Three Films for Black History Month

For Black History Month, three new movies to explore, all drawn from historical events:

Judas and the Black Messiah

By now there is a vast cinematic subgenre of FBI movies, many of them set in the 1950s and ’60s, often set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. The very title of Judas and the Black Messiah is endlessly thought provoking, I find. “Judas” is the more self-evident element. It refers to William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant who infiltrated the Black Panther Party in the late ’60s. The more intriguing part is the “Black Messiah” — Illinois BBP leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, the star of Get Out). I’m not sure I’d ever heard of Hampton prior to seeing the enlightening Swedish documentary Black Power Mixtape 1967-75 in 2011. And that’s the whole point in telling his story. You wonder at first “How is HE the Black Messiah”? But there was this historical moment in the late ’60s, after Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had been assassinated and Black Panther leaders Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver were all in jail or exile, when 21 year old Hampton, a silver tongued speaker and gifted organizer based out of Chicago, looked like the next to step in line as the movement’s future. But as we know Black Power was largely thwarted by the early 1970s. One reason, beyond those already named, was that in 1969, Hampton was assassinated by the FBI. This isn’t hyperbole; it’s quite clearly what happened. It’s the kind of thing one might expect in Russia or South America, but it happened here — a political hit on an American citizen by the U.S. government. The government was sued; the FBI eventually settled. No responsibility was ever taken beyond a cash payout.

While Kaluuya gets the rock star role, the more dramatic journey belongs to Stanfield’s O’Neal, who is at least partially a victim himself. He is coerced into his role as a stoolie by a piglike FBI agent played by Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad), who threatens him with incarceration for some previous crimes if he doesn’t cooperate. And it all happens under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (a miscast and typically insufferable Martin Sheen). O’Neal is torn, of course, He gets close to Hampton, and in the end was partially responsible for his murder. Like the Judas of the title (whom tradition holds hanged himself), O’Neal ended it all by deliberately walking into busy, fast-moving traffic about a decade later.

Directed and co-written by Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah is a maddening glimpse into what might have been had the promising Hampton been allowed to grow into the national leader he undoubtedly would have become…and a stark, unflinching portrait of the unjust world that is

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

The white power structure is also the villain in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Unfortunately, this is a story with a much shakier premise. The film seems to imply some targeted vendetta against singer Billie Holiday for political reasons and for performing the loaded anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”. In reality all of Holiday’s legal troubles consisted of drug busts for heroin. Undeniably, the drug war is first, last, and always racist, but the reality is more nuanced than laid out and presented here. It’s based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, and directed by Lee Daniels (Monster’s Ball, Precious, The Butler). Most disappointingly, the screenplay adaptation was by Suzan Lori-Parks, Pulitzer Winner for Top Dog/Underdog, and writer of the screenplays to Girl 6 and the screen adaptation of Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. (I was a participant in her 2006 365 Plays/365 Days, way, way, way out on the fringes. Our event was at New York’s off-off Gene Frankel Theatre). There is little of Park’s gift in evidence on this formulaic bio-pic script. One gets the impression that she was under the thumb of producers and the director to fit the script into the usual cookie cutter, ready to wear format.

The main saving grace is Andra Day’s performance as the title character, which achieves the monumental task of rivaling Diana Ross’s in Lady Sings the Blues. (In brief, Day is much more like Holiday herself, where Diana Ross was really just her own fabulous self). It is also a hoot to see Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead, although, other than both being husky-voiced loose cannons, the two women have almost nothing in common, Lyonne being a Long Island Jew and Bankhead, an Alabama socialite. Anyway, given Day’s terrific performance — and the POTENTIAL for a great movie given the compelling story and the character at the center of it, this one has to be written off as a lost opportunity.

A more enjoyable (and plausible) historical fantasy is One Night in Miami…, an adaptation of Kemp Powers‘ stage play depicting a four way colloquy among no less than Malcolm X (KIngsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay a.k.a. Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr). Apparently this night of sequestration really happened, though no one can possibly know what was actually said. Within months all four men would experience big changes in their lives (some of them catastrophic) and all four would make an impact of American culture. Knowing that this summit took place (and I use the word knowing that it has been used describe gatherings of world leaders, but also the Rat Pack) is one of those tantalizing events in history, irresistable to a playwright. These guys are like a Mount Rushmore of black heroes. What was said? Who knows? Might have been chit-chat, but more likely at least some of it was just as Powers imagines it — a night of Malcolm cajoling, persuading, and inciting these three pop culture figures into using their influence in the service of the Civil Rights movement (which, as he points out, is much more than that. It’s about asserting the right not to be murdered).

One Night is directed by actress Regina King, whose long list of credits over the past 35 years culminated in a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for If Beale Street Could Talk in 2018, and an Emmy for her starring role in Watchmen in 2019. She’s directed for television for almost a decade now, so a feature length film was an almost inevitable step for her at this stage in her career. With its premise of four guys spending a few hours in a motel room together, the danger of a dreary (if commendable) talkfest was great, but King has done what she can to bring physical movement to bear, breaking up portions and restaging them in different locations, as well as adding some additional scenes at the beginning. We get a boxing scene, and lots of terrific singing by Odom. It’s a tough sub-genre to make cinematic. Think of Twelve Angry Men, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and all those stage adaptations by Robert Altman. (Not to mention the relevant Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which we wrote about here). But King has managed to sell it, and this movie will rank as those others as a classic of its kind to re-watch. For the four men aren’t just “talking”. The film imagines that their pow-wow led to big stuff right afterwards: Cassius Clay goes public as a Muslim, changes his name, refuses to serve in Vietnam; Malcolm breaks with the Nation of Islam and makes his pilgrimage to Mecca; JIm Brown quits football and becomes a pathbreaking movie star; and Sam Cooke records his first political song, “A Change is Gonna Come”. But that night also represented a tragic “last chance”. Cooke was murdered before the year was out (the 2019 documentary Remastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke covers that ground and mentions the historic night in Miami) and of course Malcolm was assassinated. His autobiography was published soon after.