‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ and the problem with Black biopics

LEVEL Editors
Published in
6 min readFeb 16, 2021


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Over the weekend, after watching Judas And The Black Messiah, New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb came under Twitter fire for hoping aloud that Assata Shakur gets a biopic at some point in the future. While the tweet seemed to come from a place of sincerity — wanting to see the freedom fighter’s story told to the masses like Fred Hampton’s was — many of the responses cited Hollywood’s general inability to tell full, complex accounts of our Black heroes. In order to get churned out by the Hollywood machine, they said, a movie about a Black person has to get pre-chewed into something White America can digest.

For every Denzel Washington and Daniel Kaluuya depiction of Malcolm X or Fred Hampton, there’s Zoe Saldana in dark makeup portraying Nina Simone or Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in an interracial buddy cop flick. Sure, there are transformational depictions of our heroes in the Black biopic canon, but considering the likelihood of the film industry debasing the narrative, are these types of films even worth attempting in the future?

As brilliant as Judas And The Black Messiah is, there are qualms about the plot’s focus on Bill O’Neal rather than Fred Hampton; about inaccuracies and creative licenses that feel like Hollywood prerequisites; about seeing dramatizations of our icons gunned down for public consumption.

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For what it’s worth, I find myself conflicted by the whole debate. I hope that movies like Judas And The Black Messiah raise awareness of Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton’s legacy among Black folks. But I’d prefer the most essential histories be relegated to documentaries, books, and other educational resources, removed from the influences that the movie-making industry has on the creative process. In the words of Jay-Z, “facts only.”

It’s complicated, and there’s no immediate consensus. Some will argue that Judas and the Black Messiah was just what the people needed — and the best vehicle to tell the story of Fred Hampton’s final days as widely as possible. Others are vehemently opposed to his commodification for an industry that shortchanges Black folks and our stories more often than not.

Is it possible for a movie to ever accurately retell the culture’s most important stories? I’m not sure. I just know people will keep trying — for better or worse.

— David J. Dennis, Jr., senior staff writer

This Week in Racism

🗑 We’d Say We Expected More From LAPD, But…Nah

Remember how in elementary school when Valentine’s Day rolled around, every kid made a mailbox, and then also made cards for every other kid in class, so that every kid had a mailbox full of cards? And even though there were like 30 kids in your class and your wrist hurt from writing “Happy Valentine’s Day” and you hated that you had to give one to stinky-ass Gerald and you hoped that Kelli would like your handwriting and decide that you were her boyfriend, but you still understood that it was nice that no one felt left out? Well, take all that energy and turn it completely inside-out; now you’ve got an inkling of what possessed someone in the Los Angeles Police Department to circulate a Valentine’s card that depicted George Floyd and the message “you take my breath away.” While it’s not known where the image originated — a similar one was seen on Facebook — LAPD chief Michael Moore confirmed to the LA Times that they were investigating two Instagram accounts that may have ties to LAPD employees, including one called Blue Line Mafia that has seemingly been removed from the platform. Between Daryl Gates and the invention of SWAT, Rampart, and Rodney King, LAPD was already a first-ballot Institutional Racism Hall of Fame inclusion, but this? This is the sort of thing that shows what it takes to be a true champion. (Los Angeles Times)

🗑 We’d Say We Expected More From The Bachelor, But … Nah

The Bachelor finally has a Black bachelor!” they said. “You should really watch it!” they said. Fine, we said. So we tried, and from jump we knew that the hot mess hid an undercurrent of … something weird. That something didn’t take long to surface: Last week, after contestant Rachael Kirkconnell apologized for dressing as a Native American for Halloween and attending an “Old South”-themed sorority party at a plantation, Bachelor host Chris Harrison wondered aloud if we were all just making too big a deal out of it all. “Is it [not] a good look in 2018?” he asked of Kirkconnell’s actions. “Or, is it not a good look in 2021? Because there’s a big difference.” Totally, Chris. Totally. 2018 was a different time! We mean, we had no idea that expressing nostalgia for antebellum slavery was such a big deal. Or that parading stereotypes of other cultures was even remotely offensive. In fact, if it weren’t for the mass protests of 2020, we’d have no idea that systemic racism was even a thing. Oh, no, wait a minute, that’s not “we” — that’s you. Harrison seems to have either realized his own headassery or had it explained to him, because he’s “stepping aside” from his hosting duties for a “period of time.” Now that’s a good look in 2021. (NBC News)

🗑 We’d Say We Expected More From Rural Illinois, But…Well, You Get It

Piatt County, Illinois isn’t far outside the Champaign-Urbana area, but we’ve got a feeling some of its residents don’t like anything even remotely…Urbana. Last week, a Black Amazon driver named Jordan Lee drove onto a property to make a delivery, only to find a stone engraved with the phrase COON HUNTER. Given that his car wasn’t externally marked as an Amazon vehicle, and Lee had his wife and son in the car with him, he was understandably freaked out. “No matter what, they should be culturally sensitive enough to know that if they are raccoon hunting, put ‘raccoon,’” Lee told a local news station. It’s not like there’s really anything to be done about the stone — it’s a private citizen’s private property, and they have the right to express the fact that they’re a bigoted jackass — but if said private citizen is really looking for a seamless two-day delivery experience, may we suggest Grand Dragazon Prime? (WCIA)

The LEVEL Up: Culture Picks From the Editors

🎥 Amend: The Fight for America

This Will Smith-narrated docuseries serves as a spiritual successor to Ava Duvernay’s 13th, zeroing in on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its implications on the longstanding fight for equal rights in America. Commentary from the likes of Mahershala Ali, Samuel L. Jackson, Laverne Cox, and Yara Shahidi make this a must-watch. (Netflix)

🎧 Table For Two, Lucky Daye

While Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album is a must-listen throwback to the days of blockbuster soundtracks, don’t sleep on this EP that also dropped on Friday — a smooth listen from one of R&B’s most solid rising singers (with a timbre that recalls Frank Ocean). It’s a whole vibe. (Spotify)

📺 Patrice O’Neal: Killing Is Easy

The world was only just beginning to discover Patrice O’Neal’s talent before his untimely death in 2011 at 41 years old. A comedian’s comedian, the stand-up legend (with a bit role on The Office) was truly funny as hell. He gets his flowers in this new documentary about his life, with Kevin Hart and Bill Burr paying homage as talking heads. (2/19 at 10 p.m. EST/PST, Comedy Central)

LEVEL Read of the Week

LaKeith Stanfield Settles Into His Toughest Role Yet: Himself

For years, you’ve seen LaKeith Stanfield bring a little bit of chaos to the screen, whether in Atlanta, Get Out, or now, in Judas and the Black Messiah. But the acclaimed new film, in which the actor plays the FBI informant who infiltrated the Black Panthers in order to take down Fred Hampton, took an extraordinary toll. In this probing conversation with LEVEL staff writer Tirhakah Love, Stanfield unpacks how he’s heading into his thirties — striving, for the first time, toward balance. Read the story.

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