I'm writing on April 4th, the 54th anniversary of the most important speech Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave in his 39 years of life.
I'm not talking about 1963's "I Have a Dream."
I'm talking about a speech he gave exactly 365 days before he was murdered. If you take 40 minutes to listen to that 1967 speech, "Beyond Vietnam," you will have absorbed the essence of the spirit of the 1960s.
The words of that speech are a manifesto for a new American Revolution. The words of “Beyond Vietnam” are more precious to me than those of the Declaration, the Constitution or the Gettysburg Address.
To American citizens who participated in those struggles, "The Trial of the Chicago 7" and "One Night in Miami…" and "Judas and the Black Messiah" are an insult and an injury.
And, if you can appreciate those words and that spirit (maybe you lived it) you may agree that the following 2020 films fall far short of capturing that spirit:
- "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
- "One Night in Miami…."
- "Judas and the Black Messiah."
In fact these three motion-pictures tend to stifle the revolutionary spirit of Dr. King and his tens of thousands of comrades. It seems 2020 was the year for Hollywood to trivialize and marginalize the 1960s. To American citizens who participated in those struggles, "The Trial of the Chicago 7" and "One Night in Miami…" and "Judas and the Black Messiah" are an insult and an injury.
The real trial of the Chicago 8-then-7 (1969-70), amounted to little but a wasteful distraction from the real work of the '60s, the real struggle, for racial and class justice and against war. The actual, original trial was a sideshow. 2020's movie about the trial is a travesty of a sideshow. And it’s a hip, slick, liberal-reformist critique of the movement for radical change, in the US and around the world. And that critique, wrapped in a flashy movie, echoes into the present. If you can quell the spirit of the 1960s, you might be able to quell the spirit of the 2020s.
"Chicago 7" is schematized so that Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden become the central characters among the 7. So, naturally, the filmmakers have bypassed American talent, gone offshore and outsourced the two rôles to foreign workers. Hoffman and Hayden are both impersonated by British actors, and both actors fail to bring their characters to life with credible portrayals. Abbie had more warmth and charm and sincerity than the Abbie we see onscreen. And the real Tom Hayden was more radical and impassioned than the screen version. To be fair, the actors do not deserve all of the blame for these bloodless caricatures. Their performances are undermined by a script that aims to entertain without enlightening.
And, as one who lived through the period, my greatest grievance over "Chicago 7" is this: The shabby writing, and the miscasting, of Dave Dellinger marginalize and diminish one of the most admirable political organizers and moral leaders of the anti-war struggle.
That Night in Miami
"One Night in Miami…" is a fantasy psycho-drama, built on the shaky base of one historical fact: In 1964, three well-known African-Americans attended the world championship boxing victory of a fourth -- Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay. History records only that the four men spent some time together after the fight. We have a few photographs of them among a large gathering in a bar.
"One Night…" tries to create a plausible series of imaginary dramatic confrontations between the four men -- Cassius Clay/Ali; the football star Jim Brown; the world-famous pop singer Sam Cooke; and Malcolm X. The scenes are well staged and well shot and edited, so they don't often seem false, in the moment. But if you think about them later, in the historical context of that "One Night" in 1964, or if you watch them a second time, the scenes just don't ring true. The worst outcome of this fanciful charade is that Ali and Malcolm are shrunken -- severely diminished in stature -- and their radical messages to the American people (and their radical example) are muted and sometimes altogether lost.
In a preview of my rant below, about a certain trade imbalance, let me say this: For my money, the two most grievously mis-represented American heroes in this year's film crop are Dave Dellinger ("Chicago 7") and Malcolm X. “Miami...” reduces Malcolm to an insecure pretentious preacher, someone who felt he needed the celebrity of others to dazzle a larger "congregation." The Afro-British actor-import, Kingsley Ben-Adir, seems to be partly culpable for this thin-soup characterization, but the filmmakers must take at least as much of the blame.
Each of the four men gets an epilogue, after the “One Night” is over. In his epilogue, we see Ali receiving his new, Muslim name from the leader of the Nation of Islam.
Why did the filmmakers choose that event to put their period on the story of Muhammad Ali? Would it have been too controversial for movie-goers to see, instead, a far more courageous act in Ali’s life? Would it have been too dangerous to show Ali publicly refusing to be conscripted into the US military machine, when hundreds of thousands of American troops were slaughtering three million human beings in Vietnam? The young boxing champ we see in “Miami” in 1964 made a heroic moral stand in 1967, and was banned from boxing for three of the most important years of a boxer’s career. (He also had a five-year prison term hanging over him, until the Supreme Court reversed his conviction in 1971.) If the filmmakers were serious about capturing something special in those four men, why did they omit the single most significant decision of Ali’s life?
Panther crucified. How would Boots have told it?
"Judas and the Black Messiah" is a very different kind of story-telling from "The Trial of the Chicago 7" (courtroom dramedy) and "One Night … " (a “what-if” group therapy session). "Judas" is a suspenseful tale of deceit, extortion and murder, all committed under color of law. The FBI, the Illinois State Police and the Police Department of the City of Chicago conspired together in a no-holds-barred campaign to destroy the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and its popular young Chairman, Fred Hampton. They succeeded in killing Hampton on December 4, 1969.
As the title advises you, these criminals with badges depended upon a paid betrayer to achieve their ends. A petty street-criminal, Bill O'Neal, infiltrates the Panther chapter and, eventually, sets up the scenario in which law enforcers murder Hampton.
Something's weird about the title of this picture. The name "Judas" implies the betrayal of a Christ-figure and the strange term, "Black Messiah," seems to confirm the film title's "Judas" implication.
But we hear the term, first, in the mouth of the movie's arch-villain, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Addressing an oddly large auditorium full of subordinates, Hoover puts on a slide-and-move show. He makes clear his intention to rid the country of "a Black Messiah" who might arise out of the Panther Party and unify all the protest movements of the time. And it's obvious to any listener that Hoover's utterance of the word "Messiah" is both serious and sarcastic. So why do the filmmakers adopt Hoover's ugly tone and his implication when they call their hero "The Black Messiah"? Are they giving us a hint that the "Jesus" in their movie is not what he appears to be?
The title of this picture gave me my first vague hunch that the filmmakers might be very ambivalent toward the Black Panther Party, which was founded before any of them were born. Their ambivalence appears to play out in the writing, and, especially, in the casting of the supposed hero of their picture.
Fred Hampton was born in Summit, Illinois, just west of Chicago's old Midway airport. Daniel Kaluuya, who plays the rôle of Fred, was born in London, England. Hampton was 18 years old when he was first targeted by Hoover and his allies, and he was 21 when they assassinated him. Kaluuya was 31 when he undertook his movie impersonation of Fred. That's half-again as old as the character he plays; and he looks it.
Generally speaking, British actors are thoroughly trained, and they carefully develop useful skills for speaking and moving on stage. They are schooled in building their theatrical characters "from the outside in." They adopt the character's speech habits and physical mannerisms first. To oversimplify a bit, American actors are more instinctual. They create from the inside out; if they can find the character within themselves, then the character's ways of speaking and moving will develop organically.
Daniel Kaluuya's age and training work against his effort to bring Fred Hampton back to life. At age 31, Kaluuya lacks the irrepressible energy of a man in his late adolescence. Kaluuya is somber where Fred would have been boyishly enthusiastic. He moves deliberately, rather than with impulsive spontaneity.
When Kaluuya addresses large gatherings, his oratory is technically well-crafted, but there is definitely something missing -- the warmth, the enthusiasm, the youthful, slightly gawky, earnest effort to reach out and communicate Fred's dearly held beliefs to the community he loved. I don't get the sense that Daniel Kaluuya is at home in Chicago. I don't get the feeling that the actors in his audience are people he's hung out with on the West Side, all his life. He's a stranger in the Windy City, giving a well-rehearsed lecture, with a stern, slightly bullying tone.
In his interactions with Panther supporters, Kaluuya doesn't invite them to chant the slogans he shouts. He commands them to recite-after-him, and the anonymous actors playing his audience recite the slogans, in unison, loudly, but without spontaneity. I was reminded of the crowds in "1984" or in "Triumph of the Will." Is that what the filmmakers intended? Are they suggesting that the Chicago Black Panther chapter was an authoritarian clique, with followers who couldn't think for themselves?
Kaluuya was definitely miscast. It's not his fault. I think we're supposed to like him as Fred. We should be able to feel the accessability, the sense of humor, the enthusiasm AND the humility that a community organizer must have to win his people's confidence. But with this fictional Fred Hampton, there's an unfortunate coldness behind the eyes, a little like the chill I feel in the eyes of this year's movie version of Abbie Hoffman (who happened to be on trial, in Chicago, in the same time period).
As you watch this film, remember that this very young man, Fred Hampton, was a highly successful at bringing people together for a common purpose, even before he became a Black Panther. Remember that the national Black Panther Party would have been unlikely to name Hampton Chairman of the Illinois chapter unless they knew that he was popular and rooted in his neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago.
And as you see the movie version of Fred Hampton, ask yourself, "Do I feel comfortable with this man? Do I want to join him in his struggle? Do I feel warmth, connection, compassion from him? Is he inviting me to join him, or is he brow-beating me? Does he respect me, or does he just want to dominate me and make me one of his unquestioning followers?"
I'm afraid Daniel Kaluuya, for all his technical skills, was not the right actor for the job. In the end, I didn't grieve, as I should have, when Fred Hampton was murdered.
In broad strokes, when you hire British actors to impersonate American characters, you get British efficiency, without the authenticity; efficiency, without empathy.
Watching all three 2020 pictures, I get the feeling that the filmmakers have spent thousands of hours watching movies and mastering their craft, but they haven't spent much time on the streets (or in union halls or churches), getting a real sense of the dynamics -- the nuts and bolts -- of how men and women like Fred Hampton help oppressed people to organize themselves to change their lives and to disrupt the power relations that keep them down. (The late director Martin Ritt had a feel for political organizing; the British director Ken Loach clearly gets it.)
One measure of the "Judas" filmmakers' lack of interest in the work of political organizing -- which was the driving passion of Fred Hampton's life -- is their failure to emphasize the spiritual and philosophical core of the Black Panther Party, its Ten-Point Program, an inspired declaration of ten goals and ten philosophical principles. To include a few words of that declaration would not have been an academic exercise. It was that Ten-Point Program that gave organizers like Fred Hampton a solid basis for approaching and organizing their communities and giving them the motivation to stand up for themselves.
To cite one example, Number 7 of the ten goals in the Program, which was written in 1966, is "WE WANT AN IMMEDIATE END TO POLICE BRUTALITY AND MURDER OF BLACK PEOPLE, OTHER PEOPLE OF COLOR, ALL OPPRESSED PEOPLE INSIDE THE UNITED STATES." Leaving aside political tactics, could the ethos of the Black Panther Party be any more relevant? Isn't it important, regardless of your personal politics, to try to understand the historical meaning of the Panthers?
Jesus? Or Judas?
So what should we think of the Judas in "Judas and the Black Messiah"? What are we meant to feel about him? His actual name was Bill O'Neal. Like Fred Hampton, he grew up and died in Chicago. O'Neal was an American. In this somewhat atypical case, the African-American character is portrayed by an African-American actor -- LaKeith Stanfield, born in San Bernardino, California.
O'Neal is arrested for stealing a car, but his biggest mistake seemed, at first, like a very clever ruse. O'Neal doesn't carry a weapon when he jacks a car. He compels the car's owner to give him the keys by flashing an FBI badge and threatening to arrest the owner if he doesn't cooperate.
While he's in police custody, Bill O'Neal is confronted by a real FBI agent who informs him that he could be sentenced to several years in prison for impersonating an agent -- much more serious than auto theft. The agent, Roy Mitchell, offers an alternative to hard time: infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Panthers and report on them to Mitchell and his associates. O'Neal chooses to avoid prison and to accept small cash payments from Mitchell in return for his spying. As LaKeith Stanfield portrays the man, I feel a reluctant sympathy for O'Neal as he walks the twisted path of his bargain with the devil.
Stanfield's scenes with Jesse Plemons, as Agent Mitchell, have more juice than most other scenes in the film. And there are three or four enjoyably creepy scenes between a nervous Mitchell-Plemons and his even more sinister superiors. This is where the filmmakers' talents really shine. It's also engaging to watch how Stanfield, as O'Neal, manages to wriggle out of situations where he is almost found out by members of the Panther chapter. And one of the best extended scenes, in any movie this year, plays out quietly in a dimlit bar and the dark parking lot behind it, where Stanfield/O'Neal has to make excruciating choices, without knowing who, in that murky environment, is even remotely trustworthy.
The filmmakers, with LaKeith Stanfield, give us a Bill O'Neal who is a memorable, tortured, fascinating mix of resourcefulness and fecklessness, bravura and weakness. In short, Judas-O'Neal-Stanfield, without straining, takes the movie away, deciseively, from Messiah-Hampton-Kaluuya, in part because of Kaluuya's efficient, but far less compelling, performance.
My instinct was to sympathize with Fred Hampton. Given my own history, I should have. But this movie's Judas has more humanity than its Jesus. Is that what the filmmakers intended? "Judas and the Black Messiah" reveals law enforcement officials who are almost fiendishly evil, but are we supposed to see the Black Panthers as their radical left equivalent? There are fleeting moments when the Panther chapter leader Hampton comes across as a slightly sinister figure, a little lacking in humanity, a leader who was, maybe, rightfully neutralized, even if the method of eliminating him was shamefully foul. Is that what the filmmakers intended?
By the end of the film, I had no clear sense of who the Panthers were, or what they stood for, or why hundreds of Chicagoans would join the Party, or fervently support it. Was J. Edgar Hoover right in engineering their demise?
For any younger citizens who are interested in history, the Black Panther Party never advocated for violence against America's racist establishment. They stood for the betterment of their communities and they made it clear that, when threatened by unwarranted state violence, their communities had a right to armed self-defense.
I believe that "Judas and the Black Messiah" is inauthentic history. It's features a false rendering of the real, historical, Fred Hampton. It makes me wonder, "What would Boots Riley have done with this tale?"
Outsourcing. Off-shoring. Importing worker talent.
In the last six years, Hollywood has put four historical African-American figures on screen:
- Martin Luther King in "Selma" (2015)
- Harriet Tubman in "Harriet" (2017)
- Malcolm X in 2020's "One Night in Miami…"
- Fred Hampton in "Judas and the Black Messiah."
In the casting of these historical rôles, the British have gone four-for-four. The score is now U.K. - 4, U.S. - 0. Every single one of these African-American characters has been portrayed by an Afro-British actor. (Footnote: a fifth American legend, Muhammad Ali, is impersonated, cleverly but shallowly, his courageous anti-war stance slighted, by an actor from another corner of the old British Empire, Canada!)
It's important to point out that, for someone who lived through the period, and paid any attention, not one of these portrayals is truly successful. British technical polish, without the heart and soul.
(Disclaimer: I did not live through Harriet Tubman’s time, but I have some trouble buying the British actor Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal. Maybe I’m sentimental, but I don’t see how Tubman could have achieved prominence as an abolitionist and suffragist with the personality displayed, with unquestionable skill and confidence, by Erivo -- harsh, cold and periodically deranged.)
High praises from critics and nominations from the awards industry can't cover up the failures of these screen portraits.
The makers of these four films passed over African-American actors -- an ethical issue, in my mind -- and they produced false and diminished likenesses of four remarkable human beings from American history -- an issue of artistic wrong-doing, in my mind.
(You may wonder why you're not hearing protests from the community of African-American actors. My guess, it's hard to be honest, in a public way, in the entertainment industry. There is almost no transparency in Hollywood, so major decisions like casting are classified. And almost no one is free of the fear which governs us. If you get out of line, raise your voice in protest, call for an investigation, you will be punished.)
Enlightened Hollywood’s New Disrespect for African-American Actors
First, African-American actors had to struggle against the old, more blatant racism of Hollywood. There simply were few, if any, African-American characters in film and TV scripts.
Now, just as African-American characters -- fictional and historical -- are beginning to appear in movie and TV scripts, African-Americans have to compete with imported talent from the UK and other parts of the British Commonwealth to play those parts.
In a cruel twist of the pattern and practice of exporting American jobs to China, Mexico and other low-wage nations, the American entertainment industry is now "outsourcing" the best acting jobs to foreign talent, which the industry imports to displace American actor-workers, most especially, African-American actor-workers. It's not just a trade imbalance, it's a glaring moral deficit.
Enter LaKeith Stanfield
I've seen six film characterizations by the 30 year-old American actor LaKeith Stanfield
- "Get Out" 2017
- "Sorry to Bother You" 2018
- "Atlanta" (TV series) 2016-2021
- "Uncut Gems" 2019
- "Knives Out" 2019
- "Judas and the Black Messiah" 2021
In "Get Out," Stanfield gave a perfect rendering of a particular (not just vaguely generalized) white male, who was, somewhat awkwardly, inhabiting a Black man's body. The performance, unobtrusively, added to my growing sense of confusion and dread, which made the movie so chilling. I didn't notice the acting because Stanfield's characterization served simply to pull me along the path of the plot.
In "Sorry to Bother You," Stanfield inhabited the center of another strange, but real, world. Again, I was not distracted by his performance. He was simply the ordinary, smart-but-slightly-feckless, Everyman whom we followed through a reality-based hallucination of ... let’s call it, Late Monopoly Capitalism. And it was absolutely essential that Stanfield could smoothly dead-pan the delightful early-on comedy that sucked me into the film.
In "Atlanta," Stanfield portrays rapper Paper Boi's goofy sidekick-sponger, who is nowhere near as goofy as you think he is, at first. Again, he's not performing a rôle in a show. He's just THERE; a real, distinctive human being, who happens to be in a scene on the set of a TV show.
I won't tax you with my enthusiastic reviews of all of the six performances I've seen Stanfield give. Let me just say I was greatly entertained -- tickled -- by the movie "Knives Out." It grieves me to say it, but the Limey import, Daniel Craig, was great fun to watch, as the eccentric Southern detective. But, again, I see in hindsight, Craig's performance would not have been nearly so much fun, if he had not been partnered with a younger, more reasonable, more by-the-book officer, played by LaKeith Stanfield. Once more, Stanfield's performance doesn't call attention to itself; he serves, unobtrusively, as the perfect, necessary, foil to the more flamboyant Craig.
And, this year, he is the best reason to watch the lumbering "Judas and the Black Messiah." (My heartfelt Honorable Mention to Jesse Plemons.)
To contemplate Stanfield's work in those few scenes in "Knives Out" (frequently in the background), along with his sustained, front-and-center performance in "Judas," is, to my mind, to appreciate what acting is all about.
He has a light touch. He doesn't force the moment to be bigger than it needs to be. He makes it look easy. He doesn't tell you he's acting; he doesn't call attention to himself. He doesn't get in the way of the story. We don’t realize how good he is until well after the picture ends.
He has consistently demonstrated versatility, subtlety and authenticity on film. At 30 years of age, it's uncanny that he should have such a high level of skill and such a breadth of possible characters to play.