Admittedly, I experienced a plethora of emotions following watching Judas and the Black Messiah. For the sake of time and space, I will decline the urge to employ the blog as a diary; instead, I will focus on what I feel is most significant. What the film stirred up inside me was an archived memory of racism I experienced among the halls of the ivory tower.
Like many budding black scholars, I encountered pedagogy doused in the inherent anti-blackness of the academy. Shakespeare proved a formidable platform for a domestic terrorist labeled teacher to mask her ignorance as intelligence. During a “lesson” on Othello, the instructor argued that Iago was not the catalyst for Othello’s demise. Instead, she argued, Othello had feelings of insecurity and inferiority that would have manifested with or without Iago’s interference. The pedagogy illuminates the vastly different gaze to which a conscious African and the African-adjacent see the world— a gaze pervasive in media representations of black leaders and black culture that seek to subliminally indoctrinate black viewers into a cognitive bondgage that espouses them to ideas of cultural inferiority. The Iago figure as activating what already exists in black people becomes the mythos that alleviates whites from racial accountability. Therefore, convincing black people that they, not a system rooted in black cognitive bondage, are the problem is yet another means to actualize white supremacist power.
The film Judas and the Black Messiah, while seemingly enlightening the world to a significant black leader, echoes this harmful sentiment.
Specifically, the film weaponizes the memory of a prominent black leader.
- I. Casting: The film’s casting appears innocuous but harbors an imperative message for those of African descent. Some decried the film’s casting of black British actor Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as infiltrator Bill O’Neil, a black man instrumental in Hampton’s assassination. Casting a black migrant to embody a black man from Chicago elucidates what the black person in America has come to expect—that we cannot play ourselves in visual archives of our experience. Many will say that it doesn’t matter who embodies these characters in films, and from a pan-Africanist perspective, I certainly understand the importance of Hampton as a global icon. However, to say it doesn’t matter who plays Hampton appears synonymous with saying it doesn’t matter who he was. Additionally, excluding blacks from embodying their leaders engenders the mental genocide that results from detaching a collective from their heroes.
Along with lead choice, it is also no mistake that the film cast Lakeith Stanfield as the infiltrator that aided the police in Hampton’s murder. To cast a non-migrant black American as the Judas figure echoes the societal sentiment that blacks are their greatest enemy.
II. Something that proved quite troublesome in the movie was framing Hampton’s methodology to fit into the contemporary unity narrative. If you recall Kwame Ture’s text Black Power, you will remember how he underscores black groups as creating a formidble platform for coalitions to be a viable solution. Hampton implements what Ture articulates as a methodology to attain black power, not in correspondence with contemporary portraits of psuedo unity.
This depiction proved troubling because it provides cause to question whether Hampton’s story would be deemed “safe” enough to tell without this notable distortion.
III. The KKK and black nationalist overlap also proved quite telling, as this discourse, which implies that blacks implement racism, is common among exchanges within and beyond the black community. This ideology is racially evasive and illuminates how the world looks from a white supremacist vantage point. Specifically, whites dominate through hate, destruction, and division and project this evil as implicated by those striving to hone power.
This belief could not be more untrue.
The black panther party arose in response to systematic injustice. These actions were rooted in survival, not supremacy. Additionally, the panthers rooted their organization in facilitating unlearning anti-black ideologies.
Nevertheless, this inclusion was an important one that offered accurate insight into an anti-black mindset.
IV. Yet, what I saw as the film’s most problematic component was its perspective.
The film depicts Hampton as the subject of police inquiry, and the film depicts the months leading up to Hampton’s murder. While Hampton’s murder is a pristine portrait of systemic injustice, he was more than an FBI subject.
He is more than white America’s biggest fear: a black man with courage, ambition, and organizing power. Shaping the black hero as an FBI subject circumscribes the film to that of the white gaze and limits the depiction of Hampton as a son, soon-to-be-father, chairman, and student of the struggle.
Viewers witnessed something in Spike Lee’s Black Klansman, where Kwame Ture appears in the film under law enforcement’s gaze. Black leaders are more than FBI targets, and presenting them as such is a staple in the contemporary dehumanization of black leaders.
Media dehumanization of black leaders enlists a subliminal attack on black epistemology all the white enforcing western axiology (which remains inherently anti-black).
Nevertheless, while Kaluuya, Stanfield, and the black cast deliver notable and resonant performances, it is pertinent that the black collective remember that the most fatal attack the white world launches against black people is through media, notably their persistent presentations of our beloved leaders and historic figures sullied in a white nationalist agenda.