Judas and the Black Messiah: Shaka King’s Tale of Illinois Black Panther Party

 

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When the film opened on February 12, Judas and the Black Messiah marked a milestone for Black representation in front of and behind the camera.

The movie offers a critical new look at the short life but enduring impact of Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton.

Shaka King, the film’s co-writer and director, was disappointed by the studios’ lack of interest: “I was under the impression that if you make a movie about a Black Panther, produced by the director of ‘Black Panther,’ which made a billion dollars, starring two of the best actors of our generation, and you have a producer and co-financer in Charles King, it’s going to be a bidding war. But that was not the case.”

Hollywood is facing pressures to become more diverse in the stories it tells and the filmmakers it promotes. However, it’s still a struggle to get such projects made. “I don’t see a tremendous difference how Hollywood interacts with Black storytellers and Black art as commerce,” King says. “It moves in waves. I don’t think there’s been a bone beat, spiritual makeover in Hollywood.”

It’s been 51 years since Hampton’s death. In film and TV, he was mentioned in the docu, “Death of a Black Panther: The Fred Hampton Story” and as a supporting character in the Netflix film “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

In Black culture, his name has an almost mythological power, and yet, despite his prominence, many people are hazy about the details of his life beyond the circumstances of his death. There have been previous attempts by the likes of Forest Whitaker and Antoine Fuqua to dramatize Hampton’s story, and those projects have been explored and announced but somehow failed to ever make it in front of the cameras. In 2014, Keith and Kenneth Lucas, better known as the stand-up comedy duo The Lucas Bros, pitched the idea of the Fred Hampton film to several studios, selling it as Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” meets Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.” Studios like A24 and Netflix passed.

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Director Shaka King and Daniel Kaluuya. Photo by Glen Wilson Courtesy of Glen Wilson

Will Berson, a secular Jewish comedy writer from New York, put the finishing touches on his own Hampton script, entitled “The Assassination of Chairman Fred Hampton by the Closet Queen Mulatto Edgar Hoover.” His story had more expansive approach, beginning with Hampton’s mother babysitting Emmett Till and culminating with his own funeral. Berson also failed to get much interest from various production companies. One prominent studio executive grilled him by asking “Where’s the traditional arc? What are the challenges?” Berson’s response: “It’s not a traditional biopic because he was not a traditional human being.”

Another studio executive suggested that he show Hampton “learning how to speak in front of a crowd; perhaps he gets nervous and stutters for his first outing.” Berson was having none of it. “This isn’t “The King’s Speech,” he quipped.

Berson and the Lucas Brothers shared the same goal of introducing the world to Fred Hampton in a way that would inspire a new generation.

In 2016, while collaborating with Shaka King on FX pilot that didn’t get picked up, the Lucas Brothers spoke with the director about the project.

The industry hasn’t shown the same eagerness to tell stories about the Black community, despite an abundance of heroes and historical figures. Hollywood also tends to embrace pat stories of triumph over adversity, preferably making movies that end on an optimistic note. That’s not “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Shaka King’s film is more similar to Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” which used the outlaw’s killer as a way of looking at James’ life and times. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is as interested in O’Neal’s treachery and feelings of guilt as it is in documenting Hampton’s position in the Civil Rights movement.

In August 2017, Berson’s script version, now titled “To Fred Hampton,” was getting some heat, with. F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton”) in talks to direct and Casey Affleck and John Powers Middleton in negotiations to produce. Names like Jaden Smith and O’Shea Jackson Jr. were being floated to portray the chairman. Berson and Shaka King opted to join forces, and

Some producers expressed interest in the material, but they would come back with a figure that was just impossible to make this movie, especially a period film,” he remembers.

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Fred Hampton at a rally in October 1969; Lakeith Stanfield as William O’Neal, with Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell; FBI informant William O’NealHampton: AP Images; Judas and the Black Messiah: Warner Bros. Pictures

He was told that his $26 million budget was too high. But Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman grossed $93 million worldwide, becoming a major hit for distributor Focus Features.

With financing in place, Shaka King reached out to Njeri and her son, Fred Hampton Jr., to get their approval.

Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Hampton, also went to Chicago to get the family’s blessing. “We had to declare who we were and what our intentions were,” he says.

Eventually, Njeri and her son gave their endorsement. However, not everyone was pleased with the final result. When the film’s trailer dropped in August 2020, there was social media criticism about the British born Kaluuya portraying an Illinois native like Hampton.

On the 50th anniversary of Hampton’s murder, with Fred Jr. on set, they filmed the scene in which O’Neal spikes the chairman’s drink. “It was intense,” says Kaluuya. “Artistically, we went above and beyond to support each other in those moments where we felt the gravity of what we were bringing into reality on screen. The film is bigger than us.”

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Daniel Kaluuya and Dominique Fishback in “Judas and the Black Messiah” Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Dominique Fishback, who plays Deborah Johnson was overcome with emotion when she walked onto the set of the apartment where Hampton was killed. In the scene in which Hampton is fatally shot, the real-life Johnson, was off-camera watching it all unfold. She was adamant that Fishback not cry.

“At that moment, that was for the ancestors during slavery when they couldn’t show that side, for the mothers now who are losing their children and still have to be strong for everybody,” says Fishback. “That’s what black women do.”

Lakeith Stanfield, who plays O’Neal, had his own struggles portraying his character. To avoid prison, the real-life O’Neal agreed to befriend and betray Hampton. “I had so many walls up about what I thought he represented, which is everything I found abhorrent, wrong, immoral, weak and cowardly,” says Stanfield. “I had to break down the barriers of my own ego to tap into who he was.”

That movement and the unprecedented outpouring of activism after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others, is also what makes Judas and the Black Messiah relevant, even though it tells a story set more than half a century ago.

Police officers have killed 213 unarmed Black people in 2020, according to the Washington Post, so Fred Hampton’s fight is ongoing.

Coogler holds that “His assassination was a robbery, more than just his life and family. It was a robbery for all of us.”