This week, the highly anticipated film JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is released to watch at home on VOD. Based on the true story of the life and death of Black Panther Illinois State Chairman Fred Hampton, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH details Hapton’s work with the Black Panther Party and his untimely death at the hands of the FBI, working on information from informant William O’Neal, when he was 21.
Conceived and filmed before the death of George Floyd last year, the film tells a story that still resonates 51 years after Hampton’s death, and may be more important than ever at shining a light on past events to put current struggles into perspective.
Ahead of the film’s release, we caught up with director Shaka King to find out more about this fascinating and timely project.
Since JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is based on a true story, you must have felt a weight of responsibility as the director telling this story…
Shaka King: It has been an endless balancing act from day one. I think for me, it started with the intention of what we were trying to convey and choosing to tell this movie, not just with respect to Chairman Fred but also to include William O’Neal as a major character in the movie. For me the movie is a lot about the capitalism of William O’Neal and the socialism of Fred Hampton, and cowardly William O’Neal and the revolutionary Fred Hampton. We can attach judgement to both of those ideologies, but most people actually fall somewhere between those two. You wan to make a movie where the audience comes away questioning which ancestor and I? Where do I fall between those two poles? Making the film, I found myself questioning where do I fall between those two.
What was it like to work so closely with Chairman Fred Hampton’s son – Chairman Fred Hampton Jr, of the Black Panther Party Cubs – on this film, and have him on set?
Shaka King: It was really important to have Chairman Fred Jr on set every day, even when it was difficult; having to rewrite scenes on the fly, having to re-jig things on the fly, but then I would have portrayed something that was not true or disrespectful that we didn’t know was disrespectful. That might seem minor, but it is actually incredibly major to the people it happened to. It was a constant balancing act. I have to really praise Chairman Fred Jr for going on that journey with us because it must have been stressful for him.
The performances in the film from Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield – who have teamed up again [after Get Out] – are very powerful. How did you assemble such a great cast?
SK: In terms of the casting, a lot of it was incredibly intuitive. Daniel [Kaluuya] I knew, and I remember going to Ryan and saying I think Daniel should play Fred. Obviously [Ryan had] worked with [Daniel] on BLACK PANTHER so he put us in touch, When I sat down with [Daniel] it was really confirmed for me because he kind of has this gravitas to him that you just really don’t see in people that age. In my research it came up all the time with Fred that he had a lot of gravitas, but he was also hilarious, his speeches and the way he spoke, he was very witty, intelligent and young; that combination of a youthful spirit and an old soul. Daniel had those qualities to him, and not to mention the political viewpoints that he holds as an individual outside of being an artist. Lakeith [Stanfield] was someone who, interestingly enough, Ryan had introduced me to in 2013 and we had become friends and I expressed a desire to work with him. In William O’Neal I saw a character who needed to be a complex villain, and Lakeith played the most complex villain possible in this individual.
Can you speak to the choice to cast Daniel Kayuula, an British actor, in the role of such an important American revolutionary?
SK: For me, I am well aware of the debate around British actors playing American Black iconic figures. Part of the perspective I would have is, I am born in America, my family is Caribbean and I got a South African name, so I am literally emblematic of the diasporic way of thinking. In a lot of ways, kidnapped Africans ended up around the world, so I think we have a lot more in common than people think, in trying to overthrow white supremacy. The [Black] Panthers, ideologically, you are talking about an organisation that was very international, so I can’t imagine that there would be an objection to that – maybe there would be – but I don’t go into it thinking that there would be.
You made sure to highlight the strength of the women in the movement, and they play a critical and strong role in the cast as well…
SK: If there is anything I wish we could have done a better job of is having even more powerful roles for the women in the film. We have two major ones; the role of Deborah Johnson, now known as Akua Njeri and in the made up character who was played by Dominque Thorne. They definitely have a major presence in the movie, and the job that they did is truly, truly incredible. Ultimately the few things about the movie that I wish we had done a better job of a few things and that’s actually one I wish we had done.
Considering the current social climate, and the protests related to Black Lives Matter, what do you most hope young people, who may not be as knowledgeable about Chairman Fred Hampton and the Black Panther movement, to take from this film?
Shaka King: It’s interesting because we started making it prior to [the death of] George Floyd and the rebellion that followed, so that is something that I have asked myself a lot because, as much as I think the movie is of the time, in my mind – I don’t think it will end up being behind the times – I have never been in this kind of position where the attitude of the audience is so caught up to the message that you are trying to convey. I think this is the way movies sustain, but time is long, and I don’t just think about what audiences should take away from this movie now, but what should audiences should take away, on year… five years away. Who knows, when this movie comes out, what the world will look like and what the culture will look like. I think the message of the movie is consistent, no matter when it’s viewed. You can either be Chairman Fred, or you can be William O’Neal, or you can be somewhere in between. You look at the choices that William O’Neal made, and how those have impacted his life going forward. I think this is as great a lesson to take away from being inspired by the story of Chairman Fred, and the revolutionary spirit of Chairman Fred. I think both of those have value.
Words – Brogen Hayes
You can rent the movie premiere of JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH at home from 11th March