Shaka King‘s new film “Judas and the Black Messiah” just earned six Oscar nominations including Best Picture. King himself is nominated for Best Original Screenplay alongside Will Berson, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas.
King recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about the research process for the film, casting Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton and how the film fits in with the current Black Lives Matter movement. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Was this a story that you wanted to tell onscreen for a while?
Shaka King: Actually, no. The story was really first brought to me by the Lucas brothers and I was aware of Fred Hampton. Quite honestly, I was more aware of the tragic circumstances surrounding his death than I was of how he lived. So really, researching this film was really an education for me into his life, into his ideas, his politics and his achievements in a very short amount of time.
GD: What was it like meeting his actual surviving family, as you’re trying to make this film? Because I know you met with them before making it.
SK: Yeah, we really forged a relationship with them over the course of a year and I think ultimately, that was what led to their willingness to come on as cultural consultants and I had Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. on set 90 percent of the time while we were shooting. That experience was incredible. Even in its challenges, it was incredible. It was an opportunity for growth, I think, on everyone’s part. Certainly, I can speak on my behalf, tremendous growth, and on his as well just because we really had to find points of interest. He read the script, many drafts of the script prior to showing up on set but it’s a very different thing reading something and then seeing it come alive. In the moment, there would be issues that needed to be addressed and in those moments, either I would have to figure out a way to accommodate his needs or he would have to figure out how he could digest the bad news that we weren’t going to be able to accommodate him and his comrades’ desires and it was challenging but I know that the movie and I certainly am better off for it.
GD: And researching Hampton, there’s so much video footage of him. How did all that inform your writing of him as a character?
SK: I actually don’t feel like there is a ton of video footage of him, considering all he accomplished and the kind of power that he wielded. It was useful. It was all useful. Reading books and articles and watching footage of him, listening to the recordings of his speeches, speaking with former members of the Illinois chapter, researching the chapter as a whole and reading some of the books that they read and the public education courses, and ultimately, obviously, speaking with his son and his wife, Akua Njeri, formerly known as Deborah Johnson.
GD: What did you most want to capture about Fred Hampton as a person, beyond his political organizing and that persona that’s known and that’s been covered in the past?
SK: I think just the love and tenderness. When you speak to his son, one thing that he talks about, not just in regards to his father, but the chapter and really the Panthers on the whole, is this idea that they live to serve the people, that they were servants to the people. You don’t adopt that kind of politic if you don’t come emotionally from a place of love. So that was something that we tried to certainly infuse in this character.
GD: Were all of the speeches that we see in the film, were those taken from real speeches or were there any of that that you created or expanded for the film?
SK: We certainly added lines and created lines, myself and my co-writer, Will Berson, but we tried as much as possible to remain faithful to his words. The truth of the matter is that there’s only one scene where we kind of vary from his words a bit and that was because we hadn’t officially brought onboard Fred Hampton Jr. and Akua Njeri, so we didn’t have permission to use the speeches as they’d been written. It wasn’t until after we recorded that one scene that they came onboard and we were able to use all of his speeches.
GD: And, of course, having the right actor play Fred Hampton in this story is so crucially important. How did Daniel Kaluuya become part of the film and what was it like working with him to create that persona?
SK: I told Ryan [Coogler] during our first conversation that I wanted Daniel as Fred and it turned out that Ryan was about to go into reshoots for “Black Panther.” So when he got there, he told Daniel what we were interested in and he and I met in New York soon after. We basically agreed to come on, almost, not quite immediately, but very soon after. And what was it like to work with him and find this character? Incredible. I mean, I told people, Daniel is one of the best dramatists I’ve ever met. I would kill to have him read anything I write for the rest of my life because he is an incredibly thoughtful and intelligent writer. So not only was it great to build this character with him, but it was great to improve the script with a lot of his input and insight.
GD: The film tells Hampton’s story, a lot of it, through the framework of William O’Neal’s story, who was the FBI informant who ultimately helped the FBI assassinate him. What did you think about that character and who he was going into it and did you find more sympathy, humanity, empathy for him and the positions that he was put in as you were making the film and telling the story?
SK: I always thought of William O’Neal as, essentially, an opportunist. I think honestly, he’s a person who recognizes that he’s intelligent, he’s good-looking and he’s clever and if he was born white, he’d be a captain of industry, but he’s not. So he’s a criminal. Those two things often are the same. He’s bought into the idea in many ways of the American dream and he’s in pursuit of it and he’s willing to pursue it by any means necessary. He makes certain choices and these choices lead to him in this crazy loop and cycle where he just digs himself deeper into this hole that he’s trying to climb out of. So I can’t say I quite feel sympathy for him, but I recognize that ultimately, he’s reacting to a system that is far more powerful than him and I think the difference is that in a lot of ways, him and Fred Hampton were reacting to the same constructs. I just think that Fred Hampton had a different definition of freedom and power than he had. For Fred Hampton, power was people. It was equity for all folks and them having the right to actually self-actualize. It was the ideal that America claims to have but doesn’t actually practice and for William O’Neal, power and freedom were access to material wealth, were just the things that, in a lot of ways, America and capitalism prioritize and kind of tells us what we should seek and appreciate. So I just feel like in a lot of ways, O’Neal is an American tragedy because he’s a sentinel for the state, ultimately, that uses him and it destroys his life. He’s incredibly American.
GD: Fred Hampton was killed in December of 1969, so filming of the film coincided with the 50th anniversary of his death. At that point, I imagine that would be a more emotional day and the weight of the story would hit differently when that hit?
SK: It was a crazy day. It was the day that LaKeith [Stanfield] as O’Neal had to drug Fred and it was also nearing the end of our shoot. So it was one of Daniel’s last days and I remember getting a call from Sian Richards, our makeup artist, and she said that LaKeith had been throwing up in his trailer and crying all morning and he showed up on set a wreck. I just remember telling him that out of all of us, he was making the greatest sacrifice because Daniel’s playing an icon. That’s its own set of challenges. Dominique [Fishback] is playing a living icon. That’s another set of challenges. But LaKeith has the thankless job of playing this person who he’s nothing like, who repulsed him, certainly at the beginning of the movie. I think of him inhabiting the character, I think over the course of having to play this person, he got to a place where he understood him, even if he didn’t sympathize or even empathize with him, even though I think he did. He had to go to some places, speaking with him. He had to access some old memories that I can’t imagine the trauma he really put himself through. But on that particular day, it was just incredibly difficult for him in particular. So I felt for him.
GD: What strikes me about this story when I watched it was realizing how young these people were. Fred Hampton was 21 when he was killed. William O’Neal was 20 and Deborah Johnson was 19. And yet, they’ve all come to such different places in their lives, but especially Fred Hampton has developed such wisdom and leadership at such a young age. What did you think about that character and all the characters in terms of just being this young and being thrust into these positions?
SK: Well, I feel like if you look at so many revolutions, young people are at the center in the heart of it and that’s because they have a lot of life in front of them. They hope. They certainly believe they do. They don’t have anything yet to lose, i.e., they haven’t bought into the house and two cars and etc. They just don’t have the trappings of stuff and I think it’s a number of factors that lead them to be the ones who are agents for change across the board. I knew that and I’ve always been impressed by that. But I think it’s something that doesn’t pertain exclusively to the Black Panthers. I feel like if you look at movements across the globe, it’s always been young people at the center.
GD: We’ve been seeing movements, of course, in the last year with the Black Lives Matter protests after Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and it feels like a lot of the things that this film is depicting from 50 years ago haven’t really changed that much, or at least not enough. What do you think about how this film fits into the current movements and the current struggles for equality and how it contextualizes our history around that?
SK: Like you said, these topics are evergreen and I think in a lot of ways it remains to be seen and it’s not necessarily up to me to say its place in the context of what’s happening in the world. I mean, I think the people who see the movie who are in that space, who are engaged in direct action will let me know if they feel like it applies to their current struggles that they’re facing day in and day out. Just as a citizen, I feel like it definitely resonates with today in a way that I knew going in because like I said, nothing has changed. But I didn’t anticipate that people’s eyes and ears would be open the way they are now because of the last year and a half, and also the fact that their eyes are glued to the TV in a way that they have never been. So I don’t know, I think it remains to be seen. I do feel, though, kind of confident that it has some utility, just because people have been trying to tell this story for so many decades and there’s always been roadblocks and for us to be able to make a studio movie with the family of Fred Hampton and the blessing of many members of the Illinois chapter, that feels like it must be for some greater purpose.
GD: Part of the change that I felt in the past year, at least, with the latest Black Lives Matter protests, is that there’s been more of a widespread questioning of not just our relationship to the police, but also the media’s relationship to the police and how everything from “Dragnet” to “Law & Order” kind of gives us a certain perspective on those sorts of things. But we’re starting to unravel that in a way that feels like it opens the door for a film like this to show you. It’s like, “Oh, this is also the history of police and this is where we’ve been and this is where we are in some degree.” Do you feel like there’s that sense of openness there, too, in terms of media?
SK: I certainly have been tracking the discussions around it, and it’s great to hear because I remember watching “True Detective” Season 1, which I really enjoy. I loved it. And it wasn’t until probably a second or third watch that I remember this one scene where Matthew McConaughey’s character goes to visit this mechanic who knows the whereabouts of the serial killer and doesn’t feel like telling him and Matthew McConaughey beats him up and gets the information and it’s framed as a heroic act. I remember watching that and going, “Oh, that’s a big part of the reason why cops kill us and beat us and don’t even get to a trial. The grand jury is just like, ‘Nah, they’re not. Don’t try this person,’” and just the sort of hierarchical nature that the media has traditionally given law enforcement. We’re all flesh and blood and bone, so why is the life of a police officer worth more than the life of a teacher? Why doesn’t a teacher get a special burial and that kind of treatment?
And it’s because of narratives that we have culturally developed over the course of hundreds of years and those narratives have worked their ways into the tools of telling narrative, sharing narratives, newspaper articles, movies, books, TV, all of the things we consume. It’s just stories and narratives. So that’s an old one that is so embedded in everything that we consume that I don’t think we as a culture barely started to question it up until now. We’re just kind of seeing people talk about that. So I think now is a great time to introduce something like this to see how our way that we’ve chosen to frame relationships with police and citizens, how do people feel about that in light of everything we’ve seen prior?