(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 film–a very timely look, particularly with what’s going on now, at this very moment–is quite a detailed look at the real Martin Luther King and the real Federal Bureau of Investigation. With the sheets pulled off everybody, this film is almost an intellectual nudist camp, allowing the viewer to absorb an-often sordid story that, as Ronald Reagan (!) warns at the beginning, isn’t pretty. Yep, King’s extramarital sextape is real, and the FBI did try its best within its own twisted bounds of evil legality to destroy him. Along the way, the viewer sees King’s trajectory through the eyes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation–the radical King, the one only the Left or Black nationalists talk about. The filmmakers punk out at the end, though, choosing not to sift through the detailof theassassination itself and not explaining the larger and smaller intelligence agencies, or philosophies thereof, at work. (The Black context of King’s death is here, in what seems to be a 1969 episode of Black Journal, when the national black public-affairs television show and the wound were both still fresh.) The oral-history-format (just voices, no speaking-heads until the very end) and extensive use of file footage, from newsreels to television shows, is combined with the fine-tooth-comb research of David Garrow and others. This is the proper documentary to watch as America’s scabs are bleeding.
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.
Why these Carr-Hunter discussions are growing in popularity. Look how Dr. Carr links Chadwick to: a) Black playwrights, b) Black bookstores, c) Black protest, d) to Black cultural development. And then e) THOTH!