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The Inflection Point: A Conversation Between Three Films





In mid-March, I was visiting friends in Brooklyn (they are part of my quarantine pod), and one of them insisted that we needed to watch Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. I had intended to watch this on my own anyway; some of you may remember that I wrote about their wedding a few years ago, and how symbolically important it felt to have Meghan join the Royal Family. Of course, the potential that Meghan could have brought to the relevance of this increasingly irrelevant family was all for naught. The notoriously ruthless and questionably ethical British tabloid press, as well as members of Harry’s family itself (or “The Firm,” as the couple referred to it with Oprah), subjected Meghan to a barrage of racist coverage, all seemingly designed to paint her as a “difficult black woman” (especially in comparison to Kate Middleton, Prince William’s wife). It became clear over time that the tabloids may have been working in cahoots with certain high-ranking members of “The Firm,” with negative stories being planted by factions within William and Kate’s camp, and perhaps even by factions within Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles’ camp. There was a bombshell of a revelation that literally left Oprah speechless: that a member of the family had openly expressed concern about the potential darkness of Archie’s (Harry and Meghan’s son) skin tone while Meghan was still pregnant.



And there was another bombshell revelation: that the choice to not give Archie a title upon his birth - despite it being the Royal precedent and his birthright - was not a choice Harry and Meghan made themselves (although the press had led the world to believe so), but because The Firm did not want a mixed-race child to be an official part of the Windsor family lineage. Because Archie lacked a title, he was not given a security detail. And because both Harry and Meghan had received death threats from racist crazies, the idea that their son would not be protected was utterly terrifying to them. Harry and Meghan were adamant that the Queen herself had never been unkind to them and that the skin tone comment was not made by either herself or her husband, the now-late Prince Philip. They pointedly refused to name who had made the comment as they believed it would be too damaging and cause more drama that they simply did not have the bandwidth to handle. And yet another bombshell: Meghan, from the pressure of being vilified by the press and the open racism on display from her in-laws, began to experience suicidal ideation during her pregnancy with Archie, but when she asked the family for help, they refused, on the grounds that a member of the Royal Family seeking psychiatric help would make the family look bad. Meghan continued to suffer up to and through Archie’s birth, and then she and Harry made a choice: they were going to step back from being senior members of the Royal Family, relocate to Canada (a Commonwealth country), and face a less stressful lifestyle out of the public eye.



This choice, as we now know, backfired, because The Firm seemed to take this move extremely personally. They stripped Harry and Meghan of their titles and have seemingly disowned them. Harry and Meghan have now settled outside of Los Angeles and are figuring out what their new lives are going to look like.



Oprah clearly understood why Meghan wanted to step back from active Royal duty, due to the racist press coverage and the lack of support from The Firm. But she made a point of asking Harry what made him step back - from a family, he was born into, a lifestyle he was born into, the only life he had ever known. How does one break away from one’s family at all? And especially, how does one break away from THIS family? (Which seems more and more like a cult the more I learn about them). Especially since it seems to have cost Harry his relationship with his older brother and his father, both of whom he is no longer on speaking terms with.



But Harry was quite clear: he knew they had to walk away because he remembered all too well the toll on his mother Princess Diana’s mental health, of being married to his father, as well as the role of the paparazzi in her death. He didn’t want to see history repeat itself. But moreover, he wanted to protect his wife and his child. His mixed-race wife and his mixed-race child. He said that being in a relationship with a woman of color had opened his eyes to many things about society that he had been blind to, and he did not want to play a role in perpetuating racist treatment against his wife. He said he had made three statements denouncing the racist treatment of Meghan while he was still an active member of the family: once as a boyfriend, once as a husband, and once as a father, to no avail. Then, his wife became suicidal, and his family turned their backs on her. So he made the hardest choice of his life.



This is remarkable considering the history of his family and the legacy of racism and imperialism that the United Kingdom left in its wake ever since abandoning all of its former colonies worldwide after essentially going broke during World War II. “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” it was once said. The British colonized half the world, and now have the temerity to complain about immigrants (Brexit), and one immigrant in particular (Meghan Markle).



Harry decided to support his wife, at the cost of losing most of his immediate family. He took a stand. When asked, “What side are you on?” he said, essentially, that he was on the side of compassion, and anti-racism.



*



I know that I’m about to make what will feel like an insane juxtaposition, but as I watched Harry and Meghan’s conversation with Oprah, I started thinking about three films that came out last year that were contenders for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards: Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Regina King’s One Night in Miami, and Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah.



These films all take place around the same time period in the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement in the United States; the stories all contain overlapping plotlines. It’s curious that we have three high-profile films this year that cover such similar themes. Or perhaps not. All three films were hailed as “timely” by critics given the political atmosphere last summer of the massive Black Lives Matter protests that erupted over the deaths of George Floyd, Elijah MacClaine, and Breonna Taylor, among numerous others, at the hands of the police.



The Trial of the Chicago 7 allows Aaron Sorkin to do what he does best: snappy, sharp, intelligent dialogue about politics and the law; searing, inspirational speeches about justice and how great America has the potential to be; riveting courtroom cases, and sprawling ensemble casts. You can recognize bits and pieces of former Sorkin properties in this film: A Few Good Men, The American President, The West Wing, The Newsroom. Sorkin has primarily been a screenwriter (and showrunner) during his career, but Chicago 7 is his second time in the director’s chair and it was the first time I’d seen him direct. Unsurprisingly, he understands intuitively how to match his direction with his writing, and although the film runs a smidge too long for my taste, it is ultimately a very compelling watch - not just for the trial scenes, but for the backstory of the disparate members of this group who have been put on trial, seemingly arbitrarily, against the toughest federal prosecutors the Nixon administration can bring, and with an outrageously biased judge, Julius Hoffman (played by Frank Langella).



The Chicago 7 were all members of different groups protesting the Vietnam war at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The main focus in Sorkin’s film is on Thomas Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) from Students for Democratic Society (SDS), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, in an absolutely spectacular performance) from the Youth International Party (often called “Yippies”), and William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), the attorney representing the group. The Chicago 7 were charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of starting riots at the DNC. Although riots did occur due to police taking control of the hill where the protesters were congregating, they were not premeditated by these seven men (nor anybody), and none of them actually incited the riots. The Nixon administration had seemingly singled these men out for being prominent members of anti-Vietnam War organizations.



Originally, there was an 8th member charged along with the other seven: Bobby Seale, National Chairman of the Black Panther Party (Yahya Abdul-Mateen), who was only in Chicago for a few hours that night. He was represented by a different attorney than the Chicago 7, who could not attend the trial due to illness. The Judge keeps insisting that Kuntsler step in to defend Seale, which both Seale and Kuntsler vociferously reject (though behind the scenes, Kunstler keeps offering to help, only to be repeatedly turned down). Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panthers, comes to court to lend support to Seale, which the Judge assumes is legal support, and leads to further trouble. Hoffman openly mocks the court proceedings, much to Hayden’s dismay and frustration. Hampton is killed during a police raid, Seale continues to demand that he should not stand trial without legal representation, leading the judge to punish him by having security take him to another room and return him beaten, bound, and gagged, which is immediately objected to by both prosecution and defense. Seale’s case is ruled a mistrial and he is removed from the court, the judge begins to remove jurors suspected of sympathizing with the defendants, and charges the defendants and their attorneys with multiple charges of contempt of court.



By all accounts, this trial is a complete clown show, and after court each evening the defendants debate with Kunstler regarding the best strategy to defend themselves, with Hayden and Hoffman in particular, continually clashing with each other. Hayden finds Hoffman too abrasive and antagonistic, and Hoffman thinks that Hayden is not strong enough in his espoused values. Kuntsler discovers a tape recording with evidence that a statement Hayden made the night of the riots (after his friend Rennie Davis is struck in the head by a police officer) started the violence, but Hoffman agrees to get on the stand and offers testimony exonerating him while criticizing the US Government’s leadership. Hayden uses his opportunity to make closing remarks to name all of the soldiers who have been killed in Vietnam since the trial started. In the end, only two of the seven were acquitted of all charges, while the remaining five were acquitted of conspiracy but convicted for crossing state lines intending to incite a riot. They were sentenced in 1970, but in 1972 all of the convictions were reversed by the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.



At the end of the day, The Trial of the Chicago 7 shows that despite the bickering and drama between the defendants behind the scenes, all of the defendants are in fact on the same side. Despite their differing tactics in how to effectively protest or conduct themselves in court, they all want the Vietnam War to end, and they act in accordance with that desire. They have taken a side, a side that with the hindsight of 50 years we can all agree was the right side; the Vietnam War was a failed war that killed far too many and ruined the lives of countless veterans who survived, the US should have gotten out sooner, and we probably never should have gotten involved in the first place.




But the fate of Bobby Seale is the one that haunts me the most in this film. After he is finally removed from the courtroom, when his case is declared a mistrial after enduring horrendous brutality and humiliation at the hands of the court officers, we never see him again or hear about what happened to him. By including him in the story, Sorkin succeeds in further underscoring just how abhorrent the judge’s behavior was during the trial, but it felt a bit like a manipulative trick in the end, as if Sorkin was using Seale as a way to shoehorn in the idea of black bodies being abused by white law enforcement to enhance the “timeliness” of the film, but didn’t take any time to unpack how his position as one of the original defendants charged with this crime was dramatically different from those of his white co-defendants. There is a lot to like about The Trial of the Chicago 7, and I can understand why Sorkin would be reluctant to make a long film even longer, but I genuinely feel like this was a missed opportunity; we see so much of the rhetorical sparring between Hayden and Hoffman mediated by Kunstler, but we never see what Seale’s point of view in those debates might have been, and how differently he undoubtedly would have seen and felt his place in that courtroom. He, too, was on the same side as Hayden, Hoffman, and the other defendants, but as the Chairman of the Black Panther party, his tactics for protesting were notably different. Whose side would Seale have been on - Hayden’s, or Hoffman’s? I’m inclined to think it would have been neither. Hearing more of Seale’s voice would have made the conversation underlying this story far more interesting.



*



If you’re interested in a philosophical conversation about racism and protest, Regina King’s December 2020 film, One Night in Miami, will definitely appeal to you. One Night in Miami is a fictional account of an evening Malcolm X spent in a hotel room with Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Cassius Clay (not long before he converted to the Nation of Islam and adopted the name Muhammed Ali) in February of 1964, on the night of Clay’s historic defeat of Sonny Liston. The film plays out as an extended meditation on the nature of, and how to leverage the effects of celebrity, fame, and political power within the fight for civil rights. Malcolm X (Kinglsey Ben-Adir) pushes Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) hard, saying that he is disappointed that Cooke has such a powerful voice as a singer-songwriter, and could be using his talent to try to create meaningful change for Black people in society, but instead, Cooke only records crooning love songs. Cooke says that of course, he cares about civil rights, that his success and creative autonomy can serve as an inspiration to the Black community, and that protest songs aren’t radio-friendly, nor do they elicit millions of dollars in sales the way his music does. Malcolm then plays Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” on the record player, challenging Cooke about his assertion that protest songs aren’t commercially viable. Cooke eventually leaves in anger, with Clay (Eli Goree) in pursuit, while Brown (Aldis Hodge) asks Malcolm why he is being so hard on Cooke. Malcolm responds, “There is no more room for anyone… to be standing on the fence anymore. Our people are literally dying in the streets every day. Black people dying. Every day! And a line has got to be drawn in the sand… a line that says, either you stand on this side with us, or you stand over on that side against us.”




In the lead-up to the Academy Awards, Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he died, was on trial for murder. Historically, we have not seen law enforcement be held accountable for their culpability in what is essentially state-sanctioned killing of Black and Brown bodies. In months since Floyd’s death, this has escalated into a debate about whether or not the police should be defunded. I wrote an essay recently defending Law & Order: SVU, with its coterie of do-gooding NYPD officers, continuing to be on air doing their always righteous thing as more and more police officers kill innocent Black people year after year. I predicted - rightly so, based on the 11 episodes of the current season that have aired - that the Law & Order: SVU team would directly address this issue in their storylines - because how could they not, right now?



There is a moment in the SVU season premiere, which aired in the fall of 2020, where Chief Christian Garland (Demore Barnes) is infuriated after footage of the SVU squad arresting an innocent Black man seemingly for Exercising In The Park While Black goes viral. “The man had outstanding warrants; he wasn’t cooperating with the police on the scene. We were by the book,” Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) explains. “That’s the book that got us here!” Garland shouts back. Right now, he says, given the state of the country after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, “business as usual” is not going to fly, and the man who was arrested is suing the NYPD and naming Benson and Sargeant Fin Tutuola (Ice-T) in the lawsuit. Later on, Garland pulls Tutuola aside and asks if he thinks racial bias had anything to do with what happened to the man in the park. Tutuola says he’s known Benson for twenty years, and “her only bias is for the victim.” Garland then tells him: “I know I’m not someone you relate to but we have something in common: we’re both black in blue. We’ve been on this job a long time… things are changing.”



Tutuola laughs. “You know how many times I’ve heard that? The one thing I know, this country will always break your heart.”



“Nah,” the Chief says. “This time is different. This is a true inflection point… I appreciate your loyalty [to Benson], but you need to watch out for yourself.”




When I saw this episode, I was struck by Garland’s choice of words: “This is a true inflection point. Watch out for yourself.” When I subsequently watched One Night in Miami, I noticed that Malcolm X was essentially telling Sam Cooke the same thing, that despite his loyalty to those who buy his apolitical music and have made him rich, he has a choice to make about where he stands as a Black public figure. I’m thrilled to see that SVU has proven wrong all of the breathless uninformed op-eds last year castigating the show for even existing. And I’m intrigued that the themes that SVU is explicitly exploring in 2020-2021 are being implicitly echoed in three major films from 2020. Ultimately, the bottom line is that at some point, you have to pick a side, whether you are a famous musician or a fictional television cop.



*


The words of Malcolm X and Chief Garland were in my head when I watched Shaka King’s February 2021 film, Judas and the Black Messiah, a film set in the late 1960s about Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the aforementioned Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and his betrayal by William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), his security captain who is also an undercover FBI informant. While Hampton (almost always referred to as Chairman Fred) never became a household name in the same way Malcolm X did - he certainly did not have access to celebrity friendships with football players, champion boxers, and pop singers - his politics in regards to the civil rights struggle are not dissimilar to Malcolm’s. Both The Nation of Islam (in which Malcolm X was a prominent leader and chief spokesman) and the Black Panther Party (founded by Huey Newton and the aforementioned Bobby Seale in 1966, a year after Malcolm’s death by assassination), disagreed with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideology of using non-violent protest to further the cause of civil rights, even though the ultimate goals of both organizations are different. Malcolm pushed for a Black Nationalist movement, “by any means necessary,” to remove African Americans away from American society because he believed that as long as white people exist, African Americans would not be able to prosper. He, and the Nation of Islam, felt that separatism – even to the extreme of all African Americans going back to Africa – was the only way to ensure true civil rights and safety for the Black community. The Black Panther Party, on the other hand, did not believe in separatism; they wanted to end police brutality and the murdering of Black people, but they wanted to do so in a way that allowed Black people to exist in American society safely, even if it meant being heavily armed at all times. (This is why I wanted so desperately to see a conversation between Bobby Seale and the rest of the white defendants in Chicago 7.)




Specifically, Malcolm’s words about picking a side resonate heavily with the story of O’Neal – a man who, depending on how you view his betrayal of Hampton, either didn’t pick a side, picked the wrong side, or desperately wanted to pick a side but was unable to reconcile that desire with his own selfish motives. In 1966, O’Neal was caught at the age of 17 by FBI Agent Roy Martin Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons) for car theft. In exchange for having all of his charges dropped, O’Neal agreed to infiltrate the Black Panther Party in Chicago and provide intel to Mitchell as the FBI had expanded its dubiously legal anti-communist COINTELPRO program to include Black civil rights activists.



O’Neal ingratiates himself with Chairman Fred and the other Panthers in Chicago quickly, and eventually, he is appointed as a captain for Chairman Fred’s security detail. Every now and then, he meets up with Mitchell to tell him what he knows about the Panther’s current plans and future demonstrations. However, by the summer of 1969, Hampton had been working with Chairman Fred’s Rainbow Coalition, an alliance between the Panthers, gangs, and minority groups within Chicago. The FBI was becoming increasingly nervous, not just about the existence of the Rainbow Coalition, but that their informant had gained political power by being such an integral part of the movement. The FBI raids Panther headquarters, burns down the building, and demands that O’Neal draw them a sketch of the layout of Chairman Fred’s apartment, so they could plan another raid, with the Chairman as the target.



O’Neal complies.



The night of the planned raid, December 3, 1969, at a gathering at Chairman Fred’s house, O’Neal spikes Chairman Fred’s drink with a sedative, so that he won’t wake up when the police come storming in. Then he fled and fell asleep at about 1:30 AM. The police burst into the Chairman’s apartment at 4:00 AM, killed the security officer on duty at the time, injured several others in the apartment, and then shot the Chairman in the back of the head two times.




This film is astonishing to me for a number of reasons. First of all, by centering the story as ostensibly around the relationship between O’Neal and Mitchell, director and screenwriter Shaka King, managed to squeeze in a backdoor biopic of the life of Chairman Fred Hampton. We see that he was a charismatic leader, a brilliantly inspirational, poetic speaker, and a romantic - not necessarily characteristics one would associate with the typical stereotype of a “militant” Black Panther. He cared about his people. He set up programs so that children in the community could get free breakfast and people in the community could get free health care. I had no idea about these programs. In fact, I had no idea of anything about Chairman Fred, nor did I know much about the Black Panthers before watching this film, beyond what I was superficially taught in school. (All I remember from high school is that the Panthers were open to using violence as a means to protect themselves, as opposed to Martin Luther King Jr.’s devotion to passive resistance). Judas and the Black Messiah gave me some extremely crucial insight into this time period, and into how revolutionary Chairman Fred was. He believed in the idea of a collective being the way to raise his community up, which is why he formed the Rainbow Coalition.



Daniel Kaluuya just won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this performance, and it was well-deserved. But it would be doing the film a disservice to overlook the exceptionally nuanced performance by Lakeith Stanfield (also nominated for an Oscar in this category) as Bill O’Neal. At first, it seems clear that O’Neal is only in this FBI informant gig for himself, to avoid inevitable jail time for car theft. However, as the years go by and he spends more and more time with Chairman Fred and the other Panthers, you can see how he is slowly, perhaps without realizing it, growing and evolving his worldview by listening to what Chairman Fred says about the Black community and the issues of racial injustice in America. He is moved by Chairman Fred. He is inspired by Chairman Fred. And so, not only is this a story of a man betraying another to the latter’s peril, it’s a story about the fight for O’Neal’s soul.




There is a moment during a rally after Chairman Fred has been released from prison and is giving a speech. At this point, Mitchell and the FBI are getting concerned about O’Neal becoming too entwined with the Panthers, given his participation in the Rainbow Coalition, and so, Mitchell shows up to the rally in disguise, just to show O’Neal that he is watching. While Chairman Fred gives a tremendous speech, O’Neal stands before the podium, as a security captain, and the fear in his eyes is so apparent. But what is he afraid of? Being accused by Mitchell of no longer following through with the plan and getting convicted of car theft? Being suspected by the other Panthers that he does not truly believe in Chairman Fred or the party’s platform, which would certainly not end well for him? Or is it that he is having a sudden realization that, separate from his relationship with Mitchell or with the other Panthers, he truly believes in Chairman Fred’s politics and platform? He feels like he is on the Chairman’s side.



And yet… O’Neal gives the FBI that sketch of the floor plan, drugs the Chairman’s drink, and allows his boss and friend to be killed brutally in the middle of the night. So in the end, it can be argued that in the fight for O’Neal’s soul, Mitchell defeated Chairman Fred. O’Neal picked a side: the side of the FBI. The side against his community.



Or did he? Judas and the Black Messiah is bookended by footage of an interview with the real William O’Neal from Eyes on the Prize, a 14-part PBS documentary filmed in the late 80’s about the history of the 20th-century civil rights movement in America. The film ends with O’Neal, simultaneously explaining that he had no allegiance to the Panthers, but also when he looks back on this time period, he feels proud that he was someone who took an active role in what was happening in his community. It’s a confusing statement. Does he honestly believe that being the informant who provided key information that allowed the FBI to murder the 21-year-old Fred Hampton in his sleep meant he was taking an active role in his community? Personally, I think it’s more muddled than that. Director Shaka King has said in interviews that O’Neal strikes him as the kind of person who, having been so beaten down by white supremacist culture, genuinely believes that what Mitchell, the white FBI agent, has to offer him is inherently better than anything Chairman Fred has to offer. While I can see his point, I don’t necessarily think that’s what bears out in the film. Stanfield’s edgy, agitated performance as O’Neal so clearly captures the struggle of a man who for the first time in his life is trying to discern what his own moral and ethical code is. While Mitchell treats him well, buying him expensive drinks and dinner at a posh restaurant when they meet to trade information, O’Neal also inherently understands that Chairman Fred’s progressive agenda could be massively powerful for the Black community that he grew up in, and he is flattered by the Chairman’s trust in him. The tragedy of Judas and the Black Messiah is that O’Neal never figures out which side he’s on - and that is even borne out in the coda to the film: after they play the clip of O’Neal’s Eyes on the Prize interview, a title card appears on the screen saying that O’Neal continued to be an informant within the Black Panther Party for several years and that he took his own life shortly after Eyes on the Prize began airing on television in January of 1990. The timing of his suicide, to me, feels telling. It almost seems as if once he was forced to confront the hypocrisy of the interview he gave to the documentary filmmakers, the reality of the toxic duality of his contribution to the civil rights movement was too much for him to bear.



*



I started writing this article at the beginning of April 2021, but during the lead up to the Academy Awards on April 25th, I ended up taking a pause, not just because I wanted to see how the awards shook out (especially with regards to these three films), but also because it turns out that Derek Chauvin’s verdict was to be handed down five days prior to the show.



Like most of us, I was happy and moreover relieved, to see that Chauvin was found guilty of the three murder charges against him for the death of George Floyd on Tuesday the 20th. At the Academy Awards, Regina King began the show with the first of many references to the verdict that night, and I couldn’t help but think of Chief Garland on Law & Order: SVU telling Tutuola that we are at a “true inflection point.”



Maybe he was right. This years’ nominee pool at the Academy Awards was the most diverse I have ever seen, and there were more winners of color than I have ever seen as well, including Youn Yuh-Jung (Best Supporting Actress, Minari) and Chloe Zhou (Best Director and Best Picture, Nomadland). Daniel Kaluuya, as I mentioned earlier, won Best Supporting Actor in Judas and the Black Messiah for his beautiful performance as Chairman Fred Hampton. Unfortunately, both One Night in Miami lost in all three categories it was nominated for, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 lost in all five categories it was nominated for.



But it doesn’t mean that we have solved the problem of systemic racism. Not by having a diverse array of nominees and winners, including the two films I have written about here directly about the civil rights movement and the one that exists just adjacent to it, after several years of #OscarsSoWhite protests, in tandem with only one police officer being held accountable for the death of an innocent Black man to which he was responsible. Garland claims: “This time is different,” meaning as opposed to past instances of the United States reckoning with their history of racism. Malcolm X, in One Night in Miami, spends the whole film trying to convince Sam Cooke that this is the time to establish which side of the line they are on. This film, along with The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah, are an exploration of an earlier inflection point in our history on this subject. And there have been even earlier inflection points as well - going as far back as the Antebellum Period in the United States, and the protests of abolitionists that led to the Civil War, and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the complicated and fundamentally flawed period of Restoration after the South was defeated and slavery was abolished, which led directly to the Jim Crow era and lit the fire for the civil rights movement during which Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Fred Hampton were prominent leaders. In each of these inflection points, citizens have had to take a massive personal inventory about which side they choose to be on, and Judas and the Black Messiah is a tragic example of what can happen when someone is unable to make that choice definitively. The overwhelming celebration of Derek Chauvin’s guilty conviction (not to mention the conviction itself) gives us hope that Americans are beginning to take this inventory and are coming down on the right side of the line. They are beginning to make their choice. Right now this could, indeed, be the inflection point that causes real change. I’m reluctant to say that definitively. America doesn’t exactly have a great historical record on this topic. And it feels silly to take some dialogue from a fictional television character and use it as a declarative statement about the state of race relations in this country.



But this brings me back to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. As I mentioned earlier, the United Kingdom has a particularly horrendous track record of exploiting the labor, bodies, and dignity of the people of color in the colonies they maintained for over 350 years, moving lower status populations of certain colonies to be indentured servants in other colonies. And now, 73 years after granting independence to those colonies, the British population voted overwhelmingly in support of Brexit, which exempts them from EU immigration rules and keeps foreigners from moving to the UK. In the meanwhile,15 of their former colonies belong to an organization known as the British Commonwealth States - countries that are technically independent and have their own rules of government and political leadership - where the Queen is still regarded as their ruling Monarch. Among these countries are Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. The rest of the former colonies are also loosely considered to be connected to the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth is reportedly something that the Queen holds dear to her heart, but in a very paternalistic, noblesse oblige way. This is the culture in which Harry grew up, and he reached an inflection point with the treatment of his wife by his family and by the British media. He took a personal inventory and he made a choice - an unprecedented one - to back away from that culture to protect his family. Granted, just because a white British Prince decided to definitely declare himself to be anti-racist doesn’t suddenly mean that the entire United States of America is going to follow suit; in fact, his estrangement from his family and the continued nasty media coverage of his choice in the UK proves that there is still a long way to go there, too. But it is a small step towards a larger hope of a true reckoning in society - the same kind of small step that the Chicago 7 were working towards in their protests of the Vietnam war, the same step, but larger in scale than Malcolm X and Chairman Fred Hampton were working towards in their championing of civil rights and raising up and protecting their community. These three movies feel timely for a reason, and the reason is, we’re not done yet. Derek Chauvin’s conviction is an encouraging development. Let’s hope we get more of this going forward, using the example of the protestors and agitators and inspiring figures who came before us that we have been so thoroughly reminded of in our most recent movie awards season, to continue to take an inventory, to leverage this inflection point, and to choose to make society safer for all of our citizens, regardless of the color of their skin.






 

Reeya Banerjee


Reeya is a Hudson Valley-based musician and writer. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.



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