Professor, author and former Black Panther Party member Jamal Joseph was 15 years old in 1968, and was reeling from the news.
“When Dr. King was assassinated, it radicalized a lot of Black folks, especially young Black people,” he said. “I had been involved with the NAACP Youth Council at my church. So we were believers in non-violence, had our local marches, and collected books and school supplies for schools in the South. When he got killed, we got very angry.”
Joseph, who joined the Black Panthers soon after King’s murder, will be interviewed Friday via Skype after a screening of Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, a film about the assassination of Panther leader Fred Hampton. We spoke on the phone a few days ahead of the screening.
One thing he talked about was arriving at his first Black Panther meeting. During a discussion on the Party’s Ten Point Program led by Mutulu Shakur, father of Tupac and husband of Afeni, Joseph asked to be armed, voicing his willingness to kill a white person to prove himself.
With the room deathly quiet, Shakur called him up to his desk. He reached into the bottom drawer, producing a stack of books instead of a firearm.
“I said, ‘Brother, I thought you were going to arm me,’” Joseph recalled. “He said, ‘Young brother I just did.’”
From there, Joseph took the words he read and heard to heart, realizing the movement focused on class struggle for human rights — more about organizing, working at a medical clinic and education. Moving past his misconceptions, Joseph immersed himself in activism and taking the honor student through a personal odyssey.
The devoted 16-year-old found himself at the Rikers Island Prison Complex, charged with conspiracy as part of the Panther 21, a group of Black Panther members who were arrested and ultimately acquitted of planning attacks on New York police stations.
After being exonerated, Joseph became the youngest spokesperson and leader of the Panthers’ New York chapter. In 1981, he was back in prison for harboring a fugitive, Mutulu Shakur. Sentenced to more than 12 years in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, he earned three degrees.
Taking the creativity that had been manifesting inside since his poetry and acting endeavors in the Black arts movement, Joseph saw another way to flourish while staying true to his progressive principals. He founded the IMPACT Repertory Youth Theater of Harlem, became the artistic director of the New Heritage Theatre Group in Harlem as well as a full professor and served as chair of Columbia University’s Graduate Film Division.
A cineaste in every sense of the word, Joseph recalled the first movies he saw as a kid, Martin Ritt’s moving family drama Sounder and Richard Quine’s tragic The World of Suzie Wong. The first movie that turned him on to the idea of making a film, he said, was John Sayles’ observant sci-fi oddity The Brother from Another Planet.
Joseph had his feature film directorial debut in 2016’s Chapter & Verse. Loosely based on his own experiences, the film follows a former gang leader (Daniel Beaty), who reenters society as an ex-con struggling to adapt to the changes around him. “I’m really proud of that film,” Joseph said.
Another source of pride, his stirring, unapologetic memoir Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion & Reinvention, is slated to become a series on Starz.
On the topic of Judas and the Black Messiah, Joseph said he was pleased with how the film came out. While he acknowledged its powerful message, the pitch-perfect performances and engaging tension, Joseph was most struck by one scene in particular that challenged the cheerless misconceptions of the Black Panther Party.
“One of my favorite scenes is where (the characters) are in a car just laughing, telling jokes,” he said. “The film captured not just the strength and the power of the Black Panther Party. It captured their humanity.”
Judas and the Black Messiah is in theaters now. Local filmmaker Travis Pearson will moderate a Skype discussion with Joseph on Feb. 19, after the 7 p.m. showing at The Terrace Theater, around 9:15 p.m. Tickets can be found at terracetheater.com.