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Art, Revolution and Democracy in the Roaring 2020s: Virtual Sundance Series

Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
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“Judas and the Black Messiah” directed and co-written by Shaka King and Will Berson, starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield and Dominique Fishback premiered on Feb. 1 at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival before it debuted in theaters and on the streaming platform HBO Max.

“I believe I’m going to die doing the things I was born to do. I believe I’m going to die high off the people. I believe I’m going to die a revolutionary in the international revolutionary proletarian struggle.”

Chairman Fred Hampton
Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, starromg Darrel Britt-Gibson, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. Jan official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.
Darrel Britt-Gibson, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.

The film tells the true story of young Chairman Fred Hampton, a leader in the Black Panther Party and his subsequent assassination at age 21 by the U.S. government with the aid of FBI informant William O’Neal. The film’s premiere date is significant, February is Black History Month, an annual observance in the U.S. and Canada. Black History Month began as a way of highlighting important people and events in the history of the African diaspora due to erasure or omittance of Black people’s achievements and contributions to the world.

Lakeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is horrifyingly accurate and demonstrates the lengths to which the U.S. government went to silence and kill a movement — a movement that fed school children free breakfast, aimed to create free health clinics in poor communities and end economic oppression for all people.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” was not the only film directed by a Black filmmaker, nor the only film to explore Black history across the African diaspora at this year’s mostly virtual Sundance. However, it is a film that can provide much needed historical context for those wondering how a rich nation like the U.S. could fail its own people in so many ways. The U.S. has long touted itself as “The greatest democracy on earth” with its peaceful transitions of power since the country’s inception; on Jan. 6, 2021, that changed.

Is the American Experiment Over?

Madrid-based photographer and graphic designer Sylvie Pabion-Martín watched the news of the insurrection in the U.S. and said, “[It was] like watching a scene from a movie.” She told “Culturs”, “I thought what I was watching was perhaps the beginning of World War III.”

Woman sitting at desk holding a bug while looking at a tablet also with laptop open
Sylvie Pabion- Martín at home with her pug, Vera. Photo Credit S. Pabion-Martín.

Pabion- Martín is the adult daughter of a French father and Spanish mother, raised in Spain but with frequent travels. She has worked, studied, and traveled in more than 20 countries.

The U.S. is one of her favorite destinations. Her interest piqued in the mid-1990’s sparked by America’s number one export, entertainment. Pabion-Martín’s love of American music, films and television in her teen years led her to study abroad in the U.S. She maintains close contact with her host families and what she saw on the television frightened her: “What should be the most secure place in the world under attack, by its own people. I never expected to see that in the U.S., other countries maybe, but this was very shocking.” 

Photo by little plant on Unsplash

Will Democracy Return to Myanmar?

The U.S. is not the only country trying to preserve its democracy and fight fascism. On Feb. 1, 2021, Myanmar’s young democracy ended with a military coup d’état. Before parliament could meet for the first time the military arrested President Aung San Suu Kyi and many other political leaders.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing claims election fraud as justification for the takeover. However, just as in the U.S., there is no evidence to support his allegations. The military was responsible for the persecution and death of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, and now the military has turned its violence on those begging for their democracy. Social media and a few news stories paint a terrifying picture of what life is like in Myanmar. Live ammunition is being used on protesters. Dissidents are being arrested in the middle of the night.

Searching For Answers in Tigray

Cutting off communication with the outside world is key to suppressing the voice of people when committing crimes against humanity. This is playing out to the extreme in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

In a Feb. 10 article from Al Jazeera, Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross, said that he was “shocked” by what he encountered, describing accounts by people displaced by the fighting as “unbearable”.

The ongoing armed conflict between the Tigray Regional Government, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and forces supporting Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has resulted in a devastating genocide. The region is still largely cut off from the outside world and those who have escaped to refugee camps are telling their harrowing stories.

Millete Birhanemaskel is a refugee originally from Ethiopia. A longtime U.S. resident and a civically-engaged citizen, Birhanemaskel has been in a stage of panic and stress since Nov. 3, but unrelated to the attempted coup in her country of citizenship, the U.S. 

In an interview with KSUT public radio published Feb. 8, Birhanemaskel expressed how difficult this has been particularly with her own family history of fleeing a war zone and living in a refugee camp before emigrating to the U.S. “This is literally my own story, the story of why I’m here. It’s just horrific how history repeats itself, how it comes full circle, how my people are continuing to be devastated,” she shared.

Birhanemaskel has been organizing actions and posting on social media about the Tigray genocide for more than 100 days. Her extended family members are missing. Due to the near-global ban on incoming travelers from the U.S. Birhanemaskel applied for an emergency visa, and flew to Sudan. She spent three days in the refugee camps and was unable to find further information about her extended family.

Racism is Not Over

History does repeat itself, often in not unexpected ways. If a government commits atrocious crimes against its citizens over and over again, the outcomes may vary, but they always include death and destruction. The Black Panthers were considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. The dominant culture feared losing its power in a racial caste system that places white at the top.

According to the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panther Party “without question … the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”  Hoover expressed concern over the popularity of the free breakfast program, wrote Bobby Seale and Stephen Shames in their book “Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers” (Harry N. Abrams, 2016). “The BCP [Breakfast for Children Program] represents the best and most influential activity going on for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities … to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for”.

The Black Panther Party stood, fists raised, for the same reasons that American Football player Colin Kaepernick kneeled; and for the same reason people all over the world supported Black Lives Matter after watching the murder of George Floyd. Racism and anti-blackness anywhere are a threat to justice everywhere.

George Floyd protests in Uptown Charlotte, 5/30/2020 (IG: @clay.banks)

The insurrection that the world witnessed on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C. and the subsequent acquittal on Feb. 13 of former President Trump for his role in the attempted coup have roots not only in the assassination of Chairman Fred Hampton, a young brilliant leader, but in the history of Black people in America since the first enslaved Africans were brought to its shores. 

Had Chairman Fred Hampton not been assassinated and was instead able to continue his powerful work of building a rainbow coalition and uniting people across race and class to fight for mutual liberation and build infrastructure for a successful nation, i.e., universal healthcare and free education, America might be a different place today.

Perhaps Donald Trump would not have been elected president. Perhaps the world would not be holding its collective breath waiting for another American Civil War, which would undoubtedly have a destabilizing effect worldwide, perhaps even leading to World War III as Pabion-Martín fears.

Art & Social Political Change

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is heartbreaking to watch knowing the outcome and what was lost the night Chairman Fred was assassinated. It has been more than fifty years and yet the same ills that plagued the world then continue to plague it now. The myth of American exceptionalism was finally dispelled on Jan 6. The U.S. has long-believed it was different than other countries, that American democracy was the best democracy. Many citizens have had their eyes opened to the systemic and ongoing racial oppression Black Americans face. The question is, what’s next?

Although it took years for this film to be made, in part because of the erroneous idea that Black films are not marketable outside of the U.S., the success of the film, even in a global pandemic, gives rise to hope that more stories that inform and inspire will be told. 2021 is the perfect time for people all over the world to reflect on democracy and how to unite and work together to create a more just and equitable world for all people.

You can kill a revolutionary but you can never kill the revolution.

Fred Hampton
Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.

“Culturs” invites you to tell your stories and we ask that you bear witness in order to ensure that future generations don’t lose their histories.

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