From 'The Trial of Chicago 7' to 'Judas & the Black Messiah': The Overlapping Themes of This Year's Award Contenders

When Awards Movies Are Talking to One Another
Illustration by Olivia Fields

Whether due to coincidence or deeper cultural shifts, there's a genuine dialogue among a number of awards hopefuls as they debate the politics of the '60s, the role of Black artists and even the metaphor of the organ grinder and the monkey.

This awards season, it's almost as if the movies are having a conversation with one another. The year's pandemic-disrupted release schedule may have resulted in a smaller pool of films entering the conversation, but, to an unusual degree, a number of them overlap, both in theme and sometimes even in particulars, making for a denser and perhaps richer class of awards hopefuls.

Some of it is just a matter of coincidence as projects that were years in the making finally reach the screen. The Trial of the Chicago 7, for example, was first proposed 15 years ago when Steven Spielberg approached Aaron Sorkin, who would ultimately direct, about writing a screenplay. Early versions of Judas and the Black Messiah didn't begin making the rounds until nearly a decade later, with the project that Shaka King would direct not coming into focus until early 2019.

But both films serve to resurrect Fred Hampton, a key figure in the Black Panther Party in the late '60s. In Chicago 7, Hampton, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., first appears in the background, advising his fellow Panther Bobby Seale, until his offscreen murder at the hands of the Chicago police comes as a galvanizing shock to the defendants. In Judas, with Daniel Kaluuya taking on the role, he emerges center stage with both his influence as a powerful force in his community and the government's campaign to eliminate him explored at length.

In other instances, the films appear to reflect a genuine cultural moment that's allowing voices, often shortchanged when not altogether ignored, to be heard. Both Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and The United States vs. Billie Holiday revolve around strong Black women who insist on singing the songs they want to sing, the way they want to sing them. (And just as Hampton is pursued by the FBI, Andra Day's Holiday finds herself targeted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.)

The position that Black artists find themselves in is a particular concern. Viola Davis' Ma Rainey, as she holds her ground at a recording session in the 1920s, puts it bluntly: "If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in an alley. I done make this company more money from my records than all the other recording artists they got put together." And yet, at the end of the day, she signs over the rights to her recordings under pressure.

Nearly a century later, the film director played by John David Washington in Malcolm & Marie finds himself in a much more privileged position. He's just helmed a movie that looks to be a critical hit and has a follow-up about activist Angela Davis in the works. His complaint is that as a Black creator, he can't escape being viewed through the prism of race. "Not everything I do is political because I'm Black," he protests, later arguing, "I want to be part of a larger conversation about film without always having white writers making it about race." (The fact, though, that those words actually come from the film's writer-director, Sam Levinson, complicates Malcolm's position, since they can also be read as Levinson's complaint that his work shouldn't be read through the prism of his own whiteness.)

Perhaps the season's most surprising coincidence is the old metaphor of the organ grinder and his monkey, which pops up in Mank and One Night in Miami.

In David Fincher's film about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, after Gary Oldman's Mank delivers a searing monologue at one of William Randolph Hearst's glittering dinner parties, an unamused Hearst, played by Charles Dance, escorts the besotted scribe out. As Hearst references the performing monkey — "Whenever he ventures into the city to perform, he thinks, 'What a powerful fellow I must be. Look how patiently everyone awaits to watch me dance' " — his meaning is clear. He's got Mankiewicz on a leash. In writing Citizen Kane, Mankiewicz aims to break free by exposing Hearst, but his victory is a mixed one since even as he wins an Oscar, he remains tethered to another organ grinder — or is he just a more celebrated performing monkey? — in the legendary Orson Welles.

The metaphor takes on even more sting in Regina King's Miami, when Kingsley Ben-Adir's Malcolm X confronts Leslie Odom Jr.'s Sam Cooke, who's first seen in the film performing for an unappreciative white audience at the Copacabana, angrily telling him, "You're a monkey dancing for an organ grinder to them." (Aldis Hodge's Jim Brown recoils in some shock at the pejorative.)

But Cooke defends himself. Unlike Ma Rainey, he hasn't signed away rights, and as he explains, he owns Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now," which became a lucrative hit when the Rolling Stones recorded a cover. He's become the organ grinder, not the monkey, because "those white boys are out there touring around, they don't even know they're working for us." And the film also gives Cooke the last word — or, rather, the last song — when he performs his "A Change Is Gonna Come," which would go on to become an anthem for the civil rights movement.

Like Holiday's rendition of Abel Meeropol's "Strange Fruit," it echoes well beyond the moment in which it was written, finding new life among the films in this year's awards circuit that seem to echo one another.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.