The Best Picture Nominees for the 2021 Oscars seem to come in pairs. First, there’s Nomadland and Minari, two cinematic adaptations dedicated to that most elusive fantasy of all, the American Dream. Then, there’s this year’s ultimate biopic for film aficionados, Mank, and, once more, Nomadland, representing indie filmmaking. But Judas and the Black Messiah and The Trial of the Chicago 7 share the unique distinction of being set in the political turmoil of late 60’s Chicago.
Both films touch on the lives and legacies of Black social revolutionaries Bobby Seale and Fred Hampton yet with unequal emphasis. Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah dramatizes the conflict between the FBI and the Black Panther Party at the time, building up to the assassination of 21-year old Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), Head of the Illinois Chapter of the Panthers, in a raid organised by the police, the FBI and aided by an informant (Lakeith Stanfield) within the party.
Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a cameo appearance of Fred Hampton, who comes to support Bobby Seale, the National Chairman of the Black Panthers at the time and erstwhile eighth defendant in the titular case. Seale’s mistreatment in court (at one point, he is bound and gagged) by the judge and Hampton’s murder off screen are part of the mainstream narrative but are ultimately glossed over in favour of depicting the film’s central seven white anti-Vietnam protesters.
It’s somewhat of a trend in Hollywood. Black experience does get represented in film rather than being invalidated but not on its own terms. The injustice that can come with being Black serves the purpose of evoking White sympathy for the suffering of the characters in question. They are the trigger for indignity and moral outrage for the film’s White heroes, who usually spend the remainder of the film engaging in heroics to set the status quo right. Ergo, the White Saviour trope is born.
This might not be the best comparison but an example that comes to mind is Marvel’s Truth: Red, White and Black. The 2002 comic series on the origin story of a ‘Black’ Captain America, prior to Steve Roger’s ascent to the selfsame position, has both characters meet. Isaiah Bradley, experimented on by US scientists and later court-martialled and imprisoned for ‘stealing the spar-spangled uniform’ on his way to liberate a Nazi concentration camp is rendered weak and mentally incapacitated due to the faulty serum he took. The ‘real’ Captain America expresses shock and outrage at his forebear’s treatment but then waltzes off into the sunset without offering any restitution. Bradley’s suffering becomes a means of redemption for Steve Rogers and recedes into the background after serving that purpose. (Disney+ new smash hit The Falcon and the Winter Soldier gives the storyline a well-needed brush up for the post-Black Matters movement era-no further spoilers!)
In contrast, The Trial of the Chicago 7 barely addresses systemic racism. According to the filmic world view, racism is largely down to one bigoted judge who literally and metaphorically denies Bobby Seale his right to defend himself in court. This kind of portrayal of racism often finds its place in films as it allows the problem to be solved via White paternalism rather than Black self-organization and self-help.
King’s Judas and the Black Messiah injects a more complex idea of morality into the gritty crime drama/biopic. Beyond the rightfully racist portrayal of the FBI under then chief J.Edgar Hoover it provides an insight into the murky middle ground of poor white Southerners as well as the individual motivations of Black criminal-turned-informant Bill who finds his loyalties split in the middle.
The newsreel footage shown right at the start of the film pays homage to the idea of freeing oneself through a collective effort rather than waiting for ‘freedom to be handed to one’, as Malcolm X once cautioned against. ‘We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity’ is what Fred Hampton says. The head of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panthers returns to this idea many times in the course of the film, emphasizing their strength in numbers, enunciating that ‘power is people’. Scenes showing the radical organisation set up breakfast clubs, pitching pamphlets to people on the street and setting up a free legal as well as medical clinic from the Panthers headquarters are set against scenes where Black men are taunted, threatened and denied their liberties. The viewer is treated to both Black excellence and dignity rather than just Black degradation. This cinematic re-appraisal of the Black Panthers sheds light on their role as community organizers with interpersonal bonds, eschewing the identity of cold-blooded, ideological killers. (The romantic subplot between Hampton and his lover recalls the tender moments in If Beale Street Could Talk, further serving to humanise the man behind the movement.)
To date, only 14 Black Actors have won Academy Awards. Why? Because the roles that Black actors assume in films are usually archetypical and one-dimensional. Even with the greatest acting talent, an actor can do nothing if the source material doesn’t give him the complexity of a real person to play with. Judas and the Black Messiah subverts those tropes, with Daniel Kaluuya delivering an electrifying performance as a charismatic Fred Hampton (Standout line: ‘I’m high off the people’) who evokes both loyalty and universal admiration.
Black Filmmakers are slowly reframing history by producing historical narratives that boost a greater understanding of race and diversity. Where The Help and Mississippi Burning chose to focus on a white ensemble cast, a growing number of productions for both the big and small screen (ranging from Watchmen and When They See Us to Moonlight and Black Panther) have chosen to decentre White narratives to great critical acclaim as well as resounding Box office successes.
A far cry even from the more ‘progressive’ Black-White buddy films of the 80’s and 90’s that cast Black men in the role of helpless sidekicks to White leads, recent cinematic endeavours go beyond the mere facts of Black identity. Watchmen and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier touch on the Tulsa race Massacre while Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom details the struggles of Black Artists in white society. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, in the spotlight just as much as Ma Rainey for being snubbed for the 2021 Oscars, follows four African-American vets who return to Vietnam to find the remains of their former squadron leader as well as the gold he helped them hide there.
As the complicated legacies of race and identity are given the space to breathe on screen, the potential for both truth and accuracy comes into play. The challenge remains in not favouring one approach over the other, remaining ‘comfortable in the decisions we make that are not comfortable decisions’ as Shaka King himself terms it in an interview.