UMass Amherst Doctoral Student Recounts Experience as Associate Producer on ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Rosa Clemente
Rosa Clemente

AMHERST, Mass. – “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a historical drama about the betrayal of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party in the late 1960s in Chicago at the hands of FBI informant William O’Neal, has a University of Massachusetts Amherst connection. Doctoral student Rosa Clemente helped produce the film, earning an associate producer credit.

Clemente, who is working toward her Ph.D. as part of the W.E.B. Du Bois Afro-American Studies program, is a longtime friend of Fred Hampton, Jr., the son of Hampton. The senior Hampton was assassinated during a police raid in Chicago on Dec. 4, 1969. Hampton Jr. was born 25 days later.

Shaka King, the film’s writer-director, reached out to Clemente in 2018 through the Blackout for Human Rights collective, a group of artists, activists, filmmakers, musicians and citizens formed in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Clemente, who has known Hampton Jr. for nearly 20 years helped bring him and his mother, Akua Njeri (formerly known as Deborah Johnson), to the table to talk with filmmakers about the project. She says the family has been approached numerous times over the last decade by filmmakers interested in doing the story, but always declined to participate. She thinks that the film’s producer, Ryan Coogler, widely respected as the director behind such films as “Fruitvale Station” and “Black Panther,” and producer Charles King, who helped secure financing for the film, won over the trust of Hampton’s family through frank, honest conversations about the project. Clemente was involved in those discussions and helped convince the family to trust the filmmakers.

Clemente also provided consulting to the filmmakers regarding historical accuracy in portraying the Young Lords, a Chicago-based organization that fights for neighborhood empowerment and self-determination for Puerto Ricans, Latinos and colonized people. Hampton formed the Rainbow Coalition in 1969 with the Young Lords, the American Indian Movement, the Young Patriots and the Students for a Democratic Society to take action against poverty, police brutality, corruption and substandard housing. Clemente’s scholarship involves national liberation movements and focuses on the Young Lords Party and the Black Liberation Army. She is considered a leading scholar of her generation on issues of Afro-Latinx identity.

Clemente said she would like to see more films about national liberation movements, feeling it is important to tell that history to today’s young people, and that she is pleased that “Black Messiah” has sparked conversations among many who were not familiar with the history.

“When we teach Black history in the U.S., it usually ends in 1968, when the Civil Rights Act was passed,” Clemente said. “This is why Black Studies is important – what we study and research – it has to be tied in to what’s happening on the ground. History happens every day, it’s not just stagnant events in a book. We are creating history every moment we are doing the work.”

After spending three years working on the film, Clemente is now working on finishing her dissertation and plans to defend it in May. It focuses on Black-Latinx identity in the U.S. She has not ruled out working on more films in the future, and would like to see a full documentary about Hampton and a film about the Young Lords be made.

“Black Messiah” has garnered a lot of critical praise and attention during the Hollywood awards season, including being named the 2021 Best Film by the African American Film Critics Association. Actor Daniel Kaluuya, who portrays Hampton, won both a Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor. The film also received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, marking the first time a film with an all-Black producing team has been nominated. Kaluuya and co-star Lakeith Stanfield, who plays O’Neal, both received Best Supporting Actor nominations.