February 16, 2021

Black Stories Matter

Sometimes we build something up so spectacular, that when we finally receive it. It often times does not meet our conjectures. We work ourselves up to such an imaginary expectation that when it is time to experience the ‘thing’ we dreamed of, that “thing” does not deliver what our mind has sold us to expect.

That is exactly what I felt watching the new film, Judas and The Black Messiah. Now if you have already heard my podcast, then you know how I felt about the movie. I felt it was a good movie for viewing and the cast definitely should receive their flowers in terms of awards and accolades. However, as I stated in my podcast (see Judas & The Black Messiah film review podcast, Episode 12), the movie left me in wanting. However, rather than go down that road again and elicit the same points I have already laid on wax (seriously checkout my podcast 😬 look to your right 😂). I want to approach this discussion from a different place. But before I get into that…let us go down memory lane.

In 1990 when the studio Warner Bros. finally decided to green light a little biopic named “Malcom X”. The script and film had been in pre-production purgatory for at least decade. The Studio was reluctant to finance a film about a figure that most white Americans attributed to being a black extremist and was known to have called them devils. However, with the rise of hip hop culture, and this new wave of black pride in our history culture, Malcom X started to become more en vogue (Thanks to the fashionable material bearing his name, imagery and the 300 percent rise in book sales). Warner Bros. finally acknowledged an I.P. that not only was popular but could produce money on the film-with a ‘rational’ budget (more on that later). Initially the film was scheduled to be directed by Norman Jewison. However, after much public pressure (most notably from Spike Lee himself). The director bowed out from the film and allowed Spike Lee to sit in the director’s chair. So that means everything from that point on worked out smoothly, correct? Wrong…the problems were just starting for Spike Lee.

To make the long story short, Warner Bro. slated the film a budget of less than what Spike Lee had in mind. Furthermore, the bond company that assumed financial control of the movie, said the film could only be 2 hours and 15 minutes…MAX!! This caused Spike to shut the film down in post-production. Then he did something that only a man with rich black friends could do. He begged them for money, most notably Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Janet Jackson, Prince, Tracy Chapman. From their contributions, Spike could finish the film to his liking, his pace and his desired length. He famously quoted in saying during an interview, “…. Not the bond company’s version, not Warner Brothers [version]…. I will do the film the way it ought to be, and it will be over three hours.” The rest, as they say, is [cinema] history. Malcom X went on to become one of the greatest films ever created, being placed in the library of congress as a certified work of art and being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

I mention this story primarily for one reason and one reason only, that had the studio or bond company had its way, we would’ve received an entirely different movie and possible representation of one of [black] Americas greatest leaders and heroes. This just goes to show you just how fragile the representation of our legacies can be. If we do not guard them, nurture them and possibly defend them, then we risk losing the stories, the intentions and what makes them so culturally important.

This is why I felt the film Judas and The Black Messiah missed the mark. I have no problem with them taking the approach as first person accounting of the FBI informant William O’ Neal (Actually I am lying…😂 I did take some umbrage with that, but that is neither here nor there). My problem is not only did they fail to properly humanize Fred Hampton, giving him a full character arc. But they never truly displayed (explained) the tenets of the Black Panther party-no mention of the 10 tenets of the organization within the film. Not to mention why socialism was such an important ideology within the organization and thus being the real reason behind J. Edgar Hoovers obsession with them. They weren’t only preaching ‘anti-police’, they were preaching against capitalism and everything it stood for. They were searching for economic and social equality. That is what made them so dangerous. That is what caused Fred Hampton a prime target for assassination.

Honestly, I am all for the telling of the complete story of an organization and/or person. That includes warts and all. This is how we humanize them, make them more relatable. I am not looking for a hero folk-tale. I am looking for a complete and proper characterization. Even Spike Lee admitted that despite the 3+ hours dedicated to telling the story of Malcom X. It was extremely difficult to narrow a man’s life to such limited real estate. This was especially true for someone as complicated and iconic as Fred Hampton. Was it fine that the greater public became aware of the who he was and the wicked nature of this country’s most heralded law man, sure. But we only get so many opportunities to have our stories shown in mass studio release, and if we don’t take the time to explore every nook and cranny of that story, we would have lost that moment al together. So yes I would love to see a movie on Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldrige Cleaver and the Black Panther party in general. Be sure, to include how Newton tore the organization apart (after being released from prison) due to his paranoia and criminalizing the organization. Tell how Eldridge Cleaver was charismatic, crazy and a certifiable hypocrite. You see, when you tell the complete narrative of something-you allow the person observing the story to pick apart what you like and don’t like about the person and/or organization. With that approach you can have a true honest assessment of the subject matter.

One imagines if Warner Bros. took the same approach with Shaka King’s Judas and The Black Messiah as they did with Spike Lee’s magnum opus, Malcom X film. Which brings us to the main issue and the elephant in the room. Until we create multiple studios (not just Tyler Perry’s studio), that can both fund and greenlight films. Our stories will unfortunately become beholden to the whims of the shareholders and brain trust who can easily disregard the fundamental elements of important black stories. We cannot rely on people and studios who have no connection to the story outside of its monetary appeal to properly curate and manage our stories. Otherwise, what you will get is an enjoyable film about an important subject, but not a culturally defining movie.

But until we reach that time, us a viewing public may have to just hope that the the right studio, the right director and the right screenplay writer tell our stories as authentically as possible. Otherwise, we will end in a constant state of hope, fingers crossed, that our spectacular stories will not leave us wanting more-simply because it did not deliver.