Is This the Most Radical Film Ever Produced by Hollywood?Breaking News
tags: film, African American history, Black Panther Party
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a very good — nearly great — movie about the charismatic Fred Hampton and the way the Black Panther Party was targeted by the United States government. Yet neither the standout performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield nor the sensitive and insightful direction by Shaka King are the most remarkable aspects of the film: Not since Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic “Malcolm X” has there been a mainstream American film this thoroughly Black and radical.
Black History Month was a mystery to me as a kid. I could never understand why we were taught some Black history but not nearly enough, not even close. We would learn about Frederick Douglass but not Nat Turner. Booker T. Washington but not W.E.B. Du Bois. Our teachers made a point of telling us about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but completely neglected Malcolm X. With this approach, they tacitly communicated that only the Black historical figures who included white people doing the work of Black liberation were the ones worthy of remembrance. This was especially true when it came to Black radicals. The Panthers, who were important to my community when I was growing up, and the Black power movement were never part of the narrative at school. The same can be said of Hollywood.
Hollywood has long told Black stories from the perspective of white people. Think of Oscar-winning dramas like “The Blind Side” (a white adoptive mother comes to the aid of a Black football player), “The Help” (a white journalist awakens to the injustices Black maids face in the civil-rights-era South) or “Green Book” (a white chauffeur helps a Black classical pianist): Instead of exploring what Black characters endured, these movies catered to white audiences, giving them lessons on how to better perform their whiteness while in proximity to Blackness.
This tradition of making Black films about white people thus makes the mere existence of “Judas and the Black Messiah” shocking and exhilarating. The movie, available on HBO Max and distributed by Warner Bros., is not exactly hostile to white people, but for a mainstream movie likely to garner Oscar attention, the version of Blackness it depicts, one rooted in an unapologetic love of the descendants of enslaved people, is rare. Surprisingly, it does not apologize for Hampton’s embrace of Blackness nor his deep suspicion of capitalism. It also does not sugarcoat the depiction of the Judas of the title, the F.B.I. plant Bill O’Neal. In another era, if a studio film tackled the material at all, Hampton would have been secondary in the story of a sympathetic informant. Instead, King is intentional about putting us on the side of the Black radicals, and we see the government for what it was: a destructive force.