Judas and The Black Messiah: A Roundtable Discussion of Community and Legacy
Kennedy London, Arts & Entertainment Editor
The natural human mind would tell itself that 51 years is a long time for things to change. This past December 4th was the 51st anniversary of the assassination of former Black Panther leader, Chairman Fred Hampton. Over 51 years later the fight Hampton fought persists with the generations after him. During a recent HBCU roundtable press event of the new Fred Hampton biopic, Judas and The Black Messiah, Hampton’s impact and message remained as essential as it was in the days of the civil rights movement.
Director-Writer Shaka King aims to reconnect the people with the words and actions of Fred Hampton in this fiery take on the Black Panther leader. With the story revolving around the FBI’s assassination plot of Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) with the use of a mole within the Panthers, the message Hampton preached through this life never is lost. Judas balances the dilemma of the betrayal of the Panthers by William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) and the civil movement Hampton is leading beautifully.
In the roundtable, which included Kaluuya, Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, and Dominique Thorne, one of the essential themes that resonated in the discussion was community. Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition, status within the Black Panther Party, and his dedication to his wife and unborn child serve as the many examples of Hampton’s reach. Hampton understood the power of unity and protecting the less fortunate from the threatening nature of the United States Government.
Thorne, who plays Black Panther member Judy Harmon, described the experience of portraying the Panthers as protectors as a “blessing.” Thorne also said, “As a black person, as a black woman, it was a blessing to be able to step into the shoes …… [The] Black Panther Party as protector was the central goal or mission of the Party. And I think oftentimes that theme has been watered down, or it’s been confused or portrayed very differently from that you hear them as thugs, as violent, as armed and dangerous as a terrorist organization.”
Kaluuya understood the message of unity in Judas as well as anybody. Kaluuya stated, “It’s how his vision of unity was for me, it was fascinating about the rainbow coalition. The work that he did and understanding like, wow, he went to the other communities, the Hispanic community, the white community, who he had a conflict with, and found points of interest. But, why I found this fascinating is because he didn’t sacrifice his love for blackness and love for the black community while joining people that he was in conflict with, and we live in a day and age where we feel that it’s evil.”
Evil is also a word that has been used to describe William O’Neal’s role in the assassination of Fred Hampton. A petty car thief facing some serious jail time, O’Neal agreed to become a mole within the Panthers to get out from under the FBI’s boot.
“I actually felt more compelled by the fact that he had to deal with this internal struggle, dealing with the guilt that I did with his leaders [FBI],” said Stanfield when discussing the balancing act or portraying O’Neal’s guilt and his false allegiance to the Panthers. While the film does not condone O’Neal’s actions, Judas shows a unique angle of the legacy O’Neal left. Stanfield also mentioned that he was granted access to the infamous one-hour, uncut Eyes on the Prize II interview that O’Neal gave to grasp O’Neal’s perspective.
Speaking of perspective, the different perspectives looking at Hampton throughout his life was a major component of his success and his untimely demise. One of those perspectives knew more about him than anyone else in the form of Deborah Johnson, who was his fiancee at the time of his murder. Now named Akua Njeri, her role in the film was more than just his partner, but someone who regularly let her voice be known about Hampton’s speeches and alluding claims of how his time on this earth was going to end.
Fishback, who played Deborah, stated that the most profound thing about her playing Deborah was, “In me getting towards her. Because getting towards her, I had to learn to trust people in a different way. I had to learn trusting men, and black men, in a different way in order to open myself up to all that she was.” Fishback also mentioned meeting Akua Njeri and Fred Hampton Jr., talking with them for seven hours about why she wanted to do the project. “Mama Akua said that the Panthers were very disciplined, they didn’t speak out of turn, and there were certain things she would have never said to Chairman Fred,” stated Fishback.
The legacy of Fred Hampton lives on strong as Judas and The Black Messiah releases today in theaters and on HBO Max.