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April 06, 2021
Pod Save The People
Pat Yourself On The Back (with Dorothy A. Brown & Shaka King)

In This Episode

DeRay interviews author/professor Dorothy A. Brown about racial discrepancies in American tax law. Netta Elzie gives an update on what’s happening with the nationwide protests. Kaya Henderson sits down with Shaka King, the director and co-writer of “Judas and the Black Messiah”.

 

Episode Transcript:

DERAY: Hey, this is DeRay. And we’re going to Pods Save the People. In this episode, we have a double interview episode, because we took some time to celebrate Easter with our families. First up, I sit down with Dorothy A. Brown, Professor Brown, to discuss racism in the world of the American tax law. I learned so much that I didn’t know. 

And then Netta Elzie gives us updates on what’s happening with the protests. And then Kaya, our very own Kaya, discusses Judas and the Black Messiah with its director and co-writer Shaka King. The advice for this week is to remember to pat yourself on the back. Give yourself credit. Look in the mirror and tell that person, job well done. 

Because that we don’t do that enough. And that has to be a part of how we think about the way we love ourselves, and the way that we talked ourselves, the way that we treat ourselves. It sets us up to do the same in the world. Here we go. 

So Dorothy Brown is a professor whose work focuses on the racial implications of the federal tax code and federal tax policy. I learned a ton that I had no clue about when we spoke in her book, The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans and How We Can Fix It. 

Now, the tax code was opaque to me. I certainly had a lot of questions. And I think that you will come out of this learning way more than you knew before. Here we go. 

Professor Brown, thanks so much for joining us today on Pods Save the People. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Thank you so much for having me. 

DERAY: One of the reasons that I’m excited to talk to you is that you are an expert on something that I didn’t even know was a thing. So I’m like I’m here to learn. But can you talk about how you became obsessed with taxes? Or like how taxes– I know– not to give away the whole book and we’re here to talk about the book, The Whiteness Of Wealth. 

But in the very, very beginning you talk about sort of trying to do something that actually wasn’t all about race. And then you were like, well, the taxes actually are about race. But what was the journey to even studying taxes? What does that look like? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Yes, it looks like growing up in the South Bronx, and dealing with racism every day, and deciding, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. And I decided I wanted to pick an area of law that had absolutely nothing to do with race. I lived racism. I didn’t want to have to work in racism as well. 

So I majored in accounting in college, just in case the law thing didn’t work out. And I took a tax accounting course. And I loved it. And I said, that’s it. I want to be a tax lawyer. Because the only color that matters is green. Well, fast forward a decade or so and I’m doing my parents’ taxes. I’m doing my taxes. Something’s not making sense. 

But I have a Master’s degree in tax law, so I actually know what I’m doing. But something didn’t add up with their return and my return. I made myself the same income as my parents combined. And I should have been paying a whole lot more in taxes than they were. But I wasn’t. 

And I couldn’t figure it out. And every April 15th, I ran into the same brick wall. Why? I don’t know. Well, I became an academic. And one of the luxuries of being an academic is you actually have some time to not think about your client’s issues, but whatever it is you want to think about. 

And I picked up an article that I’d been saving for this particular day. And it was called Toward Developing a Black Legal Scholarship. And it was written by a mentor of mine, Jerome Culp, who is now deceased, but he was on the faculty at Duke. 

And towards the end of the article where he’s making the case that all Black law professors should write about systemic racism in the area of law they teach, I’m not connecting it with tax. I’m thinking, no, he can’t be talking about tax. Towards the end of the article, it says, how do you know there isn’t a race and tax problem if you don’t look? 

And I went, what? There could be a race and tax problem? So I picked up the phone, called him. I said, Jerome, I’m going to do something. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to do something. Unfortunately, the first thing I found was the IRS doesn’t collect statistics by race. 

DERAY: That’s in the book and I like don’t know what that means. Do you mean that like the IRS doesn’t know what percentage of people filing taxes are Black or white? Is that what you mean? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: That and everything. 

DERAY: Wow. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Yes. All these other government agencies that have racial data that’s public, so we know all these statistics. We know nothing about race and tax. So when I made this promise to Jerome, I’m so clueless, I don’t even know the IRS doesn’t publish statistics by race. 

So I became, because I was forced to, a detective of sorts, looking at all literature that I could find that talked about race in a way that I could make an analogy to the tax code. And the first thing I came upon was a US commission on civil rights report that had the following line in it. 

Black wives contribute 40% to household income and white wives contribute 29%. Now anyone listening is going to say, yeah, and? But to me, it was gold. Because it led me on the path to figuring out why my parents paid so much in taxes. 

DERAY: Let’s back up. And about the data, is that an active choice? Was there a decision not to collect race data or did that just happen? Is somebody fighting against the collection of race data? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: You see, that’s a great question. And there’s a GW law professor, Jeremy Baira Friend, who wrote a piece about the IRS and they’re colorblind approach. You don’t have a smoking gun that answers is clearly. But here’s what you know. 

There was an opportunity for the IRS to publish these statistics, because there have been at least one or two studies done by other people with IRS data that talks about race. But what we do know is the IRS data includes gender and age. So if you can publish statistics based on gender or age, you could do it on race. 

DERAY: So they have the data? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: They have access to the data. Well, let’s put it this way. They could do it if they wanted to. 

DERAY: And under what presidency did they decide not to? What’s the time frame here? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: All of them. 

DERAY: Oh, they could still do it. It’s not like it’s sunset on when they could do it? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: No, no, no. They can still do it. 

DERAY: Really? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: In fact, President Biden’s first executive order that talked about racial equity has the disaggregation of data by race among other categories included in it. And there is a data working group that’s supposed to be looking into this. 

DERAY: Oh, well, that is– here we go. OK, now take us to this issue about that you’re paying the same as your parents. And can you explain to us why doesn’t that make sense for those of us who know nothing about taxes? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Yes. So let’s say I’m making $100,000, and my mother makes 50,000, and my father makes 50,000. The progressive tax system increases the amount of taxes you pay as your income increases. So somebody’s making $100,000 pays higher taxes than someone making 50,000. 

That’s just how the progressive tax system is supposed to work. But how the joint return worked is it kind of treated my parents like they were making $100,000. So their taxes went up because they were married to each other. If they didn’t get married and lived in sin, they would have paid less taxes. 

DERAY: Because they would have paid taxes to people making $50,000 not as one person making $100,000. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Yes. So see? You know more about taxes than you thought. 

DERAY: Why is it bad that they’re counted as one person though? They’re a couple. Isn’t that the whole point of it that for the purposes of the law, they as one unit made $100,000 and then you as one unit made $100,000. What’s wrong with that? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: What’s wrong with it is if I am married and I am the sole wage earner, $100,000 couple with one single wage earner and a stay at home spouse pays the exact same taxes as my parents would. 

However, that couple, which is more likely to be white, actually gets a tax cut from what they would have paid had they remained single and the wage earner was taxed at $100,000 of income. 

DERAY: Oh, so you’re saying that there’s no incentive to be married is what you’re saying. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: There’s no incentive to be married if you’re two equal wage earners. There is a huge incentive to be married if you’re a single wage earner. And race comes into play with who is more likely to be in a single wage earner couple and who is more likely to be in an equal wage earner couple. 

DERAY: When you say single wage, you’re saying– let me repeat it back to you. You’re saying that like if we both make $50,000, we would do better off with taxes being not married. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Correct. 

DERAY: That’s what you’re saying, yes? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Yes. 

DERAY: But if I make $100,000 and you make $50,000, being married’s fine. We aren’t going to get dinged for that. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: If you make $100,00 and I make zero and we are a married couple, we’re getting a tax cut. 

DERAY: Got it. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: And when the joint return– and this is because of the joint return that came into being in 1948. Most married couples, like 80% plus, white married couples, were in single wage earner households. That wasn’t true even in 1948 for Black married couples. Most Black married couples or lots of Black married couples were in these coequal wage earners. And they did not get a tax cut. 

DERAY: Got it. So keep going. So what do we do about that? What’s the fix? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Oh, the fix is easy. We go back to single individual filing the way it was back in the beginning of the progressive tax system in 1913. Canada has had an individual filing for like 100 years. 

DERAY: But what would your opponents say? what’s? The benefit of joint filing? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Oh, it gives white people tax cuts. They would never say that. 

DERAY: Why does it give white people tax cuts? Explain how race factors into this. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Yes, because of how white Americans do marriage versus how Black Americans do marriage. White Americans are more likely to be in single wage earner households would stay at home spouses. Black married couples are more likely to be in dual equal earning households, like my parents. 

It takes two. In the book, I say, two does not equal one. It takes two Black married people working full time to equal one single wage earner white worker. 

DERAY: That’s fascinating. This is something that I literally would have never, ever even considered. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Oh, and as you heard earlier, I kind of fell into it. 

DERAY: Now what about housing? Is there a relationship between racial disparities, racial outcomes and housing and taxes or is that not a big factor? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Oh, it’s a big deal. Tax subsidies for homeownership. Let’s just start with the general concept. There are tax subsidies for homeownership. Well, we know most white Americans are homeowners and most Black Americans are renters. 

So right off the bat, when you’re subsidizing homeownership, you’re benefiting white Americans more than Black Americans. OK, that’s the big picture. But it gets worse. Let’s compare white homeowners to Black homeowners. You would think tax subsidies work the same. And you would be wrong. 

Here are two tax rules. When you sell your home at a gain, you can get up to half a million dollars gain tax free. So if I buy my house for $200,000 and I’m married, and I sell it for $700,000, I have a gain of $500,000. And the tax law says, all of that is tax free. 

DERAY: Really? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Really. 

DERAY: Wow. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: If you’re single, it’s $250,000. If you’re married, it’s half a million. 

DERAY: Wow. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Well, what happens when you sell your home at a loss? No tax break for you. OK, let’s look at the homeownership market. Well, here’s where we know. The best and biggest appreciation is in the all white homogeneous neighborhoods that very few Black Americans live in. 

Black Americans who are homeowners live in racially diverse or all Black neighborhoods. Racially diverse and all Black neighborhoods do not appreciate to the extent that predominantly white neighborhoods do. So that means white homeowners are more likely to get a lot more tax free gain than Black homeowners. 

And you’d say, yeah, Dorothy, but at least Black people are getting some gains tax free. Yeah, but Black homeowners are also more likely to sell for a loss that is non-tax deductible. So these are nocuous rules. Gain, tax free. Loss, no deduction. 

Makes total sense. Except with the racism baked into the homeownership market, what we see, white homeowners win, Black homeowners lose. 

DERAY: That is fascinating. What’s the fix? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Well, I say the fix is to get the federal government out of supporting a racist homeownership market, which means no tax subsidies for homeownership. Take them away. Bye. You sell your house at a gain, you pay tax. Bye. 

DERAY: And when you were doing this, was there anything that shocked you the most that you were like, wow, I just didn’t even know, hadn’t thought about it, didn’t know? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: What shocked me when in writing the book was the great unequalizer chapter on college, and who pays, and how they pay, and the difference on race. But what shocked me overall was it didn’t matter what code section I studied, there was a racially disparate impact. 

And the most telling revelation of all was when white Americans and Black Americans engage in the same activity, tax policy supports how white Americans do it and disadvantage how Black Americans do it time after time after time. The relentlessness of the white supremacy got to me. 

DERAY: That makes sense. I was nervous about reading this book, because I was like, I don’t know anything about taxes. But you do such a good job of explaining in a way that’s like, OK. And the historical, the way you talk about the order with which the laws came into place and da da da, are there Black people at the table writing these laws? 

Because you reference all these, like this act of this, and this tax reform thing. Like, are the youths in the room when these are happening? How do we change that? How do we make sure that it’s not just it’s not people like you putting out a book after all this bad stuff has been encoded for a generation? Are there the right people– like how do we get the right people in the room? Because clearly it looks like this didn’t happen. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: That’s right. And that’s such a great question. And part of my concern with the Biden administration is you’ve got this executive order. And I’m not convinced the right people are in the room even to implement it. So you need people who understand what race and tax even looks like. 

And I am not seeing that particular skill set so that we have the president and his team talking about tax reform as we’re speaking. And no one’s talking about race. And I’m like raising my hand, wait a minute. Wait a minute. You cannot divorce tax from race. 

And it’s been done forever. And I’ve spent 25 years doing this research. Here’s this executive order. Do you mean it? If you mean it, then we have to make sure all of these conversations occur. You cannot have tax reform, in my opinion, without some kind of racial impact analysis, period. 

DERAY: That makes sense. Can you also talk about– there’s a part of the book where you talk about why college debt is more prevalent amongst Black families. What is that? Why is that? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Yes, so part of it is 60% of Black college students who start college do not finish. That was the statistic that made me close my laptop, and leave my home, and go out for a couple of hours, and stare at the ocean. Because I didn’t think I could finish the book. That statistic depressed me more than anything. 

Well, if you have 60% people dropping out, they’ve got student loan debt. But they don’t have a degree that’s going to enable them to pay it off. So you’ve got more Black students who drop out. You also have even students of wealthy Black parents having higher debt than their white peers. 

Why? Because even wealthy Black Americans don’t hold their wealth the same way wealthy white Americans do. A lot of their wealth is tied up in their homes, which as I’ve talked about earlier, don’t produce the returns white homes do. 

And second. Liquid assets like stock, you see far fewer Black Americans owning stock the same way their white peers do, even wealthy Black Americans. So Black parents are not able to protect their children the way white wealthy parents are. 

DERAY: Got it. Got it. Is loan forgiveness a part of this? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Loan forgiveness is the solution to this. It’s part of the conversation. And one of the things I think is missing from this conversation is how race makes it different for Black students than white students. So you have all this back and forth. Do we cancel 10,000? Do we cancel 50,000? We cancel all? Do we cancel none? 

And no one’s talking about the racial differences in college students. Even if we talked about college graduates, research shows that Black college graduates are more likely to send money home to their parents, or relatives, or siblings. But white college graduates are more likely to get money from their parents or grandparents. 

DERAY: Interesting. Interesting. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: So you think a Black Harvard College graduate who got it made. No, in fact, the odds are that student or that graduate is sending money to their relatives. Because Jim Crow systemic racism has left them out. And no one wants to see a relative evicted or other financial distress. So you’re going to send money. 

Well, that money is not deductible. That’s not a tax break. So you are depleting your reserves in a way that your, let’s say, white cubicle mate doesn’t. You may have the exact same income. But you’re living very different lives. 

Your white cubicle mate is getting gifts and inheritances from his parents and grandparents that enable him to buy a house. Or maybe grandma died and left him the house. They paid off his college loans. They are currently paying for his children’s K through 12 private school education. It’s a completely different world for Black college graduates. 

DERAY: One of the things I want to ask you too is something that I’ve been super curious about and just didn’t know who to talk to. And then there was Professor Brown. It’s retirement accounts. So I know literally nothing. 

I just remember, I used to work in Minneapolis public schools. And we all had to sign up for a retirement account, that we just had to. It was like we got put in a retirement thing. And that was my entrance to understanding retirement. But like I don’t. 

And I know how to– because I used to lead human capital work, I know all about the processing of it. I know the logistics of it. And I know the government– I know the way we do it for government employees, because I had to do that. But I don’t know the landscape outside of government employees. I don’t know the larger landscape. I don’t know what the trends are. 

I believe that– my gut is telling me that like either Black people don’t have a lot of retirement accounts a lot of us have retirement accounts, but don’t have a lot of money in it. I don’t know. I could see a lot of things. So can you tell me the truth? That’s what I want. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: And it sounds like your gut is very close to the truth. So we see because of occupational segregation, Black Americans working in jobs that are not associated with retirement accounts. So you have a higher percentage of Black Americans working for employers that don’t offer retirement accounts. 

Now what’s so good about retirement accounts? What’s so great about retirement accounts is this is money set aside for your retirement that you are not taxed on today. You don’t get taxed on it until you withdraw it, presumably when you retire and you’re in a lower tax bracket. 

So employer provided retirement accounts are wonderful, if you can get it. So let’s talk about the Black and white employee for the employer that offers a retirement account. We see Black employees are less likely to participate. We see Black employees have smaller balances. 

We see Black employees are more likely to make an early withdrawal from their retirement account and pay a tax penalty. And we could imagine why. I already talked about our extended family members that draw from middle class Black Americans. Research shows that. 

So retirement accounts are great. If your employer has it and you can participate, do it. But it’s easier said than done. But you’re right, the balances are smaller. Black Americans are less likely to have them. You’re absolutely right. 

DERAY: What’s the fix? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: So I say part of the problem is Black Americans are not paid what their white peers are paid. So part of my fix is to give employers a three to five year period to get it together whereby they do audits of themselves. 

And they determine that where their Black workers with equal qualifications, if they are not paid the way their white peers are, they have to fix it. If they don’t fix it– and this data has to be made public– if they don’t fix it, they should not be able to get a tax break for wage deduction. 

DERAY: Interesting. Should we be putting pressure on– did they change who runs the IRS? Does that change every 10 years, 20 years, every four years? Should we be lobbying that person to be a better advocate? Is it the Secretary of the Treasury? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: It’s the Secretary of the Treasury. Because the IRS is under the Secretary of the Treasury. 

DERAY: And how do you feel about this Secretary of the Treasury? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: I’m concerned that not only the Secretary of the Treasury, but the Assistant Secretary for tax policy who’s on this data working group has zero scholarly record of dealing with race and tax. In fact, this Assistant Secretary for tax policy writes about inheritance and wealth. It doesn’t deal with race. 

So I’m concerned that the President’s rhetoric won’t necessarily be followed through. So where should the pressure come? It should come, I think, to the White House. Any time you hear anyone in the administration, whether it’s the White House or the Treasury, talking about tax policy, the follow up question has to do, what’s the real impact of that proposal? 

DERAY: And how is the Obama administration on this? 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Oh, nobody– you asked which President did this happen under? All of them. Now here’s one thing that the Obama administration did. So the Civil Rights Act required all government– Civil Rights Act of ’64– required all government agencies to put forth regulations dealing with disparate impact. 

Title six says the federal government is not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race. Treasury has never done this. But under the Obama administration, they finally issued regulations. 

DERAY: Wow. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: In fact, when we think about this, who signed the racial equity order? President Joe Biden, not President Obama. Every time. President Obama talked about race, he got clobbered. They clobbered him over a tan suit. So perhaps Joe Biden wad the first person, I’d say, post summer of 2020. 

So I think the summer of 2020 was a game changer. And I think it helped people– let me be clear, white people– think about systemic racism in ways they never did before. So I think that’s why President Biden’s first executive order dealt with racial equity. But it’s not enough to have set up this working group, to check these boxes. We have to actually do it. 

DERAY: Well, we consider you a friend of the Pod. You lit a fire under me already. I’m already texting, calling– literally on this, I’m like texting people right now, like I’ll call you as soon as I get off the phone. This is great. Thank you so much. 

DOROTHY A. BROWN: Thank you. 

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NETTA ELZIE: Hey what’s up, everybody. It’s me, Netta. Happy April. Spring is my favorite. It’s honestly, the best time of year. I always feel rejuvenated every April. April is my true new year as it’s my birthday month. But also, it’s the birthday month of so many of my favorite people. 

It’s incredible how many Aries I have in my life. So I’ve just got to give everyone who’s already had a birthday a shout out. So hey, Justin. And hey, to my best friend of now 18 years, Taylor. I cannot take that so many of us are turning 32, 33, 34. I’m seeing folks our dreams of future with live out those exact dreams. And it’s so wild. 

A lot of folks I’ve talked to recently are like, you sound happy. And truly, I am. Winter is always so hard because of grieving my mother. And then add on COVID and a pandemic. Like a lot of people I’ve talked to, it got to be a slippery slope for us for a while. 

I’m also just happy about celebrating my friend’s birthdays. So April really feels like one big party no matter the environment. And another random fact is a great friend of mine actually share a birthday that is the exact same day. And we were born on Easter Sunday in 1989 way back in the day. 

So I also hope that you all have been well. It’s been a while since we talked. So let’s get into the news. Major League Baseball’s all-star game will not be in Atlanta this year after Georgia Governor Brian Kemp passed a law that is clearly aimed at voter suppression. 

In the year 2021, this year this Republican governor signed off on a bill that forces voters to use ballot boxes, rather than being able to mail in absentee ballots. The Major League Baseball Players alliance said in a statement that the law disproportionately disenfranchises the Black community, but also paves the way for other states to pass similarly harmful laws based on widespread falsehoods and disinformation. 

Meanwhile, Kemp said Major League Baseball caved to the cancel culture and a bunch of liberal lies. Amidst all this foolishness, y’all, I want to draw your attention to this governor naming Stacey Abrams by name in his letter and never once naming the actual Major League Baseball commissioner. 

So the good sis Stacey Abrams is powerful enough to convince an old institution like the Major League Baseball to move a major event like the all-star game, but somehow, is not powerful enough to have all of her votes counted fairly and securing the position of Governor that you stole from her? Oh, OK. That makes sense. 

In Chicago, 13-year-old Adam Toledo is dead. Chicago police fatally shot him after chasing him into an alley. Without the body cam footage, this would be yet another execution by police. Adam’s mother Elizabeth said her son had been missing for days. 

And it took over a year– let’s remind ourselves– it took over a year for the Chicago Police to release the dash cam footage that showed an officer fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. And that was only after journalists and activists worked extremely hard to get the footage actually released. 

Protesters are demanding to see the video. And I wish I could say that I was surprised. Am I surprised by how young Adam was? No. Tamir Rice’s death tells me not to be. Am I surprised by the details of what actually went down seemed to be unclear? Absolutely not. Will I be surprised if the officer who killed Adam doesn’t even see a charge, a courtroom, or a conviction? Nope. 

Well, y’all, the incarcerated folks in the st. Louis Justice Center are not here for it. Around 60 incarcerated people left their cells to protest inhumane conditions and a serious backlog of cases that is keeping many of them behind bars much longer than they actually need to be. 

At one point, they held a sign that said, help us and chanted, we want court dates. Did they break windows? Yes. Did they start a fire or few? Yes. But that’s not the point. You already know we’re for lives over broken windows. These incarcerated folks continue to be at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. 

This country will literally let lives waste away behind bars while paying them pennies an hour, which is insulting and ridiculous. This is the third time things have popped off since December. In St. Louis, it’s truly on the cusp of change. And things could either go towards the future and progress or we can regress even more. 

I truly hope the work that all of us are truly doing benefits us in some way. I would love to see change at home. I would love to see folks actually have and benefit from a just system. 

Oh, that’s just been so heavy on my heart. Because while last night, so many of us were enjoying the Verses battle with the Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind, Fire, there were folks at the Justice Center literally just fighting and asking for humane treatment. 

That’s the world we live in. By the time we talk next week, I’ll have both of my vaccination shots. I’ve been thinking about it and fully processing what a difference a year truly has made in my life, in my values, what things I find to be important, and just how truly blessed I am to have had my family come through this experience as healthy as we possibly could have been. 

God is good all the time. And I’m grateful and truly in awe. My village has blessed me 10 times over this year. And I’m so happy to be alive. Until next week, I’ll talk to y’all later. 

DERAY: You’re listening to Pods Save the People. Don’t go anywhere. There’s more to come. Pods Save the People is brought to you by Babbel. For most of us, learning a second language in high school or college wasn’t exactly a high point in our academic careers. 

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A four star general, an investigative journalist, the CEO of YouTube, the founding mothers of NPR, and educator and civil rights activist, a publisher who dares to defy China. Nine people whose fearless acts of free expression make them this year’s honorees of the freedom forum’s free expression awards. 

Join the Freedom Forum on April 15th for this free online celebration of General Colonel Powell, Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, NPR’S Susan Stamberg, Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, and the late Cookie Roberts, Apple Daily publisher, Jimmy Lai, and I’m honored to say, me. 

Resolve your virtual seat at www.freeexpressionawards.org. And sign up for the Free Expression Festival April 12th to the 15th featuring thought-provoking interviews with a host of people from humor columnist Dave Barry, journalist Julie K. Brown, and Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn, and me. See you there. 

Now our very own Kaya sat down last week with Shaka King who is the director and co-writer of the award winning new film Judas and the Black Messiah, which explores the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and Chairman Fred Hampton. Here’s a discussion of how that film came to be and why it was made outside of how Hollywood feels comfortable exploring Black stories. Let’s go. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Hello, Pods Save the People family. It’s me, Kaya Henderson. And I’m excited to come to you today with an amazing interview– what I know is going to be an amazing interview– with maybe the hottest director in Hollywood right now– at least by my standards– Shaka King, who directed the seminal movie that you are watching right now, Judas and the Black Messiah. Welcome, Shaka. 

SHAKA KING: Thanks for having me. 

KAYA HENDERSON: We’re excited to have you. This has been a story that a lot of people didn’t know about or if they knew about it, they didn’t know all of the nuances that this film brought to life. And so I’m excited that our listeners get to hear about how you thought about this movie and all it is. So I’m going to start by asking you, what inspired you to tell this particular story and this story in this way? 

SHAKA KING: It was brought to me by the Lucas brothers, who are friends of mine, a comedy duo out of Newark. They came to me and they said, we want to make a movie about Fred Hampton and William O’Neil that we envision as The Departed set inside the world of COINTELPRO. 

I knew a significant amount– a decent amount about how Fred Hampton has been assassinated. But I really knew nothing about the way he lived. I knew a bit about the Panthers’ politics and ideas. And I thought that they could never be more relevant. 

The things that they were fighting against late ’60s and early ’70s, those things still exist. Those topics are evergreen. So I was excited to have the potential to talk about those things and introduce their ideas. And what the Lucas brothers had provided was a vessel that was essentially a popcorn movie, piece of entertainment. And so I thought it was a brilliant way to get these profound ideas into piece of entertainment. And that’s why I jumped at it. 

KAYA HENDERSON: And one of our listeners shared with me that sometimes Black movies aren’t made for Black people. But she said this movie felt like it was made for us. And she talked about a lot of the different nuances that were present. 

This wasn’t just a straight kind of biopic. This was more than that. And so who was your intended audience and what do you want them to take away from this film? 

SHAKA KING: The audience started with Black folks, first and foremost, to the point where I think in some of the early cuts, I left out a huge amount of context, just in terms of contextualizing who the Black Panthers were and what they were fighting against. 

Because for a Black audience, I felt like everyone would know that already. But then I had to be reminded that this history hasn’t really been taught to a really large segment of the population, including Black folks. A lot of people, like myself, heard the name Fred Hampton growing up. A lot of us didn’t even know much about him. 

So I had to broaden the audience in some ways. Not just for the movie to be successful, but also for the politics to kind of come across in a major way. The person we spoke with, what they picked up on, I think, was accurate, just in terms of not really being concerned with presenting quote unquote both sides of the story. 

I think it was very clear that the filmmakers were aligned with the Panthers. And so I wouldn’t go as far as sort of calling it a kind of Cowboys and Indians movie, like the classic movies they used to make where the audience like roots for the Cowboys. And Indians, as they referred to them then, were the bad guys. 

I wouldn’t go that far. But we did remain fairly accurate in terms of the portrayal of what the FBI and the Chicago Police Department did as a result of telling the truth the perspective is definitely pro-Panthers. And I think aligned with many of our Black audience members. 

KAYA HENDERSON: That’s one of the things that was so fascinating to me about watching this film. There are good guys and there are bad guys. And you were able to accurately and truthfully portray what was happening. 

At the same time, I think you were able to really bring to life the real human aspect. There were moments of intimacy and tenderness, even amongst these people who many people just believe were like gun-toting revolutionaries. No, you saw love, and you saw pain, and you saw passion. 

Even William O’Neal, you humanized him in a way that we got to understand his struggle a little bit. How do you think about doing that in a film? 

SHAKA KING: Well, for me as a filmmaker, it starts with my taste. I always want to present fully realized, three dimensional, four dimensional characters, just because I think it makes for better filmmaking. It makes for more interesting and entertaining, compelling film. 

But in the case of this film, especially when we’re talking about icons and the Black Panthers, icons the two dimensional. My job as a filmmaker is to give those characters dimension. And in the case of the Panthers, to really do so, because we want to highlight the sacrifices that they made as people. Because they were people. 

They’re people who fell in love. They’re people who planned to have a family. And their dream was cut short tragically by the actions of the FBI and Chicago Police Department and the State Attorney’s Office. That’s why you humanize, that’s why you give complexity to characters. 

And in terms of William O’Neal and I think even Roy Mitchell, you want to contextualize the behavior. You want to give them complexity so that the audience can in some ways connect to them and ideally question how they move in those kinds of ways. Do they have any William O’Neal in them? Do they have any Roy Mitchell in them or in their family? 

KAYA HENDERSON: Yeah, I’m a sucker for love. I think Black love is revolutionary. And there were so many tender moments between the two of them, from playing footsie in bed to her reception of him, just the touch when he came out of prison. It was– oh my gosh, I thought it was amazing. How do you think about casting for these roles? 

SHAKA KING: When we were writing the script, I saw Daniel, I saw LaKeith, I saw Dominique, I saw Jesse. So they were all in my mind cast. 

KAYA HENDERSON: You knew them as you all were putting together the script? 

SHAKA KING: Yes, I was writing the script. I saw them playing the leads those for parts specifically. And then the other actors, they came later. But those who four I wanted from the very beginning. 

KAYA HENDERSON: And was it hard to get them? 

SHAKA KING: I had a relationship with LaKeith, so that was pretty easy. Daniel, Ryan had a relationship with. So that was fairly effortless. And it turned out that Dominique joined my agency briefly, the agency that represented that she joined briefly. And we connected via the agency. 

That was crazy. I literally– I was writing the role for her. And then I got an email from one of my reps saying that she joined. And she asked if I had a desire to meet with her. And I was like, I definitely do. I’m literally writing something for her right now. 

The only person who was hard to get a hold of was Jesse, because we didn’t have a– I didn’t have a personal relationship with him. I didn’t know anyone who had a personal relationship with him, including going through his rap sheet, who actually just weren’t getting him the script as far as I know. 

And so a few weeks before we really started shooting, I ended up getting his number from someone I was working with on set and working on another movie. And I called him. Paul called him. And he was the last one to come on board once he read the script. 

KAYA HENDERSON: So the universe just conspired to make it happen. 

SHAKA KING: Exactly. 

KAYA HENDERSON: I love it. One of the things that I heard is that for a lot of surviving Black Panthers, this film brings up incredibly traumatic memories. And I’ve heard that you’ve paid careful attention to that particular impact. Can you talk a little bit more about that? 

SHAKA KING: Sure. Something that was on my mind pretty early in the post-process, and again, in dialogue with Blair Anderson, who was a survivor of the assassination and was wounded during the assassination. 

And he was someone who was very honest about the challenges that he expected to experience watching the movie. And that he had a feeling that a lot of his comrades, those who were present during the assassination, and even those who just were affected by it in terms of fearing for their lives and concerned for their comrades. 

He really thought it was important to put together supported screenings for any former chapter member, I think, whether in Illinois, outside of Illinois, who had an interest in watching the movie and wanted to speak with trained professional about that experience watching this or whatever. 

So it was something that we took a while to strategize. But all the producing partners were on board. The studio was on board. Participant was one of our producers that really led the charge. And some former Panthers have chosen to take part in some of those therapy sessions and some have not. 

But we just wanted to offer up the option, just because we knew that this was a movie that you’re going to be seeing the trailer during sporting events. And we knew people would be triggered by it. So really, it wasn’t so much that we didn’t want people to be triggered. We knew they would inevitably. 

But we wanted to do whatever we could to mitigate that. All the credit I always give to Blair for that, because it was his idea. It was really all his. It just was something that he proposed. 

I knew this would happen. I just didn’t know what to do. He fortunately was like, well, this is my experience. This is what I would like. And if I would like it, then maybe other people would like it. So really all the credit goes to him. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Well, hats off to Blair, for sure, especially for normalizing therapy and mental health work in our community. But also for you, this is what happens when we are in dialogue with our community. Our community tells us what we want. And we co-create solutions together. And so I think that is beautiful. 

We just wrapped up Women’s History Month. And in my research for this interview, I learn that there were a number of Black women who were crucial to making this film happen. I think many of us have heard about the challenges that Black filmmakers have in getting their films made. 

But I understand that there were women like Niija Kuykendall at Warner Brothers, Zenzi Evans, and others. Can you talk about the role that Black women played in helping you get this film made? 

SHAKA KING: Niija obviously was a big part of the reason why the film ended up with Warner Brothers. She’d been trying to make a feature about the Black Panthers, I think, for about 10 years since she’d been there. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Can tell our audience who she is? 

SHAKA KING: She’s Vise President at Warner Brothers in development. She’s one of the few Black executives with that much power at the studio in Hollywood. No surprise to me that many studios passed. Warner Brothers was one that didn’t. I think it actually helped that she was present there and had power that there. 

Another black woman who was in development work with Niija, Sheila Walcott was also instrumental in terms of giving notes [INAUDIBLE] created. She gave tremendous notes, and in the end it was crucial, especially in the post-process in terms of just making sure women were properly represented in the film. 

But ultimately, the people I really– I think about just Dominique Fishback and Dominique Thorne. I really always take my hat off to them. She starred in the movie and really played a tremendous role in shaping that character and giving the character the strength and the depth that you see in the picture. 

KAYA HENDERSON: So this film is getting all kinds of positive press, and critical acclaim, and awards. So you’re having a moment. How does it feel? 

SHAKA KING: It’s great. It’s strange, I’m in my house. So it’s all virtual. But yeah, it’s really nice. I’m excited to see the movie with people on Sunday. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Oh, yeah, because none of us have been in a theater. Yeah, so you miss the whole like hearing people laugh and hearing people gasp. And you miss the experience. I hadn’t even thought about that. 

SHAKA KING: Yeah, I’ve seen it with friends. I went to one screening with some college friends when we were at a theater. But I haven’t seen it with strangers yet. I’m looking forward to that. 

But no, it’s great. And it’s really exciting. Because obviously, the story is getting out there to more people. And in terms of my career, I hope it makes the next one easy to get made. It feels like that. 

KAYA HENDERSON: That’s exciting. And that’s my next question. What’s next for you? 

SHAKA KING: I got a movie I’m between commitments and taking meetings. I’m slowly developing that I’m excited about. I don’t know enough yet to talk about it in a really educated way. But it’s ambitious. I’ll say that. It’s definitely ambitious. 

KAYA HENDERSON: That’s exciting. If some studio just wrote you a big old check and said you can do your dream project, anything you want to do, what might that look like? 

SHAKA KING: For me, hopefully this next thing is that. Judas was that for me. So everything I do is that. Anything I see through to the end is something that feels like a dream project. 

KAYA HENDERSON: We don’t have to have one dream. We don’t have to be limited in that way. I hear that. Tell us– the Pods Save the People listeners, we’re a family. We are in each other’s business. Tell us something about Shaka King that we don’t already know about you. 

SHAKA KING: I love swimming. I really love to swim. 

KAYA HENDERSON: You love swimming? 

SHAKA KING: I just came from swimming. It just occurred to me. Yeah, I love swimming. I love swimming. 

KAYA HENDERSON: That is something that most people don’t know. 

SHAKA KING: I’m not very good at it. I’m not very good at it. But I love it. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Where did your swimming habit come from? 

SHAKA KING: I used to play basketball. I hurt my hip, so I couldn’t play anymore. And I needed some kind of exercise to do. And I hated jogging. I hated calisthenics. I hated lifting weights. But I loved swimming. 

And I discovered I was, like, going to ride to a camp at Cali or something. And it had a pool. And I started swimming. And I was like, oh, I like this. I’ve been doing it for a few years. 

KAYA HENDERSON: I love it. Because people don’t think that Black people swim. But I’m excited about that. 

SHAKA KING: Yes, it’s a total lie. It’s a lie. Somebody was from island and coastal. It doesn’t make any sense. 

KAYA HENDERSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m going to end our interview with one question. And that is, what gives you hope in these crazy times? 

SHAKA KING: People are alive. Life still continues. And it’s only been crazy times. One thing I think people forget is that like this is the best it’s ever been. As bad as it it, this is the best it’s ever been. 

KAYA HENDERSON: I guess, that is true. It’s all about perspective. And people are still living, and growing, and dreaming, and swimming, and doing what they do, making movies. And hopefully, we will be celebrating you soon as the Oscars are coming around. And hopefully, we’ll all be able to be in movie theaters soon, so that we can see this the way it was meant to be seen. 

I just want to say thank you, Shaka, for sharing with the Pod family a little bit about Judas and the Black Messiah. Family, if you haven’t seen it, stop what you’re doing and stream it right now. It’s such an important story. But it’s also an incredible piece of art. And we want to support this film and films just like it. So thank you again, Shaka, for coming on. 

SHAKA KING: Thank you, Kaya. 

DERAY: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pods Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure you rate it, wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple podcast or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week. 

Pods Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our executive producer Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors, Kaya Henderson and De’Ara Balenger, and Sam Sinyangwe. And our special contributor, Johnetta Elzie. 

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