Amassing Wealth As A Black Person Does Not Liberate Black People: A Reflection On ‘Judas And The Black Messiah’

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Shaka King’s new film “Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of Fred Hampton—the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who was killed by the U.S. government. The film is a refreshing change from the slavery narratives that have become the standard. In addition to the slavery narratives that have become the norm, white savior films have become a Hollywood favorite. Movies like “The Blind Side”, “Freedom Writers”, “12 Years a Slave”, and “Django Unchained” perpetuate the problematic notion that Black people must be tamed, saved, and cultured by white people. “Judas and the Black Messiah” on the other hand, puts a necessary spotlight on the Black Panther party, examining how they impacted the community and pushed for social change. Although chairman Hampton’s life was taken at the tender age of 21, his legacy and the lessons he gave the world live on through his memory. “I really love that the film introduces him while speaking to these young people about the difference between revolution and reform, because I can’t stress enough how critical that conversation is,” shares Raven Rodiguez, who reflects on what the film meant to her. Raven is a writer, consultant, and strategist with an expertise in race, racism and racial history. She hosts a weekly conversation ‘It Is That Deep’ on Clubhouse. Raven specializes in helping individuals develop critical mindsets that can be used to dismantle oppressive systems. “I can’t stress enough how often I have that conversation, around the difference between revolution of reform, and how often I find myself asking students and activists ‘what are you doing to ensure that your efforts outlive you? How are you institutionalizing your activism?’ And I think in this scene, in this opening scene, the very first time we see Fred on camera, on screen, he’s conveying this message that when that’s not on the agenda, when you’re not trying to ensure that your efforts outlive you, when you’re not institutionalizing your activism, you do fall into being co-opted and end up receiving social capital for your complicity, whether that’s your fancy title, your salary, your degrees.”

Those that watch the film are reminded of the sacrifices that leaders throughout history have made for the greater good. “We only memorialized men like Fred Hampton,” Raven explains, “because they died doing the work that we are so often afraid or not equipped to do. So, I think it’s really important when folks are watching this film to remember that every day, but especially right now during Black History Month, people really want all of the accolades, and even worse, all of the capital for work that their idols didn’t get accolades or capital for while they were alive… I think this film does an incredible job at creating space for conversation around self-importance, performance and really the centering of self in work that is and will always be about community liberation. One of the reoccurring themes of the movie was the role of capitalism in the continuation of oppression. In reflecting on this theme and how it showed up in the film, Raven indicates, “when we talk about capitalism, we are not talking about an ingredient. We’re not talking about this big stew of a mess and capitalism is sprinkled in there. We’re literally talking about a modern-day caste system. We’re talking about the literal roots of our oppression, of all poverty. So, you can’t be anti-racist if you’re not anti-capitalism. The American capitalist system would literally have to be destroyed; it has to be destroyed in order for Black liberation… and I think where people get messed up…is that Black liberation can look like Black capitalism, can look like amassing wealth, and what that often leads to are the creations of Black-owned systems of oppression when what we need to see is the total obliteration of capitalism. You have to obliterate a system in which wealthy capitalists are able to get richer and richer, where they’re able to amass more and more wealth while the people who work for them don’t. And I think there’s this confusion around what oppression is or what oppression looks like. In order for oppression to live anywhere, it has to live everywhere. And so amassing wealth as a Black person does not liberate black people.”

Much of the movie centered around the story of William O’Neal—an FBI informant who infiltrated the Black Panther Party and helped the FBI and Chicago police murder Hampton. When reflecting on O’Neal and the role he played, Raven shares “I think Bill’s interesting because he’s someone from the beginning who, our introduction to him is he’s impersonating an officer… And so, we’re introduced to him while he’s impersonating an officer to commit a crime. And then he’s having a conversation with an officer, with this agent, and one of the first questions the agent asked him is, ‘how did you feel when Martin Luther King was murdered?’ And we can kind of see that he didn’t have much to say about it…and we see that in the beginning and we see that same, I’m not going to call it indifference because I don’t think that’s what it is. We see that same fear and helplessness…where he’s like, ‘we’re not going to win this war.’ And I think from the beginning, the film did a really brilliant job at introducing Bill to us and showing us that from the very beginning, Bill had an understanding of power and that understanding, I think, stems from the way power has been used against him as a Black man. He knew that he could get what he wanted by impersonating an officer. He knew that he could get, whether it was money or what they were paying him, by cooperating. By selling out… I think the parallels today are really present in people who feel the same way. Who are like, ‘I’m not going to risk my job…I’m not going to risk my home…I’m not going to risk my status, to speak up. I’m not going to risk anything actually…I’ve had this conversation so many times with Black people who know, who recognize the power dynamic between them and whether it’s their white supervisors, or their landlord, or their neighbors.

There was a powerful moment in the film where after Fred Hampton is murdered, William O’Neal receives keys to his own gas station as his reward for the role he played in the chairman’s murder. When thinking about this moment in the film, Raven shares “His ultimate reward, his final reward, were keys to a business…I think that was the most powerful moment in this film…I think for the Black people who do believe that they are going to buy their way out of oppression, that they are going to amass enough wealth to end oppression. That they are going to educate, whether it’s going to be academia or titles or…for the Black people that believe that they are going to be liberated by those things, I think it’s really incredible, that final moment when Bill is rewarded with what’s seen as the ultimate accomplishment in this country. To own a piece of the American dream, to be a business owner. To literally own a slice of America, which the FBI then in the film called freedom…do you think Bill is free now because he owned a gas station? Do you think any Black man in this country that owns a gas station is free? And do you think the same can be asked of Black men who own hedge funds? Of Black men who are billionaires? I really think that scene was so powerful and there were so many parallels in that moment where this final moment where he’s receiving these keys, and the parallels between Black people today who are receiving those same metaphorical keys, I guess, to what? Proximity to this American dream, to whiteness, to wealth. I think it’s really important to encourage folks, which I try so hard to do, to really invest in learning the terrain from their elders in whatever way that looks like for them. But under no circumstance is it okay to pick up a megaphone or pick up a microphone or call yourself a revolutionary or call yourself an expert if you are not, day in and day out, recognizing, acknowledging, paying homage through your own work to the folks who gave their lives to die…I’m not even going to say they gave their life because most of them were murdered, they were murdered…they died fighting and working tirelessly…. these are all thoughts informed by the labor of other Black people. I am never out here quoting myself or acting like any of this is original. This is just studying the terrain of people who really, really got it down…that is how we create a community-led movement that really can tear [things] down.”

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