In some educational settings, Black history is seldom mentioned outside the month of February.
Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman are mentioned with minimal context during Black History Month.
But not much is said when it comes to Fred Hampton, the charismatic chairman of the Black Panther Illinois chapter killed in a 1969 Chicago police raid.
And members of the ensemble cast of the film “Judas and the Black Messiah” say they learned of Hampton and the Panthers from their communities — not in any of the schools they attended.
“We learned about them from our parents and the ones around us,” said Algee Smith, who played Spurgeon “Jake” Winters, a Panther member who, at 19, was killed in a shootout with Chicago police. “Maybe not as in-depth as when we signed on for this film, but definitely not in school at all.”
Former DePaul University theater student Ashton Sanders, who plays Panther member Jimmy Palmer, says he learned about the Panthers’ legacy while on set.
“I think there was a lot in the script that we didn’t know about,” said Sanders. “Filming this project was definitely a lot of learning about who Fred was, learning what exactly the Black Panther Party was doing for the community.”
And that education, in many cases, shows Panther members as the aggressors — not the police who killed and harassed Hampton and his cohorts.
“That awareness that over time is compounded upon; it’s fact after the fact that confirms this thing that she [Harmon] already knew to be true,” said Dominique Thorne, who plays Panther member Judy Harmon in the film. “She all about protection. … the people who should be doing it are literally antagonizing.”
Actor Darrell Britt-Gibson plays Bobby Rush (a current U.S. Representative), the co-founder of the Illinois Black Panther Party. He says he hopes the film can undo some of the erasure of Hampton’s legacy.
And from what he learned over time — and from working on the film — he believes government agencies “hunted” Panther members, many of whom were in their late teens and early 20s.
“It’s about how he lived that really is the beautiful part of the story that is redacted from history books,” said Britt-Gibson. “[Panther members] were hunted as kids because they wanted equality, justice, and wanted to unify. It’s tough to even talk about this because we’re still fighting these fights, but I feel like the little bit of progress that we do have, a part of that is attributed to the Panthers and what they did.”