(L-r) DANIEL KALUUYA as Chairman Fred Hampton and DOMINIQUE FISHBACK as Deborah Johnson in Warner Bros. Pictures' "JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

“You can murder a liberator, but you can’t murder a liberation.” – Fred Hampton

On Friday, Feb. 12, the long-awaited biopic, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” will be released. The film is a historical portrayal of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Black Panther Party championed countless community programs, including the Free Breakfast Program and the People’s Free Ambulance Service, as well as a constant pursuit of adequate health care, education, housing and self-determination. Led by Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton, the Illinois chapter, like many of its nation-wide counterparts, was a militant body of revolutionaries challenging the global institutions of capitalism, imperialism and fascism –– oppressive mediums inextricably bound to racism. Hampton was primed for his position as a leader throughout his youth. Having observed the eloquence of intellectuals and the inspired oration of Malcolm X, he was profoundly aware that he had been called on to serve The People, and while a student at Triton Junior College, he founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.

Tasked with embodying such poise, actor Daniel Kaluuya does Chairman Fred Hampton’s integrity justice and the rest of us a service with his captivating performance. Writer and director Shaka King remarks, “When we sat down together, (Kaluuya) had some qualities, as a person, that I’ve heard a lot of people use to describe Fred. A real sense of maturity, a gravitas, a power of presence, (… ) —a wit, a cleverness. ( . . . ) And Fred possessed that as well.”

The film depicts the life and love of the Illinois chapter, as well as the internal conflict of 17-year-old William O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. O’Neal is obligated to both the BPP and the government’s will, having been planted into the ranks of the Illinois chapter by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and surveil Hampton –– one of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s so-called “Black Messiahs.”

The Saturday before the movie’s release, Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback (portraying Deborah Johnson), Dominique Thorne (Judy Harmon), Algee Smith (Jake Winters) and Darrell Britt-Gibson (Bobby Rush) sat down with the Michigan in Color section of The Michigan Daily to discuss the film. These actors embody the quintessential theme of both the film and the Black Panther Party –– the manifold nature of Revolution. In speaking to them, it became apparent that the film was emblematic of three realizations of Revolution: Womanhood as Revolution, Serving the People as Revolution and ultimately, Love as Revolution. 

“Women create worlds and we create lives. And how revolutionary is it to create love and to create life and surrender it to the world? That’s extremely radical. And so on a basic level, women are and always (have) been revolutionary and radical,” Fishback told The Daily. And at the forefront of history, at the forefront of scholarship, at the forefront of the Black Panther Party and at the forefront of this film are Black women. The biopic offers us two female forces: non-fictional writer and activist Johnson (now known as Mama Akua Njeri) and fictional Judy Harmon, the chapter’s security captain meant to represent unyielding Black women and their supreme discipline. Johnson is a constant pillar of love, support, trust and humanity.

In the Warner Bros. production notes, shared with The Daily, Shaka King embraces Johnson — Hampton’s fiancée — as Hampton’s intellectual equal and vessel to render him, “from superhuman to human(…) In getting to know her, he becomes the People. In turn, she becomes a Revolutionary.” Johnson challenges Hampton’s leadership, encouraging him to step down and stand with the People and to exist with the People, who in turn, he becomes. Fishback and her character Johnson alike are representations of unapologetic truth and a clarity of purpose. They guide the path to seeing liberation through. In an interview with The Daily, Thorne, playing Harmon, articulates the Revolutionary force of women within the film with pristine eloquence: “There’s a reason why Judy Harmon was in that room. There’s a reason why Deborah Johnson was in those rooms, there is a very clear reason why, and hopefully you see that in the action that they take and in the way that they speak to each other. It was about telling the truth, honestly, because that has been the legacy of Black women since the beginning of time.”

Hampton’s speeches are central to the film, which parallel his reverence for oration in real life; central to these speeches are always the People to whom he is speaking. When asked what he hoped people would take away from the film, Kaluuya told The Daily that he wants the movie to represent what “the Black Panther Party(…) stood for. They fed kids with the breakfast program, they educated kids, they covered Legal Aid, they organized buses in order for people who had family members in prison(…) to go and visit them; they really poured love within their own community. And the earnest narrative of them being a terrorist organization was rooted in white fear of Black life.”

Hampton was a vessel for defending, protecting and upholding the People first and foremost; the BPP nurtured the People and provided them with the material and intellectual resources for optimal progression toward personal and community goals. The production notes also quote Dominique Fishback speaking to the power of the Black Panther Party and respective intellectual enlightenment: “To learn about the Black Panther Party is to learn how to be at the helm of your own investigational studies and also guided by your own intuition. A deep knowing of truth.” Just as the true players of history lived each moment pursuing their deepest knowing of truth, the actors that created this film did so as an act of servitude to the People, for the sake of informing and providing resources through which one may expand limitlessly.

Poetry is ever-present in the film as a mechanism for depicting both the Black Panthers’ inherent poetic nature and the understanding of revolution as existing within creation. And this poetry, for which Johnson is a vessel, is the ultimate representation of revolutionary love. Upon Hampton and Johnson’s first meeting, she remarks to him, “Just so you know, you are a poet.” Hampton eventually begins to embrace Johnson’s ideology –– that being radical is more than inspired action; it is loving, building, caring and learning. Fishback herself echoes the sentiment that embodying profound love takes shape in a multitude of ways, positing to The Daily, “We think that revolutionaries are only gun carrying and speaking out on platforms, but we see the levels. We have Dominique Thorne, who plays Judy Harmon; she has the gun, and she’s on a security team. And then we have my character, navigating the whole world, what women do.”

Love as told through poetry is Johnson’s radical nature, and in this, she recognizes that love within and for family is inherently antithetical to any system existing to isolate, separate and oppress. Fishback, who told The Daily she is a poet herself, said she wrote inspired poetry specifically for the film. In the film, Johnson recites a deeply spiritual poem that portrays her greatest passions, joys and fears. In her poem, she reflects on her fear that she will never be radical enough for the man she loves –– that raising a family and putting her family first isn’t radical enough. Tears falling from her face, she looks up at Hampton and speaks of her realization that every characteristic of herself that she fears is not radical enough, is exactly what make her radical. Just as Hampton understands his purpose as one for the People, Deborah understands herself as not only a vessel for radical Love through her poetry, but a vessel for radical Love through the living being within her –– a culmination of the mutual love, care and respect at the foundation of their relationship.

This film was indubitably affecting in its representation of Black family, love and power, though it did not capture everything that Chairman Fred Hampton and the BPP’s anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist politic was. The Black Panther Party and the film’s events implore us to execute self-education, especially through reading, of information beyond the scope of pop culture or what is immediately available to us. Politics must be internalized for individual understanding, so that we may serve the People in the most interpersonally effective way feasible. We must create trust, first with ourselves and our own intellect, and then apply that to the world we interact with in the pursuit of servitude. Hampton himself proclaims, “not theory and theory alone, but theory and practice. The two go together. We not only thought about the Marxist-Leninist theory — we put it into practice. This is what the Black Panther Party is about.”

“We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with Black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.” – Black Panther Party Co-Founder Bobby Seale.

Managing Editors Anamika Kannan and Gabrijela Skoko can be found at anamikak@umich.edu and gskoko@umich.edu.