Reeling from the Reels of Black History Month


At some point during Black History Month I was targeted with an article headline that read: "Films to Watch for Black History Month", so I clicked on it. There were five films, totally doable in one month—despite it being the shortest month of the year. As I scanned the list, I had already watched Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (a deeply tortured and dynamic performance by Viola Davis and a well-deserved posthumous Golden Globe Best Actor in a Drama win by Chadwick Boseman). Then there was Small Axe, which angered me so much that I couldn't make it through the first 10 minutes of the five-part anthology. But we'll get to that later... So I moved on to the next film. I scoured the many websites that many of my friends have so graciously given me their passwords to in order to stream it. Judas and the Black Messiah.

The film starts out with a Black man pretending to be an FBI agent in order to rob a group of Black men in a bar, semi-unsuccessfully. Then as I watched a real FBI agent use and manipulate him in order to bring down yet another Black man my head started to hurt. The recipient of their unrelenting attention was Fred Hampton. The Black Panther is portrayed throughout the film giving speeches at universities, providing breakfast to kids from underserved neighborhoods, and eventually hearing the news he's about to become a father. He was no angel, but his actions didn't seem to warrant a nefarious plot to ensure his eventual demise.

 
I thought, damn. How can the government hate this man so much for speaking the truth, uplifting his community, and trying to advance their independence? The lengths that they would go to imprison, entrap, and silence this man were terrifying.
 

But I got through it. More irritated than entertained.

A few nights later I sat down to watch The United States vs Billie Holiday. As Andra Day (another Golden Globe winner for Best Actress in a Drama for her performance) appeared on my laptop screen belting out notes as the title character I was mesmerized. So mesmerized that, as hard as it was, I didn't even check my phone the entire film, a hard feat when not in a movie theater.


I thoroughly enjoyed watching Holiday's story unfold as an artist who tried to turn her art into activism while struggling with a long history of abuse that led her to abuse drugs. Alongside her personal narrative was yet another government plot to imprison, entrap, and silence this singer stemming from her defiance to sing "Strange Fruit". By the end of the film, my heart was racing and my soul had taken a beating. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. I couldn't bear to start the 5th movie on the list. I watched police officers shoot up the apartment Hampton was hiding out in and handcuff Holiday to her bed as she lay dying, government agents weaponizing Black agents or individuals against their own, and justifying their actions in the name of preserving "American values". The same visuals that angered me as cops targeted and tried to destroy a shop owned by a Black man in London in Small Axe. It was too much unwarranted and inhumane violence. Then my mind flashed to Breonna Taylor's apartment being shot up as she slept, the insurrection at the Capitol aided and attended by police in an effort to "defend American democracy", and the way Federal agencies illegally recorded and targeted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and Malcolm X. Black History Month is an important observance to remind us of and honor historic Black figures and their contributions to the world but FUCK is it exhausting to be reminded of just how much many white people despised them for it. You can't celebrate the equality these figures fought for or barriers they broke without also acknowledging the hatred ingrained in the history of America that did everything possible to sabotage or silence them. Whole government officials followed and harassed Holiday over a song about the lynchings of Black people instead of just stop lynching Black people. It should be noted that an Anti Lynching Bill was presented to the Senate twice and still hasn't passed. It seems like every week I receive an email with yet another headline of "The Officer Who Killed [Insert Unarmed Black Person Here] Goes Uncharged, Sign This Petition to Demand Action". How many more times can I click "sign" when I know the system isn't designed or driven by holding these officers accountable? Instead, it has historically awarded them for their efforts. While my soul is soothed by Billie Holiday singing "I'm Yours", I strive to unite and support the Black community like Fred Hampton, and I could sympathize with Ma Rainey's determination to be seen, heard, and respected—no matter how brash—these stories, and the ones unfolding in modern-day times can get hard to watch. The trauma, violence, injustice, and death can overpower the beauty these people brought to the world. The last film on the list was One Night in Miami, probably the lightest of the five. Next year, maybe I'll start with that one to put me in a positive enough mindset to survive the rest.

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