Black filmmakers are offering an unvarnished look at the legacy of the 1960s civil rights era, examining America’s tortured history of racism and drawing parallels to contemporary cries for social justice in some of the year’s most captivating films.
Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” and Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” serve as a triptych of the Black experience, inviting viewers inside the great debates that accompanied an earlier generation’s fight for equality. Together, they chart the course of that turbulent decade.
Lee has spent his career spotlighting Black stories that have gone unshared or were framed inauthentically in the history books, most famously with 1992’s “Malcolm X,” which gave audiences a new view of the man behind the fiery speeches, but the director “practically killed myself to get made.”
“Black folks are part of American history, American her-story,” Lee says. “Right now, there are more films being made about our past than ever before.
“The studio heads are more apt to make these films than they were in the past. It’s not that Black filmmakers weren’t trying to do these films. It’s always come down to us telling our stories versus somebody else. I know Regina; Shaka was a student of mine. The more the merrier.”
“One Night in Miami” is based on the real-life encounter between Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali. It’s set on Feb. 25, 1964, the night the boxer (then Cassius Clay) won the heavyweight title for the first time. “Judas and the Black Messiah” takes place in the late 1960s and documents the final days in the life of Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton, while “Da 5 Bloods” travels between the Vietnam War era (with a scene in 1968 in which the titular Bloods learn of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.) and the present, as the surviving quartet cope with the scars of war.
These filmmakers double as historians, contextualizing the past to determine how we got to where we are. King (credited for writing the “Judas” story with Will Berson and the Lucas Brothers), Lee (who partnered with Kevin Willmott for “Bloods”) and Kemp Powers (who adapted his “One Night in Miami” play for the screen) detail their process.
Why did you want to look back at the 1960s through the lens of today? What lessons can audiences take away?
Spike Lee: I was a kid growing up in that era; I remember it. In ’67, I was 10 years old. Thank God, I’m not old enough to be drafted, but the Afros, the music, Black Power, Dr. King getting assassinated, RFK assassinated, the Vietnam movement, the anti-war movement. I remember watching the Chicago Democratic convention on television in 1968 when Mayor Daley unleashed those cops cracking heads, and anti-war marches. That time was very rich.
Kemp Powers: We live in a country that it’s almost incredible how we’re able to contort ourselves to avoid discussing race in any way, shape or form, but every once in a while, it bubbles to the surface. And I think the 1960s were a crucible moment in the history of the country, as far as race relations. And I think we’re living through another crucible moment now, these past five or six years.
So much of the change is brought about by young people. That’s what really drew me to the night that I focused on for “One Night in Miami” — it wasn’t just that these were four famous men, but it was just reminding myself of how young they were. That Cassius Clay was 22, that Jim Brown was 28, that Sam Cooke was 31, that Malcolm X wasn’t even 40 yet.
And it was interesting for me watching “Judas and the Black Messiah.” My knowledge of the Black Panthers doesn’t go that far beyond Huey P. Newton. I knew who Fred Hampton was, I knew about his death, but at no point did I think all that happened to a man who was 21 years old.
That youth component inspired me, because I feel like young people need to be inspired to pick up the mantle and realize that they have this amount of power.
Shaka King: To piggyback off what you said about youth, Fred Hampton’s phone was tapped by the FBI at age 14; he was an NAACP youth leader at 16. Youth is the lifeblood of revolutions across the globe, because young people don’t have stuff to rope them in and fool them into thinking that everything is OK. Their life is in front of them, and they’re impatient in the best way.
During the rebellions of the summer, that was a very youth-led movement. I’m 41, and a lot of times, my generation and certainly the generations above us think of that younger generation as not really having any spine and backbone and having resilience. But I think nothing could be further from the truth.
What they’ve had to circumvent in their childhood and adolescence, and the ways in which they’ve responded, has been really impressive. I’ve heard the revolutionaries in their 60s [now], who were the young people in the Black Panthers, talk about how this feels different and, in some ways, even bigger than when they were the folks on the front line.
What was your process in preparing to tell these stories?
Lee: Research, research, research, research and more research — documentaries, films, books, everything I could get.
Powers: I would argue that when it comes to both Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, everyone’s an expert and knows more about them than you do, and that’s OK. I never profess to know everything. I’m just a guy who’s read a lot of stuff and done a lot of reporting.
But even when it’s a person that you know so well, it’s always interesting to try to look at it from a slightly different angle; it can change the meaning of that moment. That’s why I really wanted to make this a piece of historical fiction, because there’s a certain burden to try to fairly characterize each of these men. Even though the words that they’re speaking are words that you’re making up, you do have a burden.
However, this is not supposed to be a biopic. This is just to give you an understanding of what these men represent, rather than what they did, when and how. This isn’t supposed to be your historical document. If anything, quite the opposite; it’s supposed to make you go out [and read]. The FBI files on Malcolm X have been available for years; you can track everything the man did the last year of his life.
King: The only difference for me is that not as much is known about Fred Hampton and the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party as the individuals in “One Night in Miami.”
But nevertheless, in the writing process, in our first draft, my co-writer Will Berson and I had the address of the apartment and the Better Boys Club in the slug line. When you’re trying to regurgitate everything you’ve learned — which, for us at least, a lot of it was ego; we wanted [the audience] to know we did our jobs — but when you do that, you end up with a script that’s like 205 pages and not at all dramatic.
It took five or six drafts before we got out of our own way and allowed ourselves the freedom to treat this more like historical fiction and make a movie about ideas. Let’s make this movie about these two people, and let these two people represent and serve an exploration of these opposite poles of humanity — socialism or capitalism — and allow the viewer to watch and see if you connect with both of them in any way, or see where you fall in between those two poles, even on a subconscious level. We just thought that was more interesting and more useful.
If you watch these movies, leave and go to Wikipedia or Google some books, maybe buy one or two, that’s the best that we can hope for in terms of aiding in these individuals’ legacies. Young people probably don’t know about these folks, so there’s an opportunity for them to learn their history.
Let’s talk about the music. Spike, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album was an important thread. How did it help you shape the narrative?
Lee: Like a surgeon, I did it very skillfully [laughs]. He was a prophet. “What’s Going On,” one of the greatest albums ever made, came out in 1971. I know the album back and forth, and I knew where to put the songs.
When Kevin and I decided to do this movie, I automatically thought the song “What’s Going On” could be the spine of the film. “Inner City Blues” was the first song that came to me because I knew I wanted the film’s opening sequence to be archival footage. And then we had the Bloods singing “What’s Happening Brother” in the film.
How have the streamers changed the road for films like these to get made?
Lee: The streamers are more doors to knock on. You only need one, and Netflix was that one door, and I thank them. The more places that make films, it just makes sense that more, different films will be made.
King: Obviously, people have been asking me about this because our movie is coming out in theaters and on HBO Max the same day, and this is new. But one thing that I immediately found exciting was that we were not only going to get it to more people, but because of the pandem-
ic you’re literally talking about a captive audience — people who can’t go outside.
You have an opportunity to put a movie in front of someone who probably wouldn’t have watched it, or might have been turned off to the
politics, or made the easier choice to go see like a tentpole because you know we can bring the kids and everybody. But now it’s like, “OK, well, why not watch ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’? The trailer was cool.” And maybe there’s some information and medicine that’s contained there, and it’s beneficial.
Powers: When you write these screenplays, you have no idea how it’s going to ultimately be realized. In a normal year, let’s say all these films had been released in theaters; people would have been forced to make a choice. This year is interesting because I would argue that anyone who’s seen “Da 5 Bloods” probably has seen “One Night in Miami” and will probably see “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and I don’t think that would have necessarily been the case with all three of them released in theaters. Instead, it’s like, wow, people are getting to take in all of these films, and that’s just three.