Heightening the contradictions of radical autonomy

I approached the new film Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) from the standpoint of political theory as a tragedy of revolutionary governance where the pursuit of an autonomous polity resorts to heteronomous means.

Its framework is state and stasis.  The film dramatizes a state in stasis, a government challenged by its people.  Under the tyrant Mayor Richard J. Daley and the abuse of power by the political and economic establishment and the police, the city/polis of Chicago in 1968-69 goes through a crisis as the people organize and rise to refute the authority of sovereignty.

“The Ten-Point Program” of the Black Panther Party (established in 1966) states: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [inalienable human rights], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government” (article 10).  The Party and its Rainbow Coalition represent the rebellion of constituent power seeking to inaugurate a radical beginning and constitute a new order, namely a socialist and anti-imperialist community.  The FBI considers the Party “the greatest threat to national security.”

To the Panthers, self-determination is fundamental: “We want Freedom.  We want power to determine the destiny of our Black community.  We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny” (“Program,” article 1).  Rejecting all external political and ethical norms, the rebels are pursuing immanent justice and governance.  In addition to resistance as counter-conduct, their survival programs (free food, health care, legal aid, and education) represent practices of freedom that actualize the project of autonomy as self-sufficiency.

Showing the political work of the revolution, the film foregrounds the inherent contradictions of self-authorization and the antinomies of civic autonomy by contrasting freedom of action to the necessity of violence (such as engaging in shootouts with authorities that result in deaths of party members and police officers, murder of suspected informants) as “resistance to fascism.”

As they endeavor to “heighten the contradictions” of the oppressive regime and accelerate the decline of capitalism (the major theme of the work, which alludes to Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution), the revolutionaries fall into their own fatal contradictions when trying to control their destiny by using means of their oppressors, thus testing the boundaries of self-limitation.

As a tragedy of left governance, the film focuses on the extreme dilemmas of the legitimacy of constituent power.

P.S. The film may be also approached as a tragedy of the traitor (the Judas figure) who suffers through the irreconcilable contradictions of a radical Black life or as an allegory of the Way of the Cross of Christ (the Black Messiah figure) who sacrifices his life for the people.

25 February 2021

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