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Bringing the Black Radical Tradition to the Oscars

Five outstanding films nominated for Academy Awards this year depict the transformative potential of Black activism.

Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in “Judas and the Black Messiah”; Leslie Odom Jr in “One Night in Miami...,” Andra Day in “The United States vs Billie Holiday”; and Viola Davis in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Warner Bros; Amazon Studios; Akashi Seida/Hulu; David Lee/Netflix
Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in “Judas and the Black Messiah”; Leslie Odom Jr. in “One Night in Miami...,” Andra Day in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”; and Viola Davis in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

This year’s slate of nominees for the Academy Awards brings Amiri Baraka to mind. In his 1965 essay “The Revolutionary Theatre,” Baraka called for Black productions that might “stagger through our universe correcting, insulting, preaching, spitting craziness … but a craziness taught to us in our most rational moments.” One wonders what Baraka—who insisted upon the importance of the theatrical arts to the Black radical tradition—might make of this moment, with the Academy recognizing Black films like Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Warner’s Judas and the Black Messiah, Amazon’s One Night in Miami…, Hulu’s United States vs. Billie Holiday, and the documentary Time. If, as David Scott claims, the Black radical tradition seeks to clarify “what is to count and what is not among the possible diversity of goods and virtues and excellences” produced by the Black community, then for perhaps the first time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is actively participating in this discussion by granting its endorsement to such a wide variety of Black films.

Of course, the Academy’s newfound enthusiasm for Black film occurs as the specter of state violence and Black death continues to haunt America. The police killing of George Floyd supposedly ushered in a reckoning on race, but there has been little tangible evidence of this outside of 2021’s unlikely field of nominated films. Despite the successful prosecution of Derek Chauvin, U.S. law enforcement continues to murder Black citizens, the GOP works ceaselessly to expand voter suppression, the tech industry continues to exclude Black people and Latinos from its workforce, and the wealthiest man in the history of the world allegedly sanctioned his representatives to engage in illegal behavior to prevent the predominantly Black workforce in a single Alabama factory from unionizing. Black people’s recent flourishing in film and television represents decades of work behind the scenes for greater representation, culminating, in the age of social media, with April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which embarrassed the Academy into doubling the number of people of color as voting members. A more varied set of voters, combined with a temporary rule change enforced by the pandemic that benefited streaming services, contributed to the diversity of this year’s most acclaimed films.

In their own way, each of these Black films seeks to address the cultural amnesia that distinguishes white Americans’ understanding of their culture and construction of their past. Baraka called for work that insulted and corrected, and these films offer precisely this. White duplicity and betrayal drive the plot of each of these films, and none of them features a savior who might allow a white audience to preserve their innocence. 

This is perhaps clearest in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, despite the film unfolding at the furthest remove from the present day. Set in Chicago, in 1927, it shows Viola Davis’s Rainey struggling against the exploitative desires of the white record executives desperate to capitalize off her artistic genius. As Jake Lamar noted earlier this year, August Wilson shared with his fictionalized Rainey a desire to build an autonomous artistic practice that, in his case, would provide greater opportunities to Black playwrights and directors. While Chadwick Boseman’s plaintive depiction of the trumpeter Levee has been lauded as the capstone performance of a career cut too short—with his posthumous Oscar all but assured—Davis turns in an astonishingly physical portrayal of Rainey as a groundbreaking singer who knows her worth both as an artist and a businesswoman. Rainey achieves success on her own terms here, but the film includes a coda that positions Levee’s quest for dignity in direct opposition to America’s casual disregard for Black genius and indeed Black life.

Judas and the Black Messiah presents a chilling illustration of the USA’s commitment to destroying Black radicals. Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party  at the age of 19, Fred Hampton’s effectiveness as an organizer terrified FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the arch racist who shifted effortlessly from targeting Bayard Rustin in the 1950s to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in the 1960s to the BPP in the late ’60s and early 1970s. Hampton—vividly embodied by Daniel Kaluuya—built the original “Rainbow coalition,” an unlikely alliance between the BPP; the white working-class Young Patriots Organization; and the Latinx Young Lords, who sought to address poverty and police brutality in Chicago, though the film is more interested in depicting the FBI’s attempts at surveillance and disruption of the movement.

While some have criticized the film’s focus on state repression rather than the transformative potential of the nascent movement, Judas and the Black Messiah unflinchingly details the myriad crimes committed by the FBI and the Chicago Police in order to blunt Hampton’s effectiveness. The FBI planted informants like Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) in BPP chapters across the country, and these figures allowed the FBI to partner with local police departments to plant evidence that gave them the pretext to harass and murder activists as they saw fit. The film’s frank depiction of racist policing reinvigorated demands to rename the FBI building in Washington D.C. that honors Hoover. This important effort—though admittedly cosmetic—demonstrates an increasing acceptance of critiques of law enforcement that a few years ago would have derailed the reception of this film. After all, in 2015, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote a pearl-clutching editorial that scolded Ava DuVernay for accurately showing President Lyndon B. Johnson’s hesitancy about addressing the demands of the civil rights movement in Selma. Perhaps the biggest controversy surrounding Judas and the Black Messiah derives from the Academy’s curious decision to nominate both Kaluuya’s arresting portrayal of Hampton and Stanfield’s twitchy take on O’Neal in the Best Supporting Actor category. 

August Wilson and Fred Hampton were part of a cohort of Black men born during or just after World War II who came of age during the civil rights movement, accepted its mantle of change, and worked relentlessly to transform their worlds. One Night in Miami… centers around Muhammad Ali, another member of that generation, as he debates his prospects for the future with three slightly older and more cautious men: Malcolm X, the athlete Jim Brown, and musician Sam Cooke. Cooke and Malcolm X offer the mercurial Ali different models of activism and celebrity, while the film edges ever closer to the break that would leave Malcolm X adrift. Each of these men had strong connections to the South and Midwest but found the space for their ambitions in New York and Los Angeles and abroad. Although the film centers around Ali’s hotel room, it captures the sense of possibility that motivates Black migration: Three of these men look eagerly toward a future that promises to reward both their ambition and their desire for reform. Indeed, these men, like the tragic Levee and the impossibly precocious Hampton, represent the transformative potential of Black activism that Hollywood has until recently seemed uninterested in chronicling.

This year’s most indelible performance belongs to Andra Day. Her depiction of Billie Holiday in United States vs. Billie Holiday redeems an otherwise disjointed film. Holiday’s body of work—perhaps most famously her anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”—places her firmly in the Black radical tradition, but the film seems less interested in exploring the various consequences that came from her refusal to stop singing the song than in how that persecution pushed her further into her various addictions. Day imbues Holiday with a melancholy restlessness that animates her as her life disintegrates thanks to the machinations of Harry Anslinger, the government official obsessed with silencing the singer. The film’s shortcomings derive in part from the preoccupations of its director, Lee Daniels, who remains as fixated on detailing feminine abuse and depredation as in his earlier film Precious. After watching Time, one wonders what its director, Garret Bradley, might have accomplished with this material and an actor as talented as Day.

Bradley proves herself sensitive to the double bind of addiction and incarceration throughout her documentary, which follows Sibil Fox Richardson’s efforts to free her husband from prison. Bradley never pathologizes Richardson, as Daniels does with Holiday. Instead, she uses Richardson’s quest for her husband’s freedom to document the grinding cruelty of the prison industrial complex. The quotidian violence documented in Time serves as a bookend to the spectacular nine-minute cell phone documentary plastered across the news in May 2020 that transfixed the nation and the world. Grappling with Time might actually offer ways to begin reckoning with systemic racism in America.

Which brings us to a strange omission by the Academy. Even as the Academy recognized four feature films written and produced by Black artists, it failed to nominate any of the directors of these films. This is even more curious when one considers the other nominations these films garnered. Judas and the Black Messiah—directed by Shaka King—has been nominated for Oscars for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Original Song, and Best Original Screenplay, in addition to the double nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—directed by George C. Wolfe—earned three other Oscar nominations in technical categories, in addition to acting nominations for Boseman and Davis. Regina King’s One Night in Miami… garnered Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Song nominations, in addition to Leslie Odom Jr.’s recognition for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Sam Cooke. While the direction of United States vs. Billie Holiday sometimes hampers the film, it’s mystifying that none of the other three earned a directing nomination. Substituting either of the Kings for David Fincher’s overwrought work on Mank would have better reflected the quality of the films on offer in 2020 and 2021.

Despite this shortcoming, the 2021 Academy Awards has recognized the widest array of Black films in its history. Although this is to be celebrated, we must remember Baraka’s admonition: “People must be taught to trust true scientists (knowers, diggers, oddballs) and that the holiness of life is the constant possibility of widening the consciousness. And they must be incited to strike back against any agency that attempts to prevent this widening.” For perhaps the first time, the Oscars has used its institutional power to widen the racial consciousness not by focusing on one Black film but by drawing our attention toward the many that are worthy. Long may this continue.