We have defamed the Black Panthers for too long – they were not terrorists
Judas and the Black Messiah director, Shaka King, wants to set the record straight on the Black Panthers. Contrary to what some choose to believe, he says they were not a terrorist organisation, rather, "they led with love".
The Oscar-tipped drama, while set in the late '60s, is undoubtedly a film of the current moment. It recalls the life and tragic death of prominent Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Aged just 21, Hampton was assassinated in his bed during a raid conducted by the FBI.
The twist? Hampton was informed on by a fellow Black man - FBI infiltrator William O'Neal Jr. (Lakeith Stanfield). The true story is a tragedy on both counts. At 40-years-old, O'Neal Jr. ran into traffic and was killed. His death was ruled a suicide, and his uncle, Ben Heard, later claimed that his nephew was "forever tortured by the guilt" of betraying Hampton and his Illinois chapter.
The Black Lives Matter movement
The brutal injustice and racism of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI administration is not a far cry from the racial divides that are continuing to play out in America. The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, to name just three, made headlines across the world and inspired the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Much like the movement has been maligned by some for inciting protests, the film also touches on the way that the Black Panthers were misunderstood. And this was one of King's aims.
"From the outset, our goal was to correct the record or make some attempts to correct the record. Just in terms of putting forth an accurate representation of what the Black Panther party stood for," he explains while speaking at the summit panel, Legacy of the Black Panther Party and Chairman Fred Hampton.
"The panthers led with love. They weren’t a terrorist organization. Rather they were community organizers and philosophers and thinkers. [We wanted] to make a movie that captured 1968. But so little has changed between 1968 and 2021 that we don’t really have to draw parallels to the present."
Righting a wrong
Indeed, the Black Panthers are seen in a different light in the film. Instead of portraying them as an incendiary party, who relied on militancy, we see them uplifting marginalised Black communities. That is, handing out free breakfasts for local children before school. Or, organising clinics to protect Black people from substandard healthcare and unaffordable medical costs.
Portraying Hampton's short life then, for King, was an "opportunity to explore this country’s past and present of crushing voices of dissent and weaponizing the state to quell efforts by citizens to make changes that actually lead to these ideas that America puts forth of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
As activist Linda Sarsour corroborates: "Judas and the Black Messiah [...] kind of tries to right a wrong. And the wrong is that we have defamed the Black Panther party for too long. In fact, they were a necessity and they are a necessity today."
The activists of today
Following 2020, and the renewed spotlight it has put on race relations within a deeply divided America, Sarsour continued to point out how protestors are receiving the same kind of treatment that the Black Panthers did in the '60s.
Explaining how she was charged with a felony for sitting on the lawn of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s house, she said that the media is largely responsible for the "defamation" of activists who are striving for change in the current moment. Quoting Ida B Wells, she adds: "Those who commit the murders write the reports.
"We see the brutalization of our communities. We watch police murders happen probably on a daily basis. And interestingly enough, connecting the dots even with things like Breonna Taylor - if you watch - whether it be Judas and the Black Messiah - or you documentaries, oftentimes, it was no-knock warrants that were used to go into Black Panther headquarters or to target members of the Black Panther party. And that is the same no-knock warrant that murdered Breonna Taylor. So for me, the legacy of the Black Panther party continues today.
"We could literally create the entire Judas and the Black Messiah film right now today and swap out Chairman Hampton and put in activists of today. The same brutal police forces that brutalized the Black Panthers and political activists at that time are still the most brutal police forces today," she concludes.
*Black History Month – to fully understand the present, we must educate ourselves on the past.