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How Judas and The Black Messiah Made History By Reclaiming It

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The Academy Award nominated historical drama Judas and The Black Messiah tells the story of the rise of radical leader Fred Hampton— as well as those who ended up taking him down. In doing this, the film was able to explore the radical politics of the 1960s, shed light on the Black Panther political movement, and retell one of the most volatile stories of that decade— Fred Hampton’s assassination at the hands of the FBI.

For those of us who did not grow up during the era of the Black Panther Party, the group feels almost mythologized. The original party disbanded back in 1982, after enduring years of violence and blowback, particularly from the US government. Over the years, the group has morphed into a symbol of black liberation, and their lasting legacy continues to shape our culture and our political movements to this day. Back in 2016, Beyonce brought the Black Panther Party back into the larger conversation, paying homage to the group during her Super Bowl Halftime performance. Just the symbol of the group was enough to stir controversy, a clear indication that they are still a powerful force in US politics.

Beyonce paid a tribute to the Black Panther Party during her 2016 Super Bowl performance—bringing the group back into our national conversation. Photo sourced through The Nation.

However, aside from the berets, for much of America the party remains an enigma. Their story and history rarely gets told, many of their leaders have been dead for years, and many other original Black Panthers remain incarcerated to this day. Thus, it is up to a new generation of radical artists, leaders, and writers to tell their stories. This is exactly what director Shaka King has attempted to do in Judas… And in doing this, King was able to give Fred Hampton’s story a new relevance, and shed light on one of history’s many injustices.

So the saying goes: History is always told by the winners. In the case of Fred Hampton, history was indeed told by the winners— at least until now. It was common knowledge that Fred Hampton died after being shot during an FBI raid. That he died in the early hours of the morning, sound asleep and defenseless. In Judas…, the audience gets to experience the events leading up to Hampton’s death— showing us the compassionate and caring person that he was underneath all of the politics. The film paints a different portrait of the Black Panther Party than the one which has been disseminated for many years. Instead of painting them as a group of ‘violent extremists’ we get to enjoy scenes of the Panthers reading theory together— Franz Fanon and Lenin— as well as organizing numerous community outreach programs, such as the Free Breakfast for School Children Program.

Daniel Kaluuya playing Fred Hampton in the film, bringing to life the man underneath the revolutionary. Photo sourced through Polygon.

The movie itself feels almost cathartic at times. It was a story that needed to be told, and was finally being told— only 50 years too late. Indeed, this film came during a very important time in American politics, and the subsequent reception to it indicates an important shift in the larger culture. The film has been very well received by critics, and has been nominated for numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture. This nomination alone is important in and of itself, for it is now the first film with an all-black production team to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. The film now holds the record for the highest number of Black Oscar nominees in history, according to Hollywood Reporter. These nominations include: Daniel Kaluuya for his role as Fred Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield for his role as Bill O’Neal, the FBI informant who ascended the BPP ladder.

Due to its success, the film is being heralded as a moment of triumph in Hollywood’s continued efforts to diversify. For many, it seems to be the product of a diversifying writers room, one which is now making room for those who weren’t given a spot in the years before. However, the film’s production team has been sceptical about its success, and the film’s director Shaka King has even gone as far as to call it ‘bittersweet’. “Anytime you’re the first black anything and you talk about something in a positive light, it’s very bittersweet,” King stated. He then asked, “Why did it take 93 years for three Black producers to be nominated for an Academy Award?”

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