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Shaka King breaks down “Judas and the Black Messiah”

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The Judas and the Black Messiah director talks about balancing revolutionary energy with his own personal need to grow as a filmmaker.

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Shaka King is a hard filmmaker to pin down. His debut feature, 2013’s Newlyweeds, was a stoner dramedy; he then went on to direct Shrill and People of the Earth. For his sophomore film, Judas and The Black Messiah, he dramatically changes gears to hard-hitting historical race drama telling the story of the betrayal of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the leader of the Illinois Black Panthers, by FBI informant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). The film has already been nominated for SAG Awards and the Golden Globes, and has gotten a glowing review from The Spool.

The Spool spent some time talking to King about Judas and The Black Messiah, finding the surprise in a project where everyone knows the ending and learning from the Black Panthers.

THE SPOOL: Judas and the Black Messiah is obviously very different from your previous work. How do you kind of make that transition?

KING: I’ve loved crime movies since I was a kid; they’ve always been my favourite movies to watch. And I’ve always had a desire to make them. I just didn’t have the opportunity until now. But I devour them like candy, o, it was something I felt comfortable stepping into.

What were some of your favourite crime movies?

Everything Sidney Lumet ever made. I mean, that was crime. [He] made a lot of stuff that wasn’t crime: Prince of The City is a big one. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is probably my favourite, which he didn’t make, but I love that movie daily. Knife in the Water, Serpico, I love Thief, I love Michael Mann.

This is a film packed with a lot of star power. What was it like working with all these different people?

[It was a] joy. Like I say, it’s easy to win the championship, when you have the ‘97 Bulls. I had a very stacked roster: weeks go by and then another person will come on. I remember when being like, “Jesus, I can’t believe the wealth of talent that I’m being gifted right now.” It was an absolute joy. 

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Lakeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

I think one thing you do really well, with that cast, is making the balance of revolutionary energy and the tenderness. How important was it for you to bring out these human moments from the cast?

It was a big part of the desire to make the film. I think there’s no way to fully know the sacrifices that these people made. We were portraying them as people, as opposed to icons, as opposed to saints. They made real sacrifices, they suffered real traumas that those who survived are still dealing with to this day. I thought it was important to show the sacrifices that Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and all the members of the Illinois chapter, made. 

What was it like making a film, where a lot of the people have passed, but a lot of people are still alive? How was it interacting with the people who still survive from that time?

I was able to speak to three survivors. Remember, Fred Hampton Jr. was in that room, in his mother’s belly. I was able to speak with three of the survivors about the experience and be in consultation with them, during the making of the film, and even since the films were made. That’s a challenging thing to navigate. As difficult as it is for me, I can’t even begin to understand how difficult it is for them. I’m just always appreciative of them for being willing to relive this traumatic experience and sacrifice for us. 

Most people coming into the film roughly know how it’s going to end. How does it play into your filmmaking when the audience knows that?

You look for places where there’s elements of surprise, because you never want your audience to be on stable ground. I think it helps that I hate exposition deeply. I like to drop you in. I had a great screenwriting teacher named Fred Hudson, who said, “Drop the audience in the scene as late as you possibly can and get them out as quickly as you can.” That was his philosophy around building scenes. I think that has a destabilising effect that some people don’t like, especially people who want a more traditional format where things  and they want to feel satisfied. But for people like me who like a little bit of space to fill in the blanks for myself, it’s a much more satisfying, engaging viewing experience.

Daniel Kaluuya, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and Lakeith Stanfield appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

What do you reckon you learned while making this film, both as a filmmaker, but also, in terms of this history that we don’t get to hear that much.

I learned how to collaborate. As filmmakers, we’re used to collaborating with actors and crew. Even to some degree, filmmakers are used to collaborating with their producers, and that being a healthy collaboration. When we talk about working with a studio, we don’t think about that as a collaborative effort. All we hear about working with studios is the nightmare experience —  “they took the movie away”, “they kicked the director out of the edit”. You never hear about those instances when the collaboration actually yields a better movie, one that can go wider but still retain the integrity that you set out to make it with.That was the experience I had making the movie with Warner Brothers. To learn that that was possible as a director, that was huge. 

In terms of what I learned about the Party: a trillion things. I knew that they had a politic that was focused on interracial coalition building, I didn’t quite know what that looked like. One thing that blew my mind was learning about Fred Hampton partnering with street organisations, aka what we refer to as gangs. But I think when you use that terminology — “gangs” — it immediately applies a negative connotation to street organisation. When you look at those street organisations, and you do the history on them, you see how they were actually incredibly political organisations. That was a revelation for me, when you’re focusing on a city like Chicago where people constantly talk about gang culture in this negative way. But then you look at documentaries, you know about history, and you see that these are incredibly brilliant, politically-minded folks. It makes sense that the Panthers had an interesting coalition building with them.

What things should Black people, or people in general, should learn from Fred Hampton? And what did you learn as an individual?

One takeaway is the shortcomings of Black capitalism. I don’t think that’s a means for us to get out of the binds and structures that we’re in.  I think Fred did a great job of tearing down the myth of that being an effective means of revolution. [Black capitalism is] merely performance politics, and it’s only going to line the pockets of very few people. 

Judas and the Black Messiah comes to theaters ane HBO Max February 12th.

Judas and the Black Messiah Trailer:

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Oluwatayo Adewole

Tayo is a writer, poet and frequent nerd from London. They're interested in the way that art, and film specifically, interact with and challenge society. He's also obsessed with Hot Fuzz. You'll most likely find them rambling about film/politics/stanning Jharrel Jerome @naijaprince21 on Twitter. You can also see his poetry @tayowrites on Instagram