Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) said that he had no contact with the team behind Judas and the Black Messiah before he and other lawmakers reintroduced a bill to strip J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI building.
“The movie is a clear depiction of his efforts to impede the civil rights movement,” Cohen said in an interview.
Award season typically sees a smattering of topical movies screened before lawmakers in D.C. or at the White House, but that hasn’t happened this year due to Covid-19 restrictions. Cohen said he watched the movie about three weeks ago and, inspired by it, called his staff the next day to work on reintroducing the legislation.
The movie tells the story of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who served as an FBI informant to help silence him. The movie had its premiere at Sundance’s virtual film festival before debuting in theaters and on HBO Max last month. Hampton was killed in a police raid in 1969. Martin Sheen plays Hoover in the movie.
In introducing the bill late last month, Cohen said that Hoover “doesn’t deserve the honor and recognition of having the nation’s premiere law enforcement agency headquarters named for him. The civil rights we enjoy today are in spite of J. Edgar Hoover, not because of him.” The bill has about a dozen co-sponsors.
Cohen said that he has gotten some attacks from Republicans who say that this latest effort is another version of “cancel culture.” Five months after Hoover’s death in 1972, Congress designated the Brutalist structure in D.C. as the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
Cohen said that with the nation’s reckoning over race, following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others, Hoover’s actions can be “looked upon from a different perspective.”
Although it is not a “front burner issue” in the House as Congress deals with Covid-19 relief, Cohen said that he is hopeful that the prospects will be different this time around versus previous iterations, what with more historical reflection. He originally introduced the legislation in 2015 after viewing a Yahoo! documentary from Michael Isikoff called Uniquely Nasty: The Government’s War on Gays, about Hoover’s efforts to oust gays and lesbians from the government in the 1950s.
This isn’t the first time that a movie has triggered a legislative effort. Back in 2014, then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) pushed for the Irish government to pass legislation to open adoption records, and she appeared at a press conference with Philomena Lee as Lee’s story was depicted in the movie Philomena.