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When most people envision the Black Panthers they think of militant radicals. Serious individuals who bore grimmaces and guns as they patroled cities, aiming to protect the Black community above all else. But what we often don’t think about is the humanity of every member, the sacricies they made to be a part of the party, and what those sacrifices were rooted in. Judas and the Black Messiah, which was released in theaters and on HBO Max this past Friday does that.

“One of the things we wanted to kinda showcase with this film was that the Black Panthers were motivated by a love of their people and that there was a lot of love,” Director and co-writer Shaka King Tells ESSENCE. “I think it’s important to frame the Black Panthers’ choices that they made. That at the root of it was love, always.”

That message comes across in the film, as does the romantic love shared between Chairman Fred Hampton and his fiancée Akua Njeri (né Deborah Johnson). For Dominique Fishback, who plays Johnson, showcasing the intimacy between her character and Hampton was an important demonstration of Black women’s inherent worthiness. She told us:

“A lot of times for Black women, we have to prove ourselves worthy of love. We have to stand by somebody. We get pregnant and only then are we worthy of commitment. I wanted to make sure that that was not the case. That no matter how many scenes we get with them, that we see that he loved her for her mind. And that he would have stayed with her regardless of if she was pregnant or not. It was not out of obligation or out of him being a man of honor that he stayed with her. It was because he loved her for everything she had to offer outside of being his comrade — just innately as a Black woman, worthy of love. That was important to me.”

King agreed on the necessity of that representation as well, noting centering their relationship in the film was also an important gesture of love to audiences as they watched. “We’ve all probably personally been through a lot of trauma as Black people, but just, ancestrally, we’ve been through a crazy amount of trauma. So knowing that I was going to put us through that in watching this movie, it was like you gotta have a balance.”

Check out our full interview with King in the video above.


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