Judas And The Black Messiah Was a Start — Now, It’s Time To Celebrate the Women of the Black Panther Party

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Daniel Kaluuya and Dominque Fishback as Fred Hampton and Deborah Johnson (Mother Akua) in Judas And The Black Messiah

There’s a scene in the critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film Judas And The Black Messiah that, even amidst all of its buzz and accolades, I don’t think is getting enough praise. In it, Deborah Johnson, played by the inimitable Dominique Fishback, recites a quiet, stirring poem to her love and father of her unborn child, former chairman of the Black Panther Illinois chapter Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). The poem (which Fishback wrote herself) is about the anxiety of bringing a Black baby into a fraught world full of violence and trauma: 

“We nurture, we feed, and we lobby, perhaps we’re here for more than just war, with these bodies. We scream, and we shout, and we live by this anthem. But is power to the people really worth that ransom?”
We know how the tragic story ends, with Johnson (who now goes by Akua Njeri or Mother Akua) left pregnant and her future son fatherless, as Hampton was gunned down by the FBI while he slept, but these words showcase another truth that doesn’t get enough attention: the vital and taxing role women played in the Black Panther Party. They were leaders and activists shouldering much physical and emotional labour, and yet, their contributions are often overlooked or relegated to a couple of scenes in stories about men. 
“Women not only had to do the same amount of work, if not more, than the men did, because [we] also had to care for their children,” Frederika Newton, widowed wife of Huey P. Newton, the revolutionary who co-founded The Black Panther Party, tells R29 Unbothered over Zoom from her home in Oakland. Mother Akua also joined the conversation from her home in Chicago, where her son Fred Hampton Jr. is now the chairman of The Black Panther Party Cubs and she serves on its advisory board. She is still a writer and activist. Both women are continuing the legacy of the work that was started in the 60s by Black men and women who gave their minds and bodies to the movement. 
Judas And The Black Messiah is a necessary, harrowing and very good film, and as it’s raking in nominations and accolades this awards season (and during Women’s History Month), we brought together two of the most important but forgotten women of the Black Panther Party to talk about the film’s impact, finding love in the middle of the fight for Black liberation, and the legacy of the Party. 
R29 Unbothered: Have you both seen Judas and the Black Messiah? If you have, what was your reaction to the film?
Mother Akua: “To this date, I have not sat through the whole film. I'm a big crybaby. I cannot sit through it. But with breaks, I’ve seen enough and I love the movie. I think it was a job well done. As the movie states in the beginning, it’s based on a true story. You can't tell it all in two hours, but this movie is sparking conversation and debates. And people are getting, on a large scale, information about the Black Panther Party, about Chairman Fred, and that's a good thing. We were all on set together, not just fighting for accuracy for Chairman Fred and Black Panther Party, but for other people that were in the Party, and for other groups that were impacted by the Party. Although the legacy and the work of the Black Panther Party has never died, it's been erased from memory. This film gives people a starting point for discussion and action.”
Frederika Newton: “I was very emotionally impacted by the movie as well. As a matter of fact, right before one of the scenes, I called Sister Akua. I had to stop the film and call her because it was so emotional for me to know how we're connected through this organisation that we were members of and through the work that we were doing. Even though she was in Chicago and I was in Oakland, it feels like family.  I thought it was beautifully done. I thought it portrayed a sensitivity in the people that it's often not shown. People are shown as iconic figures, but here you saw a sensitive man and a beautiful, sensitive woman. So, I felt that it showed dimensions of these freedom fighters that are not displayed. I was also happy that it showed the importance of the roles of the women in the Party. And it showed love.”

There is a misconception that women had no prominent roles in the Party, that our work was to support the men, and that we did these menial duties. It's not true. Women were leaders in the Party.

I'm a crier as well. I cried a lot in the film. 
MA: “Welcome to the club.” [laughs]
Let’s talk about the role of women in the Party. Dominique Fishback does an incredible job in the film. But I still had moments where I wanted more of her, and more of you in the story. And I think that speaks to the larger issue about how the contributions of women in this movement are constantly overlooked and overshadowed by men. Do you agree with that sentiment? 
MA: “The Black Panther Party was the primary organisation that took on this thing called male chauvinism and tried to have a political discussion about what male chauvinism and male domination was. In that context, you have to note that it is white men that dominate the world. And a lot of times, movements are put in place to take the place of the white man. But the Black Panther Party was uplifting the whole family. Fighting for the children, the mamas, the daddies, the babies, even those still not born. I think that a lot of times we want a movie to answer every question in two hours. The focus was Judas and the Black Messiah. I hope that people who want to see me and Dominique and all of that more, y'all got to tell [Hollywood] you need more real, actual series and stories of the Black Panther Party. Because this is recent history we are talking about. We are not talking about 400 years ago.” 
FN: “There is a misconception that the women had no prominent roles in the Party, that our work was to support the men, and that we did these almost menial duties, and it's not true. Women were leaders in the Party. There was a time when the whole leadership was women. Women were vital in their roles in the Party, as they are now. This film opened the door so that people can see that women had a vital role in the Party.”
I want to get to a little bit of that history. Take me back and tell me one of your most vivid or fondest memories about the sisterhood within the Party.
FN: “I think one of my fonder memories was when Ericka [Huggins] came back from prison. I distinctly remember the day when she came back, and how we would work in shifts. We would work in the back of the office that was lined with sandbags to protect us from the police who would shoot in the headquarters. We were taking turns working on the newspaper, sharing a cot on the floor in between these shifts. Then going upstairs, you had Elaine Brown and Phyllis Jackson and Joan Kelly, all these women. We would be working for like three days in a row non-stop eating Snickers and drinking Pepsi and cranking that newspaper out.
I also loved working at the school under Brenda Bay and Brenda Hall, and teaching the kids, and getting up early in the morning and making breakfast for the community kids. I have so many fond memories because we lived communally and we worked communally, so we were there 24/7. It was like a family. I have a lot of admiration for those women.”
MA: “I got so many great memories, but I'm not going to go into all of them. We ate, slept and drank the Black Panther Party. If we partied, it was going into the bars and talking to people about the work. We were selling the papers in the bars. But let me say this, it wasn't all peaches and cream. There were cliques. There were class contradictions that existed in the Party. You could work at a breakfast program beside somebody you wouldn't hang out with if you weren't in the Party, you know what I'm saying? But the leading factor was the work.”

The film references a time of resistance that was strong and now, we still have a responsibility and obligation to fight against the same injustices that we experienced back in the '60s. 

mother akua
I'm a romantic, so I'm always gravitating towards love stories, especially Black love stories. And both of you seemed to be in these really beautiful love stories in the middle of all of this work. Can you each talk about how love and activism were intertwined for you?
MA: “It's all in the context of the work. It's also learning. Imagine yourself sitting next to Chairman Fred or Minister Huey P. Newton and those brilliant minds and exchanging ideas. Not to educate them, but to see how their mind is working. How analytical and political that they are — with Chairman Fred, how objective he was. You say you're a romantic, well in that movie seeing Daniel and Dominique and the political electricity between them, it made me miss [that electricity] for the first time. And that's the first time I acknowledged that I missed that.”
FN: “You can't have people who are willing to lay down their lives for the love of their people, without them being very highly sensitive people. Daily, we faced the possibility of being killed by the police. This movement and the sacrifice was based on love. You take these sensitive, courageous, complex people, so you're going to have intense relationships when you don't know if you're going to live another day. The intensity of the relationship that Sister Akua talks about that she had with her man, I had the same intensity, and we weren't alone. This wasn't unique to us. The relationships you have between men and women, women and women, comrade to comrade, were intense because we didn't know if we were going to live another day. There wasn't a lot of room for frivolity.”
Fredrika Newton and Huey P. Newton at their wedding reception in Los Angeles.
MA: “There you go. I concur. Brilliant.”
FN: “It takes a lot of heart to love that hard that you'd be willing to lay down your life. You're talking about complex people in very intense relationships that I have not had paralleled since. Doing this work lately, I miss my husband terribly.”
MA: [to herself] “Don't start that crying thing now… I am very emotional right now. Very. Freddy hit that nail on the head so well. For real.” [cries softly] 
FN: “It's beautiful. I like that we're talking about the emotional impact of all of this, because it can't be ignored. You can't talk to this woman about her husband and her child and this legacy without knowing that this is deeply moving for her.”
Thank you for the vulnerability and for trusting us with your emotions. I want to talk about the continued work that you're both doing with the Panthers legacy in Chicago and in Oakland.  I know that so many of the issues continue on, but because of the work that both of you have done, there has been progress. Talk about the continuation of that work, and what the fight still entails. 
MA: “I think with this movie is right on time, because all over the world people are talking about — we called it police brutality —  police terrorism, the murder and assassination of men, women, and children at the hands of police. It started with so many Black men getting murdered, assassinated, back to back, all over the country. It didn't just happen in a bad neighbourhood or in a bad place, but all over the country. One of the primary things that motivated Minister Huey P. Newton was explaining the role of the police in the community. The film references a time of resistance that was strong and now, we still have a responsibility and obligation to fight against the same injustices that we experienced back in the '60s. 

The relationships you have between men and women, women and women, comrade to comrade, were intense because we didn't know if we were going to live another day.

frederika newton
FN: I co-founded the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation with David Hilliard, who was chief of staff for the Black Panther Party in 1995, with the mission being to preserve and promulgate the history and legacy of the Black Panther Party. And we do that through many mediums: Republishing Huey's work, and publishing books through the Foundation. We just renamed a street name here. It's the first time that anything's been done to commemorate a member of the Black Panther Party, or that the Party even existed here in Oakland at all. We named a street, ‘Dr. Huey P. Newton Way.’ That was the street where he took his last breath. And they had a bronze bust placed there in October. We're working with the National Park Service to create a National Historical Park unit or monument in Berkeley, Richmond, Oakland, and hopefully San Francisco, to have a national park here to commemorate the legacy and have curriculum for schools. We want to make sure that this history is part of the school system.”
I want to end by talking about legacy. Mother Akua, you've quoted your son chairman Fred Hampton, Jr. and said. "Legacy is far more important than our lives because it's here after we're gone." I love that quote and I’ve thought about it a lot when watching Daniel Kaluuya win awards, and in all of his acceptance speeches, he's thanking Chairman Fred, and he's thanking Chairman Fred Hampton, Jr. What has it been like for you to watch him accept these awards, and have him speak to the legacy of the Party on these platforms? 
MA: “People send me clips of [his speeches]. It's so powerful that he's on a stage that many actors and actresses die to get on because when people get on the stage, they thank their manager, they thank God, all the actors, the writers, everything. But he’s up there giving credit to Chairman Fred, Chairman Fred Hampton, Jr., and myself. I appreciate Daniel so much. He did a phenomenal job, as well as Dominique. They did a phenomenal job on capturing the persona, if you will, of Chairman Fred and Deborah Johnson.”
FN: “I haven't watched any of the awards, but I've had the opportunity to see Chairman Fred Jr. here in Oakland, and to be on different panels with him. And I just think your heart must be bursting with pride and love at what your child is doing to continue this legacy.”
MA: “Yes.”
FN: “It's beautiful to witness that this legacy is being honoured because it's been vilified for so long. It's been vilified year after year with every so-called documentary that's come out, and now it's not. So, it does my heart good.”
MA: “We’re getting emotional again so you can go on and end it. We are getting ready to blah, blah all over the thing. [laughs] Love you, Freddie.”
FN: “Love you too, Akua.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 
For more information on the Black Panther Party and how to join the movement, check out Participant Media’s LIVE FOR THE PEOPLE campaign.

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