Back on December 4, 1969, Akua Njeri was Deborah Johnson, a 19-year old who was more than eight months pregnant with the child of her fiance Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party. Through the Shaka King-directed Judas and the Black Messiah, the tragic events of that evening are detailed in a gory scene in which FBI and local law enforcement agents burst through the door where they and 10 others slept. They tossed aside the heavily pregnant Johnson (played by Dominique Fishback), and then gunned down Hampton (who’d been slipped a sedative by confidante/FBI informant William O’Neal) as part of the FBI Cointel program. Njeri and the son she gave birth to shortly after, Fred Hampton Jr, are the flame keepers of Chairman Fred’s memory, and they placed their faith in King and co-producers Ryan Coogler and Charles King to relive Hampton’s live as a revolutionary. Here, Njeri explains why it was important to the legacies of Hampton Sr, and the Black Panthers, even though it meant seeing that painful night reenacted. The film is up for six Oscars: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Song, Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor for its leads Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton) and LaKeith Stanfield (O’Neal).
DEADLINE: It is hard for many to imagine that the targeted assassination of Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah could happen to an American citizen. What made you say yes to bringing that tragic night to the forefront?
NJERI: The Black Panther Party, which is chaired by Fred Hampton Jr, our committee met and discussed it. He had met Ryan Coogler previously, at a flea market, and they had some discussion about everything but the movie because it wasn’t in the mix yet. We had a meeting at the Hampton House, which we are trying to save as a museum. I met Ryan and Daniel, Dominique, Shaka and everybody and we had a seven hour meeting. It went to one or two in the morning, and I learned a lot from Daniel who he was. Chairman Fred Jr asked someone to tour the worst neighborhood in Chicago, and they did. They went to an area in K-Town in Chicago. They had never been to Chicago that I knew, and went at 2AM and it just happened to be at a time when people were killed. They convinced us they were here to learn, and not to tell us who the Black Panther Party was, or who we were. It really clicked well and we went for doing the movie. It wasn’t always smooth sailing. We had a lot of debates, arguments, fights. But for the most part, we were very pleased with the movie, with the outcome. As are many people.
DEADLINE: As the filmmakers shaped the characters and narrative, what were your biggest concerns they needed to get right?
NJERI: It was important that the politics of the Black Panther Party were not compromised. It was also important that other groups and organizations that were very present in the ‘60s and were shown during this film were not disrespected. As much truth as possible, based on facts. I think that was done in the movie and a lot of people were amazed at how well Dominique captured me and how well Daniel captured Chairman Fred. This was a powerful piece. Also, how William O’Neal was portrayed. It was a great group effort, I think and myself and Chairman Fred Hampton Jr were very happy to be the only cultural experts and consultants on the film.
DEADLINE: You lives through O’Neal’s betrayal of your fiance. What was it like to see it dramatized? I didn’t realized he had committed suicide until it was dropped in there are the end. Shocking. How complex was it to have to relive that moment in your life, that betrayal by an FBI informant?
NJERI: Before watching it onscreen, I watched LaKeith Stanfield in action. And I said to him, ‘you’re doing a damn great job, but I just can’t hug you. Because you are Bill.’ But he brought it, he really brought it. It was just so damn powerful. He was O’Neal, with his mannerisms, the things he did. It’s always difficult, because I just don’t talk about it or watch it, I relive it, at some point. I still, today, haven’t watched the movie all the way through. I’ll get up and pretend I have to go to the bathroom, to get a break. It’s bringing up a lot of emotions, but this movie is an opportunity for people to have real discussion about the government and its relationship and its attack on the Black Panther Party, and that legacy. Those attacks continue today. I’m really proud of the movie and that I was able to be part of it. I think all the actors did a magnificent job, in bringing that portrayal to audiences today, right now.
DEADLINE: You see the twisted obsessions of law enforcement in Judas and the Black Messiah and another awards contender film The United States Vs. Billie Holliday, where, rather than try to stop the lynching of Black people, the FBI instead focused on tormenting Holliday to stop her from singing Strange Fruit. Why the law enforcement obsession on Fred Hampton?
NJERI: The home Chairman Fred grew up in, the Hampton House we are engaged in a campaign to make a museum, his parents’ phone was tapped when he was 13 or 14 years old. This was before he got involved in the Black Panther Party. The government recognized his organizing skills, even at a young age. His file began when he started organizing for recreational facilities where Black children couldn’t even go to the swimming pool, out in Maywood. I remember during the days of the Black Panther Party, we would tell people that the government waged war on the Black community, and that the number one threat identified by the FBI director J Edgar Hoover to the US security, was the Black Panther Party. People would say, ‘y’all are not that important. Why would the US government want to wipe out the Black Panther party?’ Then, when the documentation came from the government itself, people said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ And as much as we talked about and exposed it in the Black Panther newspaper, of incidents happening all over the country in attacks on our offices, massive arrests and destruction of any kind of donations that we got regarding our programs for medical care, social programs, breakfasts, medical programs, free shoes and clothing, people still didn’t want to believe the government would do that. Even the idea of this policing was brought about by slave catchers. The police considered this slave catching, and it’s hard for people to accept that, when for your whole life it has been drummed into your head that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and everybody is equal and we can all sit around and sing Kumbaya. Which is not the reality.
DEADLINE: William O’Neal was exposed as the FBI’s inside source who helped set up the killing of your fiancé Chairman Fred Hampton, and eventually killed himself. Why did you go to his wake?
NJERI: I really went to show my disrespect for O’Neal’s collaboration with the State in the assassination, providing them with a diagram of our apartment where Chairman Fred slept. I had big plans. I was going to spit in O’Neal’s face, and turn the casket over, among other things I had planned. But when I got up to the casket and viewed him, I was frozen. Because it didn’t look like O’Neal. I repeated to a member of the Black Panther Party who came up beside me, I said, that’s not him, that’s not him. I don’t know if he was given a new identity or what, but I never believed that was O’Neal. There was a story of how, in a cocaine-induced high, he was very paranoid that somebody was going to get him. And he ran out in the Eisenhower Expressway and got hit by a car and was killed.
DEADLINE: You believe that, as opposed to the suicide theory?
DEADLINE: We watch you, incredibly pregnant, have to go through this ordeal. We see you being thrown around like a rag doll as the father of your child is killed. Soon, you became a mother. What was the toughest thing about raising a child in such chaos, hardship and grief?
NJERI: I guess I told myself in my head I had a responsibility to take care of our son. And it was very difficult through that process, down to the birth. I said to the doctor that I wanted natural childbirth, though my fear of seeing blood might kind of overwhelm me. The doctor reminded me, ‘No, Mother, you wanted a natural birth, which I went through and was glad I did. As our child grew and developed, and even before he could talk or walk or even sit up, I would tell him about his father and the Black Panther Party, how it started, and everything I could get my hands on. I would have those talks with him, whether or not he could respond, even as a baby. I knew that I would have to combat a whole lot of misinformation and lies about the Black Panther Party and untruths. I wanted to give him the best possible information he could have so he could better navigate the world, and his life, being who he was. And my being the mother of this baby, and our son being the child of two revolutionaries.
DEADLINE: We briefly see Fred Hampton Sr in The Trial of the Chicago 7, and so his memory is preserved in two Best Picture Oscar nominated films, and we got to know his organizational skills and ability to unite people. What is the most gratifying thing that came out of trusting these filmmakers and seeing your story told in a major studio films like this?
NJERI: The whole crew, they were willing to listen and to learn, even the actors. Not only on the job, but they would come around and we would have discussions with them so they could become more familiar with the real story. There still is a lot of misinformation out there but I think the movie is so powerful it keeps the conversation going and it challenges people to question everything they see and read, to try and find some truth in what’s being projected. It has given people an option, to be able to speak with their own voices, in their own communities. And not just accept the words of politicians or quote unquote activists. It’s a lot of shaking up the old guard. Not necessarily old guard meaning old people; I’m talking about questioning young leaders who are popping up, salaried, and taking over the movement, and our ability to speak for ourselves. I think it’s created a great debate and a lot of discussion and conversation about what is going on. Even aside from that, it’s moving a lot of people to doing some kind of action.
And I hope that those nominated for the movie win all the awards they can, for the sake of their careers. But I am very well pleased with the end product.
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