The timely story of an FBI snitch and a slain 1960s Black Panther leader
Looking back at 1968, it’s sometimes hard to believe what we’re seeing because — although Black Americans continue to be killed by police at appalling rates — we still don’t fully understand all of it. But following the assassination that year of Martin Luther King, widespread social unrest erupted in the cataclysm of the Black revolution.
“The people’s mind-set was no more turning the other cheek,” said Shaka King, whose fiery and fiercely original new drama “Judas and the Black Messiah,” out next month from Warner Bros., recounts the story of slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the FBI informant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who led his security team. “That was the energy at the time, especially among the young people who we were making this movie about.” It’s also, King added, a view that the film’s cast and crew shared. “This is many decades after the events captured in the movie, and I don’t know how many Black people I’ve seen murdered on the news.”
The Envelope spoke with King, along with producer Charles D. King, who is not related, (The two teamed up with producer Ryan Coogler in 2014 on Blackout for Human Rights, a coalition that fights police brutality) and Kaluuya, who called the movie “the biggest professional task I’ve been given.”
Shaka, you spent two years developing this film. What did it mean to you?
Shaka King: Growing up in a household where my parents named me Shaka King, you can get a sense of the politics I was steeped in [laughs]. My parents were Black nationalists, so to make a studio film that’s personal in this way, in terms of putting forth ideas into the world that are important to me — not to mention having the opportunity to work with the best of the best: my DP Sean Bobbitt, this incredible cast and to be able to partner with a close friend in Ryan Coogler, someone who could walk me through the process of studio filmmaking — it meant everything. This is a story that people have been dying to see. Forest Whitaker and Courtney B. Vance tried to make a movie about Hampton for decades.
The movie touches on major themes of the Black revolution. What was it like to recreate that world on set?
Charles D. King: I’ll tell you, there were moments when it felt like we were back in time. We shot in Cleveland, which doubled for Chicago in ’68, ’69, and our locations were very much an authentic mirror to the era to the point where Mother Akua [Hampton’s widow and comrade in arms, who goes by Deborah Johnson (and is played by Dominique Fishback) in the film] commented on the accuracy of our sets. Everyone who worked on this movie became very close through the process of telling this story. You think about the work that was being done and how much it relates to today. I remember one scene in particular gave me goose bumps. It was the “I Am a Revolutionary” speech Chairman Fred gave at the People’s Church, after his release from Menard [Correctional Center]. The first couple of takes, it didn’t feel like we were shooting a film. The energy in that room, with the drummers and the people’s beat, all those extras and Daniel’s performance too. It was unbelievable.
Hampton was a born leader who boldly resisted police abuse and demanded rights for Black people. What was the key to finding the character, Daniel?
Kaluuya: I think it was a summation of things: going to Chicago, meeting the family, speaking to people who knew Chairman Fred and ex-Panthers. I also read dissertations of Chicago at that time and the Black Power movement. Then I said, “What were the Panthers reading?” Shaka gave me their reading list, and it helped me understand how they think, so I could receive the information in the film in context. There’s a whole universe of things you can say were key for me. You have to create a world of a process, and you can go on a rabbit hunt for two weeks, and you may get one thing and it’s worth it.
Charles D. King: This was the first time I’ve been involved in a project where the lead actor said I need to show up weeks early [laughs], earlier than we needed him, because he wanted to immerse himself into the character and the world and just get into that mental zone.
Shaka King: Daniel also studied opera.
Kaluuya: Yeah, I sat down with an opera coach because, to me, it was like everyone’s in a film, but I’m in a play because of the amount of dialogue I have. And with plays, you might have a month of rehearsal where you gain the vocal muscularity needed to take a run. I didn’t want to think about losing my voice up there. I needed to think, I want to awaken these people with this speech, that’s it. I’m trying to ignite what I need to ignite. So I watched videos of Hampton, taking him in as a spirit and going, “What’s that telling you? How does it move you? How can you move someone like you’re being moved right now?” I also saw his speeches as a talking version of singing, so I’d sing songs that I identified with the times — energy or attitude-wise; a lot of James Brown and gospel. Then I’d go into the speeches with the opera coach who could see how I’m using my voice.
One interesting aspect of the movie is how it gives equal weight to Lakeith Stanfield’s O’Neal, the FBI asset who betrayed Hampton. When did you realize that was how you wanted to tell the story?
Shaka King: That was baked in from the start. When [writers Keith and Kenneth Lucas] reached out and said we want to make a movie about O’Neal and Hampton that’s “The Departed” but set in the world of [the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program], I said that’s brilliant, and we set about figuring out what that looked like. To me, it was ingenious, because that’s the only way you’re going to get a Fred Hampton biopic or anything like it made. You couch it in genre. You have to, essentially, Trojan horse a Fred Hampton biopic in an undercover movie.
How much did you know about O’Neal before the film?
Shaka King: Nothing at all. I’d never heard of him.
It’s fascinating to watch Lakeith Stanfield as this diabolically smart, thrill-seeking snitch wiggle out of one tight spot after another. What did he bring to the role?
Charles D. King: There have been many great performances for Lakeith, but I do believe this is one where people are going to understand just how talented he is, and Shaka was spot-on in identifying Lakeith as the perfect actor for the role. I was fortunate to produce “Sorry to Bother You,” so I got to spend time with Lakeith, and he has an almost left-of-center sensibility. He’s smart, takes risks as an actor, and what he brought to the part was a complexity to this kind of tortured figure who on the one hand has a capitalistic sensibility, but you wonder, is he going to embrace the movement? I think Lakeith did a masterful job of exhibiting both cunning and a natural kind of charisma while showing fear of getting caught and craftiness all at the same time.
Daniel, you grew up in London. How did you learn of the Panthers?
Kaluuya: I stumbled across the Panthers through the art I was taking in from America as a teenager, and what they stood for really resonated with me. I remember we studied this period of American history in school, but, for whatever reason, we weren’t taught the Panthers. It was Rosa Parks, the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King. That’s kind of what I was taught about Black American issues at like 14. The curriculum didn’t go into slavery and only alluded to Malcolm X. But if you’re around Black people, they’ll tell you, they’ll show you. Listen to this, watch this.
So is this the movie about the Panthers that we’ve been waiting to see?
Charles D. King: Well, I certainly hope people who know the Black Panther Party, and its current members, can see the care we took to tell this story as authentically as possible while making sure that there was creative license to still have this be an entertaining and compelling feature. Hopefully, this film can shed light on the great work that members of the party continue to do to prevent violence and bring communities together.
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