Does Hollywood Owe the Black Panther Party Anything?

Movie studios and actors profit from the pain and names of political prisoners but rarely lend a hand in their fight

In 2018, the house in which Fred Hampton was assassinated went into foreclosure. Since then, his son, Fred Hampton Jr., who was still weeks away from being born when his father was killed in 1969, started a GoFundMe campaign to save his family’s Illinois home. By early February, “Save the Hampton House” had yet to reach its goal of $350,000. Promotion for the movie Judas and the Black Messiah, which chronicles the events leading up to the Black Panther chairman’s death was in full bloom. Chicago locals and others close to the Hampton family criticized the film’s cast and crew for their lack of support in preserving the home — a focal point in their motion picture.

It wasn’t until Judas’ opening weekend that the campaign nearly doubled its monetary goal. Viewers, inspired by Hampton’s story, donated in the thousands. The reaction begged the question: Why aren’t the benefactors of these life-to-art commodities the biggest financial supporters in their subject’s struggle?

The fact that these multimillion-dollar productions profit from the imprisonment and death of American freedom fighters without aiding their fight feels exploitive. It’s known history that Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover went to great lengths to destroy anything that represented Black solidarity or leadership. It was revealed decades ago that COINTELPRO led to the demise of Panthers like Hampton and Larry Roberson, as well as the wrongful incarceration of so many others, like Ericka Huggins and Angela Davis. Then there were the targeted warriors, such as Mumia Abu Jamal and Sundiata Acoli, who were incarcerated for fighting back.

Acoli joined the Harlem Black Panther Party in 1968. The following year, he got caught up in the Panther 21 conspiracy case. After being denied bail for two years, Acoli was finally acquitted along with the other defendants. In 1973, while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, he and passengers Zayd and Assata Shakur were ambushed by state troopers. A gun fight ensued, which resulted in the deaths of Zayd and one of the troopers. Assata was arrested (though she later escaped and found refuge in Cuba). Acoli escaped, but was apprehended days later and eventually sentenced to 30 years to life for the murder of the state trooper. Despite having no prior record, he was sent to one of the country’s strictest and harshest federal penitentiaries, where he was on lockdown for 23 hours every day. In 1992, Acoli, with an immaculate disciplinary and academic record, became eligible for parole. The parole board denied the request—and tacked on an additional 20 years, citing Acoli’s affiliation with the Black Panthers as the reason.

Veronza Bowers Jr. has served more prison time than any other Black Panther, imprisoned for nearly half a century after receiving a 30-years-to-life sentence for the murder of a U.S. park ranger. Bower’s conviction was solely based on the testimony of two police informants, both of whom were rewarded with reduced sentences (one was paid $10,000). After serving 30 years as a model prisoner, Bower was denied parole because he continues to maintain his innocence.

Marvel Studios never confirmed that the image of Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa on the movie poster of Black Panther was directly inspired by Huey P. Newton’s iconic picture, but woke ones knew better.

The struggle hasn’t been restricted to African Americans. Latinx and Native American men and women have gotten raw deals, too. Leonard Peltier, a lifetime activist in the American Indian movement, served 43 years in prison after allegedly being framed for the attempted murder of a police officer. Eyewitnesses (including a police officer’s girlfriend) have stated that evidence against him was manufactured. It’s also been reported that evidence that would’ve exonerated Peltier was withheld.

These examples represent only a fraction of the injustices being committed against Black and Brown freedom fighters in America. Every last unbelievable case could make for a compelling Hollywood script. Yet this is real life. And every last unbelievable case establishes beyond argument that anyone still serving time for a COINTELPRO-assisted conviction should be released immediately—especially if they’ve dedicated their years locked down to scholarship and guidance for the youth. These men and women deserve their freedom for no reason other than they were hunted by government branches that were proven to be racist and unconstitutional.

All persons and entities that joyride in the struggle and capitalize off the pain of political prisoners must imbue their fight to some degree. Marketing dollars and proceeds for films like Judas and the Black Messiah should pay the tithes of warriors still suffering. Actors can use promotional podcasts and radio interviews to shed light on the fact that coerced confessions, torture by prison guards, and parole grudges are as much problems of 1969 as they are of 2021. There are Guantanamo Bay prisoners who remain incarcerated despite having been cleared of their charges. Maybe a sequel to Michael Bay’s prison thriller The Rock or a Penitentiary reboot are coming.

Marvel Studios never confirmed the rumor that the image of Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa on the movie poster of Black Panther was directly inspired by Huey P. Newton’s iconic picture, but woke ones knew better. The uncanny similarity between the Black Panther co-founder seated in the peacock chair holding a rifle and spear and Stan Lee’s Black Panther on an oval-backed perch is undeniable. The gaze of both men further weakens the coincidence.

Black Panther took in more than $1.3 billion at the box office—that’s a three-comma profit. The least the studio could’ve done was shed some light (read: cash) on the real hero. Perhaps a scholarship for poor middle school students in the name of the late Newton. Or the funding of socioeconomic and political science courses centered on the Black Panther tenets or teachings of Marcus Garvey. Or how about this: An American history curriculum covering the last 55 years in which the bad guys are United States presidents and directors of the FBI.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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