March 4, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Judas’ writer asks: Can art counter social injustice?

My parents told me about Chairman Fred Hampton when I was a kid. I grew up in New York City in the 1980s and ’90s. The New York of Run-DMC, Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Limelight. But also of Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpurs, Bernard Goetz and Amadou Diallo. And Rudy Giuliani — whom real New Yorkers have always hated. Police brutality was an inescapable though largely intellectual constant for me.

But beginning with Oscar Grant’s 2009 murder in Oakland, the ubiquity of cellphone cameras made police killings a visceral reality for white Americans, like me, who’d had the privilege of formerly considering them merely an upsetting conceptual fact. For Black Americans, of course, state-sanctioned and -condoned violence has been an immediate, chronic and existential threat for over 400 years.

In summer 2014, Eric Garner and Michael Brown were murdered just three weeks apart, the latter fomenting the Ferguson uprising. At that point, I felt compelled to try to tell Hampton’s story, a story that was being regularly and horrifically recapitulated. At just 20 years old, Hampton led the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, and within a year had made it arguably the most effective in the country.

He’d also spearheaded the Rainbow Coalition, which united the Black Panthers with the Puerto Rican Young Lords and white Young Patriots Organization to collectively serve their communities. And which made him so threatening to the state that the FBI and Chicago Police Department drugged him and then murdered him while he lay unconscious in bed, next to his eight-months-pregnant partner. In fact, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 expressly to combat police brutality with legally armed “citizens’ patrols.”

I bought every book I could find, pulled scholarly and news articles from the digital library JSTOR, and downloaded dissertations and master’s theses from ProQuest. But there’s shockingly little written about Hampton; the efforts to erase him have been thorough. Even a 2006 drive to rename the street he grew up on after him was thwarted by the city’s Fraternal Order of Police.

I wrote the script over four months in 2015, commuting between my dining room table and living room couch, working on it whenever I had a free moment. My wife dubbed it my mistress. As I allowed myself to fantasize about casting, I wondered if a comedian with acting chops might be best to portray Hampton. He had a tremendous wit and sense of humor, and his story is so heartrending, I felt this might also offer some tiny salve.

Through a mutual friend I got the script to Jermaine Fowler in 2016. Unbeknownst to me, he gave it to director Shaka King, who was outlining a version of Hampton’s story with comedians Kenny and Keith Lucas. Shaka and I met in 2017. We had a great rapport and similar sensibilities as fellow Gen X New Yorkers. It was an easy decision to join forces.

We went to work marrying elements of my script with his and the Lucas Brothers’ structure. Shaka and I spent a week in his Silver Lake Airbnb outlining this new version — plastering several walls with large pastel stickie notes. I went off and pounded out a preposterously long first draft, which we passed back and forth, revising extensively until we were relatively happy with it.

Toward the end of the year, Shaka gave our new script to Ryan Coogler, whom he’d met at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where they both had movies. Coogler then recruited Daniel Kaluuya, with whom he’d just worked on “Black Panther.” Shaka was already friends and had collaborated with LaKeith Stanfield and Dominique Fishback. Coogler quickly brought über-producer Charles King onboard as well. Thus formed a veritable Voltron of astronomical Black brilliance … and me.

We thought it’d be an easy sale, likely even the object of a bidding war. It wasn’t. After several rejections, and several more “We love it but you’ve got to slash your budget,” we found a wonderfully supportive home for “Judas and the Black Messiah” at Warner Bros.

I was on set for the final two weeks of shooting in Cleveland in December 2019. My first day was a 5 p.m. night shoot in an abandoned, unheated church. Much of the crew wore snowsuits. Twenty years in L.A. had left me soft and unprepared — the only winter jacket I own is from my CBS page days in New York in 1999.

Shaka set me up in the video village with the digital imaging technician, Mark Wilenkin, who showed me some of what had already been shot. I reflexively clutched my head with both hands in awe. It was a vivid reminder that the magic of movies is that it’s not magic — it’s 200 people doing their highly skilled jobs in concert and incredibly well. Beyond this, I could tell that the entire crew was there because they truly cared about telling Hampton’s story and honoring his legacy. It was instantly the best creative experience of my life. And yet, the more gratifying the process was, the more I was filled with creeping doubts about its purpose.

I couldn’t help but wonder about the futility — or even frivolity — of art-making in the face of social injustice and inequity. Would the film’s budget have been better spent trying to right some of these endless wrongs? I reminded myself of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” Picasso’s “Guernica” (so powerful it was shrouded while Colin Powell helped lie us into war at the U.N. in 2003), and the AIDS Quilt. But as much as I believed in the power of those artworks, and in the worthiness of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” I still wondered.

What finally turned me were the long discussions I had with Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. and his mother, Akua Njeri (née Deborah Johnson). They served as invaluable consultants and emotional sparkplugs on set. Our talks illuminated the deep spiritual connection between the Black Panthers and art.

Steeped in Marx and Mao, one of the Panthers’ chief strategies toward achieving a revolution was to heighten the contradictions — between racist, imperialist capitalism and the lives of Black people (of all oppressed people, in fact) — until the only viable reconciliation was revolutionary thought and action. In this way, theory would be put into practice. And that dialectical tenet reminded me of a lesson I’d learned from one of my literary heroes and mentors.

Nearly a decade ago I developed a television pilot with David Milch, who often reiterated Coleridge’s dictum that poetry emerges in “the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant elements or qualities.” In other words, the reconciliation of contradictions. In this sense, good art is always revolutionary in form even if not in content. So I finally let myself embrace the parallels of praxis and poetry.

I was a child in the New York of Michael Stewart and Amadou Diallo. Now I’m a man in the America of Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, George Floyd and so many more. And tomorrow’s victims. That so little has changed since Chairman Fred Hampton’s killing is nearly unbearable. That there seemingly is no contradiction to reconcile between past and present feels hopeless. But, like Chairman Fred knew — and lived and died — the only way to forge a better future is to fight like hell trying.