The portrayal of the American government in the growing canon of Hollywood films that depict the civil rights era of the 1950s-60s is often complex, contradictory, and conspicuously inaccurate. Beginning in the late 1980s with works like Alan Parker’s Oscar-nominated Mississippi Burning (1988), many filmmakers have positioned law enforcement and national agencies like the FBI as paragons of tolerance and justice in the face of the overwhelming racism, zealotry, and aggression of the Jim Crow South and its ill-educated, impoverished, white citizens. The image of Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman’s clean-cut, black-suited agents wading into the sludge of the Mississippi swamp as part of their investigation into the murder of three activists is a clear metaphor for their ‘descent’ into this region, understood by many early historians, politicians, and the wider American public as the source of the nation’s worst social ills. Yet in this depiction, Parker obscures the real history of this moment, the negligence of the national government in its consistent failure to pass anti-lynching legislation that might have prevented these murders and the failings of the FBI in their investigation and treatment of the victims’ families. This issue is echoed in subsequent films, like Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi (1996) and the more modern The Butler (2013), directed by Lee Daniels. Here, racism and white supremacist violence are positioned as a Southern rather than a national problem.
In many ways, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) is a welcome and powerful disruption to this mould. Detailing the events that led up to the FBI’s 1968 assassination of the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton (powerfully portrayed by newly Academy Award-winning Daniel Kaluuya), the American government no longer evades criticism under the veneer of upholding law and order or by being supplanted by cartoonish Southern white mobs. Instead, in this film, the government explicitly takes on the role of the antagonist. Initially blackmailing petty criminal William O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield) into acting as an informant in the Panthers’ Chicago branch, Jesse Plemons’ FBI agent Roy Mitchell is depicted not as a concerned ‘man on the inside’, sympathetic to the Panthers’ cause, but a cog within the establishment machine. When Mitchell meets with FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover and another agent to discuss the progress of his plan, the racist language and violence which they so casually condone are illustrative of the FBI’s broader tactics of intimidation, threat, and oppression wielded against civil rights leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and their organisations during this period.
The film’s depiction of Hampton and the Black Panther Party alongside this allows for greater nuancing of its militancy, rhetoric, ideology, and their provision of social services such as the free breakfast program for children. Violence, Black Power and Marxist ideals are not positioned as innately detrimental to the larger contemporary freedom struggle or isolated within a false binary of violent and non-violent protest. Instead, King depicts the Party within its broader context of government threat, allowing audiences to reflect on the Party and its members’ successes, failings, and the violence they faced from the institutions meant to protect them, and that other films have chosen to valorise instead.
Filmmaking that attempts to grapple with historical moments like these has been consistently argued to have a major effect on the ways in which audiences and wider public memory understands specific figures and events. In many ways, it is an active tool that can indelibly shape discourses and politics. By challenging common tropes of the genre, Judas and the Black Messiah not only makes excellent and informative viewing but has the potential to challenge American and international viewers to reckon with their understanding of the era and the government’s role in it.
Written by Suzanne Elliott
Crespino, Joseph. “Mississippi as Metaphor: Civil Rights, the South, and the Nation in the Historical Imagination.” In The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, edited by Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino, 99-120. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 2010.
Graham, Allison. Framing the South: Hollywood, television and Race During the Civil Rights Struggle. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press: 2001.
Jansson, David R. “’A Geography of Racism’: Internal Orientalism and the Construction of American National Identity in the Film Mississippi Burning.” National Identities 7, no. 3 (2005): 265-285.
Joseph, Peniel E. “Rethinking the Black Power Era.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 75, no. 3 (2009): 707–716.