On Aug 28, 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr gave his seminal "I Have a Dream" speech on the Washington Mall. More than half a century after that, and the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a lot of progress has been made in race relations. One can argue though that the bar was set really low when an entire race was subjected to slavery for centuries, considered three-fifths of a normal human even by the enlightened Founding Fathers in the Constitution, and was kept segregated from the white population in every possible way for a century after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War. And as the events of the annus horribilis of 2020 have sh0wn, racism is a stubborn weed whose roots run deep.
February is celebrated as Black History Month since 1976, although as comedian Chris Rock says, “Black History Month is in the shortest month of the year, and the coldest—just in case we want to have a parade." I saw two powerful movies this month, both set during the tumultuous 60s, that shed light on the civil rights struggles of that era. Both involve real people, but one is a fictionalized reimagining of the events of one night and the other more biopic in nature. Coupled with a third I had seen in October last year, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (reviewed here), they flesh out a portrait of America, that it still has a hard time coming to grips with.
One Night in Miami, available on Amazon Prime, is based on the night of February 25, 1964, when a young Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), on the cusp of becoming the great Muhammad Ali, unexpectedly beat Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight boxing world champion. After the fight, Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), then the greatest NFL player, decides to throw a party for Clay celebrating the win at the Hampton House Motel, along with two other friends, the singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) and the civil rights leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). All of that did happen in real life, but from this starting point, writer Kemp Powers and director Regina King, imagine the rest of the night. Using creative license, they weave together a powerful reflection and discussion on the meaning of black power, manhood, dissent, and ends justifying means. Each man has come to that juncture in time via a different path, and the convergence is a collision of varying ideas and ideologies, each smart and right in his own way, but they each end the night profoundly changed. Hodge plays Brown as the famous jock he is (and the only one of the four still alive today), but who also realizes in one stunning scene, what his real place still is in the white world. Clay, who would announce his conversion to Ali the next day, is the most recognizable of the lot, and Goree imbues him with the accent, intonations and facial twitches familiar to us. The other two, both of whom would be dead within a year of this meeting, are less familiar to the modern viewer. Odom and especially Ben-Adir, who has to compete with Denzel Washington's Malcolm X (1992) in the popular imagination, have the harder slog, and their competing philosophies drive the night and the narrative forward.
Judas and the Black Messiah, available on HBO Max, is the story of FBI informant William O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) infiltrating the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers and his befriending and betrayal of the chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). The Panthers were the more militant version of the civil rights activists, turning away from the non-violent principles of MLK, in order to achieve their ends. The legendarily infamous FBI Director J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) saw them as an existential threat to the United States and its white way of life and was bent on exterminating them one by one with no regard for the law. FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) takes the opportunity to convert O'Neal from a car thief to a mole within the Panther ranks. He pressures O'Neal to do more every time he executes a treacherous act, even as he is gaining more the confidence of Hampton and his colleagues, leading to the ultimate betrayal. Stanfield and Kaluuya are both alumni of Get Out (2017), Jordan Peele's subversive take on modern racism camouflaged as a horror film. Stanfield, as the Judas, simultaneously displays the sliminess and conflict of conscience at the heart of being a rat. Plemons plays the manipulative handler, initially as a job description, but increasingly pushes the envelope at the behest of his top boss, by squelching his own misgivings. Sheen as a grossly prosthetic-faced Hoover is the weakest link as a one-note villain. But it's Kaluuya who steals the show showing every range of emotion, from loving tenderness with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (a nuanced portrayal by Dominique Fishback) to the fiery orator whipping up an audience with his rhetoric. When he leads the crowd in a chant of "I am a revolutionary", you can feel the hypnotic charisma burn up the screen, and you want to join in. The effect of watching this scene in a theater versus in your home would be exponential.
Watching these movies leaves you in no doubt about the truth of what Malcolm X said "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock - Plymouth Rock landed on us !"
February 28, 2021