Celebrity Charity: Bringing the Black Radical Tradition to the Oscars

Celebrity Charity: Bringing the Black Radical Tradition to the Oscars

Celebrity Charity:

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
, 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
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.

and the Black Messiah
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
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. 

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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