Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah follows the relationship between Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a prominent Black Panther party leader, and Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a carjacker-turned-FBI-informant who is tasked to join and secretly surveil the Panthers in order to evade prison time. One of the most dazzling facets of Judas and the Black Messiah, aside from its excellent performances and earth-toned ‘60s aesthetics, is the attention it—like films such as Do The Right Thing and One Night in Miami—gives to the variety of Black political aspirations.
The salient racial experiences that Black people face can engender a sense of undeniable affinity among us. As people who are structurally othered and typified as the antithesis to whiteness (the “default”) there are phenotypic, historical and cultural points of unification which position Blackness as a living social identity—a sustenant, inherited space occupied, defined and maintained by Black people. While our shared and interconnected experiences are a defining element of Blackness itself, those experiences sometimes prompt non-Black people to assume that Black people are politically monolithic. The reality of Black communal affinity becomes falsely equivocated with a dearth of intracommunal squabbles regarding things like the possibility of liberation and what the path to get there should even look like. Films help get the reality across.
In Spike Lee’s Oscar-snubbed marvel Do The Right Thing, neighborhood artist Smiley reinforces narrative meditations on the efficacy of “violent vs. nonviolent” political action through his Malcolm X and MLK Jr.-centric art. The film uses the boycott of Sal’s pizzeria and the community response to Radio Raheem’s boombox—among other things—to place pressure on the following question: Is violence in self-defense simply “intelligence,” as Malcolm X phrased it, a useful capital-T Tool of opposition to an anti-Black society that has generationally subjugated Black lives? Or should violence be perceived as an inherently immoral non-option that delegitimizes the humanity of Black people in the eyes of their oppressors and therefore further delays access to liberation? Over the course of Do The Right Thing, the audience is prompted over and over to consider the value of these opposing perspectives and to witness the way they color the lives of Black Brooklynites on a single hot summer day.
One of Do The Right Thing’s greatest strengths is that it reflects the reality that Black people are multitudinous in their social imaginations and the ways they aspire to exercise their own political agency. Regina King’s masterful direction of One Night In Miami is also successful on this front. Kemp Powers’ storytelling sequesters four Black legends to a segregated Magic City hotel room to celebrate the triumph of blossoming Muslim Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) over Sonny Liston. In doing so, Powers demonstrates that not even the A-listers—powerful political leaders like Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), entertainers like Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and athletes like Clay and NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge)—can agree on the most cogent way to actualize their respective talents to the benefit of Black people.
Cooke is pressured by Malcolm X to use his musical hits to songify the particularities of Black life rather than score the date nights of white American youth. Cooke gets defensive at Malcolm’s callout because he believes that his personal financial success and fame benefit the Black musicians he supports. Cooke believes that his success normalizes rather than marginalizes Blackness in the minds of white listeners. Yet Malcolm harangues him into asking himself if he is in fact pandering—are white people as willing to listen to Black voices as they are willing to be entertained?
As Malcolm and Cooke verbally spar about their responsibility to themselves and fellow Black people, it is made abundantly clear that there is no such thing as some simplistic, agreed upon path to liberation. Understanding how to apply one’s power and status as a Black person in order to benefit other Black people first requires coming to a common understanding of what Black people want. And the answer to that question, like the answer to what Black people believe politically, is ironically the same: A multitude of coalescing, interlinked and distinct things.
Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is a revelatory addition to the pantheon of films in which Black characters disagree about the power they have to change and shape their own realities. Hampton and fellow Panthers—like Jake Winters (Algee Smith), Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders) and Bobby Rush (Darrell Britt-Gibson)—believe that socialism, Black collectivism, self-defense, police and prison abolition will expedite the mental and social emancipation of Black people from white supremacy. In contrast, O’Neal and the apprehensive, work-bound Black pedestrians the Panthers appeal to in the film prioritize personal economic wealth as the path to liberation. This latter mindset presupposes that compliance with state authority, respectability politics and the tenets of capitalism are bound to benefit Black people if only they’d adhere. Some Black people, like Judas’ O’Neal, deem the Panthers’ call for revolution as ideological extremism and perceive material wealth and compliance within capitalism as the price for social ascension.
This ideological squabble between Hampton and O’Neal is the fulcrum of the film. Although O’Neal’s snitching behavior is deplorable, it becomes easier to understand how he might have defended his individualism and suspicion of anti-capitalism as harmlessly American as the film progresses. Judas and the Black Messiah therein reflects the colloquialism that sometimes it “really do be your own people.” But furthermore, it demonstrates that—while Black solidarity is a reality and, to some, the only way to holistic liberation—some people perceive individual bootstrapping as the key to their absolution from anti-Black racism. This is the astounding paradox at hand: Some believe that racism propels all Black people to come to the same conclusions about how to defeat racism. In truth, some Black people believe their escape from racism comes from distancing themselves from Blackness altogether. Judas lays it all out for us to take in.
The political disagreement, and even intracommunal betrayal, captured in Do The Right Thing, One Night In Miami and Judas and the Black Messiah are cinematically formidable and distill a complex issue in the community through their non-academic plots and character relationships. These films reflect and reinforce the dynamism that Black people possess in perpetuity and continue to artistically facilitate an everlasting conversation about the role of Black solidarity.
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.