As ever, this year’s Academy Awards consisted of a strange celebration of trauma from the perspective of the elite, from the trial of Brock Turner in Promising Young Woman to the murder of George Floyd in Two Distant Strangers. The collective agony of the masses was repackaged and redistributed to audiences as entertainment for profit. One horrific event that was retold in two films nominated for multiple awards this year (Judas and the Black Messiah & The Trial of the Chicago 7) was the death of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Hampton was the victim of a brutal political execution orchestrated by the FBI in 1969; targeted due to his revolutionary leadership and ‘radical’ Marxist views.
The Black Panther Party (BPP) have been victims of a constant assault from the media as well as the US government for decades. With a long and relentless history of demonization, it is refreshing to see a more accurate depiction of these characters, stories, and ideologies. The BPP and civil rights movements have been mocked and villainised in cinema, from the poor manic, violent, misogynistic Panthers in Forrest Gump to the genocidal Killmonger in Black Panther. To see Hampton and the BPP gain a positive spotlight is at least some progression.
But unfortunately, while Fred Hampton and the BPP were revolutionaries, their ideologies have been diluted in these films. Declawing the panthers so that they are safe for the white western elite to comfortably consume their struggle. Former Black Panther leader, Elaine Brown, during a discussion about Panthers in cinema, said that the depiction of Fred in Judas and the Black Messiah was a narrow, pathetic, two-dimensional characterisation of Fred and the film is insulting to the history of Fred Hampton, as well as the BPP as a whole.
Prominent communist and artist Noname declined the opportunity to collaborate with makers of Judas and the Black Messiah on the soundtrack after viewing the film; stating that the film “was shot beautifully, the acting was amazing. but it’s a movie about an informant. Fred is secondary and his radical communist politics are centred, at all…most of his politics were stripped from the film”.
Judas and the Black Messiah followed in the footsteps of Blackkklansman: giving audiences a warped story of an informant and conspirator, rather than of the revolutionaries themselves. Boots Riley, another communist artist, talked in detail about the copaganda and falsehoods of Blackkklansman that seemed to hide the true story of a counterrevolutionary under the disguise of a hero.
Just as Blackkklansman sacrificed historic accuracy in favour of plot, The Trial of the Chicago 7 went even further in its inaccuracies. It capitalised on the death of Fred Hampton as a plot device, depicting his death during the trial, rather than after as it happened in reality, in order to motivate Bobby Seale to have an emotional outbreak during the trial. There was no need to alter the history of the death of Hampton other than a white film maker wanting to appropriate the history of the BPP to improve his dull script. Bobby Seale had enough motivation to protest against the court in real life without other parts of the BPP history being appropriated.
Chicago 7 went further to disservice the revolutionary power of the BPP while depicting the barbaric moment Bobby Seale was gagged and bound during the trial. With Bobby Seale tied to a chair, the other Panthers at the trial as support could only helplessly spectate. Thankfully, the white saviour comes to their rescue to facilitate his freedom after just a few moments.
In reality, Bobby Seale was strapped to this chair for three days, in which he continued his protests and disruption of the trial rather than sitting like a passive victim. When finally allowed his ‘freedom’ in the trial, he continued with his objection calling the judge a fascist, a racist and a bigot. The flattening of Bobby Seale’s rebellion, and therefore a flattening of the BPP in general, serves only to diminish their revolutionary strength and dedication.
With the creation of a more accessible form of Fred Hampton and the BPP, the hope would be that this would spark interest for Fred Hampton and his revolutionary ideologies. Though it’s difficult to remain hopeful, as it would appear that the films could not even muster any revolutionary power within their own ranks.
While The Trial of the Chicago Seven and Judas and the Black Messiah were being produced, spending a combined budget of $61 million, Hampton’s son and creative consultant of Judas and the Black Messiah, Fred Hampton Jr., had to continue to seek funding via GoFundMe to save the family home of Fred Hampton. Those that cared so much about the story of Fred Hampton could gather $61 million to tell his story couldn’t help raise the $350,000 to save a historic landmark. It’s only recently that the funds were eventually raised, partially due to the exposure of the film, and Hampton Jr. is still in need of funding on GoFundMe to help develop the home into a community centre. This directly goes against the The Panthers Ten Point Plan, which demands ‘an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black community’ which seems to have been ignored as the culture and history of the Panthers has been exploited by others with no benefit to the Panthers themselves.
The platform of the Academy Awards could have been utilised to inform audiences about the concerns Fred Hampton had for society and his revolutionary means for change. But just as the films had been drained of their revolutionary fuel, the awards ceremony was unsurprisingly not the revolutionary call the films failed to be.
This could have been an opportunity for anyone, whether involved with the film or not, that truly believed in the fight of the BPP to call out issues, like the fact that while filmmakers are telling the stories of some Panthers, there are Panthers imprisoned and enslaved by the racist prison institution, alongside many others. Or to direct the crowd of millionaires to the GoFundMe which could be funded in seconds without any concern or meaningful loss of capital. Or to any of the major concerns of the BPP to help liberate oppressed groups. Instead, Fred Hampton was thanked alongside multibillion dollar companies profiting from his life and death while twenty-five nominees were given ‘goodie bags’ collectively worth $5.125 million.
So the question remains: can we expect any great change or revolution to be headed by the Hollywood elite? It would seem the answer is no. We need to stop looking to the stars for guidance and instead look to the streets. We don’t need people playing Fred Hampton, we need revolutionaries like Fred Hampton. These films were not built as the revolutionary material they had the potential to be. There is a victory, however, for diversity and representation in Hollywood and the Academy Awards; but a victory hidden behind a red velvet rope, reserved for the elite.
Liberal ‘trickle-down social justice’ is as much a myth as trickle-down economics. Whether it’s greater diversity at the Academy Awards or even in the government, better representation can sometimes do very little for those still at the bottom struggling to survive. As Angela Davis, Activist and former Panther, said in regards to gender inequality that can reflect all forms of oppression, ‘I’m not talking about the people at the top who just have to shatter the ceiling. I’m talking about the people on the bottom’. We need more of the spotlight on the people in the basement rather than those high enough to be stopped by the ceiling. Change will come from below, not from above.
Having Fred Hampton celebrated at the Academy Awards while Panthers are still in prison and Hampton Jr. still struggles to raise funds, funds that are miniscule to these elite wealth hoarders, means very little for real change for the masses and for the revolutionaries. There is some progress to be seen: these films will reach some individuals that will go on to read the revolutionary text, learn about the true power of the BPP, and be moulded into the next set of revolutionaries to lead the people to freedom. But whether Hollywood is working to that end, or against it, is yet another question.