Sam Lisenco interview: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ production designer
For “Judas and the Black Messiah” production designer Sam Lisenco and director Shaka King, “a big factor … in the development of the look of the movie was, how can we make this as truthful as possible, but keep in mind the kinds of action movies that make the medicine go down a little easy?” Watch our exclusive video interview with Lisenco above.
“Judas” tells the true story of Chicago Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), who was assassinated by the FBI in 1969. But Lisenco and King wanted to create a look reminiscent not just of the history of Chicago in the 1960s, but of thrillers from the period like “The Hot Rocks” and “The Seven-Ups.” “If we started to explore those kinds of genre-normative cues, even subconsciously, we would be able to come up with a language that was much more entertaining while being as historically accurate as possible.”
To capture the city at the time, the film actually shot in Cleveland. “What we found was there was this romantically beautiful, realist nature,” he explains. “Rust Belt cities in particular … had this layer of municipal practicality that hadn’t changed, that was perfect for what we were trying to achieve.” For interiors, Lisenco was meticulous in portraying where Hampton died because “there are ample photos of his apartment from the aftermath of the night he was killed.”
Other locations were “an amalgam of research elements.” There was “an incredible wealth of information accessible to us from various resources as to how it actually looked,” to the point where the real Akua Njeri (formerly known as Deborah Johnson), Hampton’s partner portrayed in the film by Dominique Fishback, said of their recreation of the Panthers’ Chicago branch office, “It feels right.” That’s high praise from someone who lived through it.