Shaka King interview: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ writer-director
“As a citizen I feel like it definitely resonates with today in a way that I knew going in,” says “Judas and the Black Messiah” writer-director Shaka King about the modern resonance of his tragic docudrama given the continued crisis of police brutality. “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.” Watch our exclusive video interview with King above.
The film tells the true story of Black Panthers Chairman Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), who was assassinated by the FBI On December 4, 1969, after the Panthers were infiltrated by informant William O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield). Despite the vastly different paths they took, King believes the two men were reacting to similar forces of oppression in America.
“For Fred Hampton, power was people,” he explains. “It was equity for all folks, them having the right to actually self-actualize. It was the ideals that America claims to have but doesn’t actually practice. And for William O’Neal, power and freedom were access to material wealth, the things that in a lot of ways America and capitalism prioritize.” In that way, O’Neal is a uniquely “American tragedy.”
“Judas” was filmed in 2019, so production actually coincided with the 50th anniversary of Hampton’s murder. “It was a crazy day,” King recalls. “It was the day that LaKeith as O’Neal had to drug Fred [to sedate him before the FBI raid]. And it was also nearing the end of our shoot, so it was one of Daniel’s last days.”
It took an emotional toll on Stanfield, and “I remember telling him that out of all of us, he was making the greatest sacrifice” because he had “the thankless job of playing this person who he’s nothing like, who really repulsed him certainly at the beginning of the movie … 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.”
For King, “it remains to be seen” how “Judas” will resonate amid the current Black Lives Matter movement, but “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. 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.”