At one point, Glenn Thurman shows Aretha Franklin The Trust Fall and it takes a little bit of internal work for Aretha to make it. But make it she does. Watching eight hours of Genius‘s third season requires a lot of trust in showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks, because the viewer has to wade through aaaa lottttt of Lifetime-type, music-biopic tropes to get to the core of Franklin’s story: She is a woman who is sometimes-comfortably trapped in concentric gender and music circles, pushing out only when they threaten her windpipe. Each burst-through creates its own cycles of searches. Aretha’s stoic speaking voice is the outer shell that hides deep insecurities but also hidden strengths. The seemingly endless flashbacks show where and why the holding patterns stick; her grown-ness comes in her 40s, as an unavoidable right-of-passage beckons. Parks has said she read all the books and articles, so while the hours went by this viewer had to trust that she was going in a direction worthy of so much (relatively) limited discussion of politics and society that seemingly dominated the show’s first two seasons. What the playwright has shown is how complicated the sexist male circles are to surmount–how it takes time and patience to wedge through, to prove oneself, to burst free into a full identity who can do anything–even sing opera on 15 minutes notice.
As my friend Malik Russell once said of him, “He is Black media royalty.” I knew him as a fixer–a guy who knew everybody in Washington, D.C. and every other center of power and could solve anyone’s problem. I will never forget that he let me tag along with him to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Colorado.
(I’m about to finish this film for the second time as I type this, so I think I can say a few intelligent words.)
This masterpiece is fascinating because of the tension within the film itself. If expanded to the six hours it should have been, what could have been an amazing Season 3 of the Black Panther Party HBO series of my dreams is instead a compressed, truncated story that pushes against the false-equivalencies the format has set up. How can you do a Black Panther film and not talk in-depth about the Ten Point Platform and Program? Or show the naked brutality that led to the naked brutality on all three sides? (The third side is the violence within the Party.) The Judas and the Black Messiah cast is Oscar-bound: LaKeith Stanfield does not miss one Shakespearian note, complexity showing in every brow and movement. Dominique Fishback steals every scene from Daniel Kaluuya, top to bottom, beginning to end, her poetry and prose indistinguishable. The writers and the director are happily trapped in the web of intrigue and anguish caused by Panther informant William O’Neal, but that emphasis comes at the expense of knowing him–and the quasi-sympathetic white FBI agent!–better than Hampton because the filmgoers enter in the middle of the latter’s movie. Having the Panther leader recite his greatest speech-hits does not compensate for this in the way the filmmakers think, but it’s all they decide to do. What do the Panthers believe in again? How’d they come about? What’s their goal? Sad that the political-personal merging, the key to so many American film classics of almost a century, was not good enough here for some (commercial) reason. This spectacular has made this writer want to burn Mario Van Peebles Panther and toss Spike Lee’s almost-30-years-old Malcolm X into the closet of film history, but The Spook Who’s Sat By The Door’s and Reds‘ clearly-explained political analysis, the focal point of its dramatic core, continues to beckon in the Panther’s afterglow while this reviewer is left wondering what might have been and what still could be.
This sure beats Maya Angelou’s “a rock, a river, a tree” 🙂
“The Hill We Climb”
When day comes we ask ourselves
Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
A sea we must wade.
We braved the belly of the beast;
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.
And the norms and notions of what just is
Isn’t always justice.
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it;
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
A nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.
We, the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny black girl descended from slaves
And raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president,
Only to find herself reciting for one.
And yes we are far from polished, far from pristine,
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gaze not to what stands between us,
But what stands before us.
We close the divide, because we know to put our future first,
We must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
So we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew,
That even as we hurt, we hoped,
That even as we tired, we tried,
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious—
Not because we will never again know defeat
But because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision
That everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree,
And no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time,
then victory won’t lie in the blade but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promised glade,
The hill we climb if only we dare it.
Because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded,
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
It can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith we trust,
For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption.
We feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour,
But within it we found the power
To author a new chapter,
To offer hope and laughter,
To ourselves sow. While once we asked:
How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert: How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was,
But move to what shall be,
A country that is bruised but whole,
Benevolent but bold,
Fierce and free.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation
Because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might and might with right,
Then love becomes our legacy
And change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.
With every breath of my bronze pounded chest,
We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the golden hills of the West.
We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lakeland cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sunbaked South.
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
In every known nook of our nation,
In every corner called our country,
Our people, diverse and beautiful,
Will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
Aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
The more interesting, dramatic story that still needs to be told the playwright Kemp Powers saw only as a backdrop for Malcolm’s vulnerability. I understand the pop-culture impulse to Black Pack it–to show Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay-cum-Cassius X-cum Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown (who replaces Joe Louis in the broadcast booth as Clay beats Sonny Liston for the fist 🙂 time) and Malcolm X in a Florida hotel room and imagine what they talked about. With Martin Luther King absent from this meeting, the playwright decides in One Night in Miami to treat Malcolm as your annoying Jehovah’s Witness cousin who spoils your birthday party. The quartet are all at their own individual crossroads and discuss racism a lot, but the radical edge that is coming for this fantastic four as the ’60s grow late is blunted, only hinted at, a la Beneatha and Walter Lee in a Raisin in the Sun. By the time the purposely-shrunken (humanized?) Malcolm The Scold gets teased like a nerd, critically assessed (translation: he’s called full of shit! “You don’t have a job, Negro!”), humbles himself, cries, etc., and makes amends, the real film about Cooke (Leslie Odum Jr., showing Hamilton was no fluke!) has already started. One day someone will not be afraid to write about the decolonizing transition that Blacks–particularly Malcolm and Ali–really went through during this period; the weak closing quote from Malcolm shows that integration into American society on Black terms is all that this story was about, the only Black Power it can handle, and that is truly sad. (And when someone from a major studio has the courage to film that harsh-toned future script, that studio should immediately hire Regina King, who makes an extraordinary directorial debut here.) Two of the most radical African-Americans of the mid-20th century–two men that in their own ways personified Pan-Africanism after Marcus Garvey–remain in their comfortable rough-draft form, creatively but purposely.
….right here! I won something 🙂