I can’t stop thinking about what the late, murdered Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya) said: “Where there are people, there is power.” This is the reason, I think, the United States of America considered him dangerous and their enemy and ordered his killing.
Based on a heart-breaking, true story Shaka King’s brilliant new film “Judas and the Black Messiah” boldly steps into the re-telling creating both a prestige film and a pulsating thriller.
The movie premiered at this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival and will be released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max on February 12; I’m confident that it will become an Oscar contender since the Academy has an extended awards calendar this year. The film is tremendous. Well directed, acted, assembled and written. I would not be surprised, at all, if it takes home an Oscar.
It begins with introducing the audience to the Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), who by the age of 21 had become a major figure in the national party and founded the Rainbow Coalition movement amid a time of social and civil unrest. A passionate soul with a purpose, he possed a gift for reaching people through his words and speeches.
Then it centers on William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) who, avoiding a prison sentence, makes a deal with the FBI (1968) to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and to get close to Hampton.
So convincing is O’Neal, that he became his head of security, and then betrays him by passing along the blueprint of Hampton’s home and drugging him, the night before a raid. This all leads to Hampton’s murder, by Chicago police which was approved by the government of the United States of America of which Judas, opps, O’Neal was paid $300.00.
I’ve been following King’s career since “Newlyweeds” and he’s good people in my book. He rolls up his sleeves and gets things done so it’s a surprise that he struggled to get the funding for this movie. It finally landed at Warner Bros with “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler, stepping in as one of the producers, along with King himself and Charles King of Macro.
The reason behind the money woes? Old fashioned Hollywood racism wrapped up (not so neatly) to appear as “business data” supporting an antiquated idea that adult dramas and films focused on African-American stories and characters don’t do well onscreen and prove a challenge with an international theatrical release.
The film is as timely now as the 1968 events it depicts. At a virtual summit for “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Warner Bros provided access to some key members of the creative team.
Here is what Shaka King, Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, and Dominique Fishback had to share about making the film.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” opens in theaters on February 12th as well as available on HBO Max for 31 days from the theatrical release. This has been edited for clarity
ON WHY HE WANTED TO DIRECT THIS FILM:
(Shaka King – director/co-writer/producer)
[Judas and the Black Messiah] is an incredibly clever vessel to introduce a history that has been buried in this country to a very wide audience. [it has] profound and insightful and also expressed in such a witty, often humorous but direct, sometimes even profane (and) bombastic way. The opportunity to present these kinds of ideas expressed this way in a (thriller) was irresistible to me.
ON PROPAGANDA AROUND THE BLACK PANTHERS:
The history of this government and country in terms of repressing voices of dissent, (past) and present is not [to] believe the ‘“propaganda”’ about the Black Panthers being thugs and criminals. They’re feeding children and building medical clinics and ambulances and trying to prioritize the people that weren’t being taken care of by the government that claims to represent them.
ON PLAYING FRED HAMPTON:
[I] admired that the Black Panthers was their love for their own, their love for Black people, their love for themselves, unapologetically. Even when they haven’t seen that by the powers that be, they poured that love into their own community. They would die to protect their own and liberate their own.
On playing Hampton’s fiancé Deborah Johnson (aka Akua Njera):
I felt hopeless at the top of the pandemic, questioned my role as an actor and writer. After speaking with Kaluuya, she was re-inspired. and working on the film gave her hope. All of the Black women losing their children to police terrorism and police brutality. To me, I’m putting myself in those shoes. We sometimes think shooting a gun is revolutionary, but It’s revolutionary to know that your children are on the frontline every day and you do it anyway out of love.
On being given the role:
When Shaka came to me about that, I was definitely floored by that one. There were already so many greats attached. Daniel Kaluuya was attached to it, LaKeith, freaking Ryan Coogler was producing it, Charles King and he wants to get Jesse Plemons and he’s saying, ‘This is for you?’ I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ So I wasn’t so much nervous. I was just more honored. I felt seen.
On playing William O’Neil:
It made him stammer a bit, battling with his actual feeling of what he had done. For a second in that interview, it cracked through: He’s not a rat, he’s not a snitch, he’s human. He feels that (stuff).
Most of the motivations were fear, just trying to stay out of trouble and trying to stay afloat.
On what he hopes people will take away from watching “Judas and the Black Messiah”:
The only thing that I want is for more people to know about the story of Fred Hampton and know about the life he lived, instead of just the way he died. People should also be more skeptical of their government because look at what they’re capable of doing. The most important thing he’s hoping against is apathy. “The only concern I would have is if someone could watch a movie like this and feel nothing.