Judas and the Black Biographical Film

Though Black biographical films are by no means a novelty, their number has grown considerably alongside the twenty-first century’s explosion of platforms for and interest in Black media. For many years now, they have thrust well-known Black historical figures into the spotlight and, sometimes, achieved blockbuster status. The mid 2010s, for example, saw the late, great Chadwick Boseman portray Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, James Brown in Get on Up, and Jackie Robinson in the extremely popular 42. 2019’s Harriet about Harriet Tubman was a commercial success and received several award show nominations, including two from the Golden Globes and another two from the Academy Awards.

Seeing true Black stories on the silver screen is, if nothing else, an enduring testament to how far race relations in the United States have come. Black people, who were once not even allowed to sit in theaters with white patrons present, have become the subjects of the films those patrons come to see. The existence and success of 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, also a true story, offers another powerful juxtaposition. For, in the span of one hundred and three years, the American film industry went from delivering blockbusters that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, the best-known American terrorist organization there is, to delivering blockbusters about historic attempts to dismantle them.

BlacKkKlansman, a $15 million dollar film that grossed nearly $100 million at the box office, tells the story of Ron Stallworth, the Black police officer that heroically infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Though Stallworth’s 2014 memoir Black Klansman served as the basis for the film, his story remained relatively unknown until the film’s release. This, to me, is an example of the greatest power harnessed by the Black biographical film. It is common knowledge that it can be inspiring for marginalized people to see people that look like them in media. Films like Harriet and 42 work to this end by making already immortalized Black icons larger than life, and rightfully so. But BlacKkKlansman and the recently released Judas and the Black Messiah do the same to figures that are not as universally known.

Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Fred Hampton, a charismatic and influential chairman of the Black Panther Party that was assassinated by an FBI and Chicago Police Department operation in 1969, when he was only 21. Hampton, though known to many as a revolutionary icon and martyr of racist state violence, is not nearly as recognizable as other Black revolutionary and abolitionist figures like Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, or even the founders of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. It is for this reason that seeing the film garner the level of attention that it has is so refreshing to me. Some weeks ago, I saw that a close friend of mine, who I had never heard discuss the Panthers or revolutionary activity before, posted about Hampton on their Instagram. This is a perfectly succinct summary of the necessity of biographical cinema, Black or otherwise. With a hit film, the cast and crew of Judas successfully renewed public interest in a story that never deserved to be lost to time.

The effect that this film had on my friend, whether they actually saw it or not, further proved something to me that I was already convinced of: Black stories must be told. Without them, they fade from the collective memory, as all things do without proper resuscitation. The massive influence achieved by the still-showing film should remind us all to continue to research and share Black stories. It should not just be during Black History Month that we take the time to learn about legends of forgotten ages. The more we educate ourselves about those that fought tirelessly for equality, the more layered and informed our own fight becomes.

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