not the only one of Prince Jones' Howard classmates and friends to write about him.

Chadwick Boseman wrote a hip-hop poem that he turned into a play called "Deep Azure," about an anorexic young Black woman, Azure, whose fiance Deep is killed by a Black police officer, Tone.

"Deep is not just another Black man lost to the hand of violence in America's unkind streets," Boseman wrote in his artist statement that accompanied the piece. "He is a Prince — a would-be king, a would-be husband, a would-be father, and a would-be leader — whose development has been aborted before he could serve out his true purpose."

Another Black Messiah. Another Judas.

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