Cast of ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ talks people power, Black love

Photo from the film "Judas and the Black Messiah"
Glen Wilson/Courtesy

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“It’s about taking care of your own and loving yourself and decentralizing that liberation … No one can ever free you, you have to free yourself.”

This reflection on the road to freedom is one of many revolutionary philosophies Daniel Kaluuya internalizes from his work in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a new film by Shaka King. Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther party in 1969, in a modern-day retelling of his assassination and how it was aided by an FBI informant from within the Panther party named William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield).

If, up until the promotion of this film, you were unaware of the fact that the FBI conspired to assassinate a 21-year-old with the help of an exploited spy, it’s because our government never wanted you to hear it in the first place, the cast reminded us in an interview with The Daily Californian.

“They tried to paint (Hampton) as a bad person, tried to paint the Panthers as a threat to society…if you look at everything that (the Panthers) were doing, from the free breakfast program to their own newspapers, they were mobilizing for basic human (rights)” commented Algee Smith, who plays 19-year-old Panther Jake Winters. “We were robbed of having that in our history.”

Being that the erasure of the Black Panther Party’s members from modern history lessons left little source material for its cast to examine in pre-production, cast members were forced to combine intuition with research to get into character.

“I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing,” Stanfield remembered. “The whole time I was questioning whether I got the tempo right, whether I was representing him right and appealing to Chairman Fred Hampton’s legacy in the right way.”

Reflecting on his hesitations to play a historical traitor, Stanfield added, “What helped me the most is getting out of my own way, my own judgments that I had about the character.”

For the movie’s women, the character-building process came with different hurdles. Dominique Thorne, who plays the fictional Panther Judy Harmon, reflected on her journey finding a character.

“It was a lot about scrubbing through videos until I found female faces,” Thorne said of the lack of Black female preservation in historical sources that she encountered during research.

Dominique Fishback, on the other hand, who plays Fred Hampton’s love interest Deborah Johnson (today known as Akua Njeri), commented on the delicacies of playing a revolutionary woman who is still alive.

“She didn’t come to set a lot, and she really allowed me to have my own ideas of who she was,” Fishback remembered of Njeri. “It allowed me to feel free that whatever I was doing instinctively — journaling, writing poems for every moment that (she and Hampton) had, putting music to every scene (a lot of Nina Simone) — and doing those things, they innately led me to her.”

The fact that the woman behind Fishback’s character is around today is telling of the horrifying recency of the assassination.

“Every year the cops still show up and shoot up his gravesite,” Fishback continued. “Even from the grave he’s still scaring them.”

“This is still the revolution,” Smith commented. “It’s sad that we are still dealing with (this)… But we are still a part of that revolution that (Hampton) was talking about.”

As the film is premiering during a period of heightened racial awareness in our country, one might hope there is a chance that “Judas” might be the catalyst for long-overdue actualizations of racial reckoning in America.

“It happens to be timely, but it’s timely because nothing much has changed,” remarked Stanfield.

Elaborating on the similarities between 1960s Chicago and modern America, Darrell Britt-Gibson, who plays co-founder of the Illinois chapter of the BPP and living politician Bobby Rush, remarked, “Fifty years ago, Chairman Fred Hampton was assassinated in his sleep, in his apartment, minding his own business. And just last year, Breonna Taylor was assassinated in her sleep, in her apartment, minding her own business. And in both cases there was no justice served, so the parallels are right there.”

While the case of Hampton and his martyred legacy is tragically unique, the film makes sure to not only highlight the remarkability of his death, but the relatability of his life.

“I’m hoping that people get to see a little bit of themselves in our leaders in those quiet and those smaller moments,” Fishback said of her intimate scenes with Kaluuya. “(Because) when people start to see themselves in our leaders and our heroes, then we start to imagine that we can be heroes,” Fishback said.

The cast made it clear that if not just for the pertinent history lesson, every young person needs no more reason to stream “Judas” than to remind themselves of their own potential.

“Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, they were (college-aged), changing the world,” Britt-Gibson reminded. “Y’all are the change.”

Judas and the Black Messiah begins streaming on HBO Max Feb. 12.

Contact Nurcan Sumbul at [email protected].