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Shaka King on Making “Judas & the Messiah”

Shaka King cut his teeth on comedy, but with Judas and the Black Messiah, he tackles a dramatic — and unsettling — part of American history. This story originally ran in Deadline’s director’s issue.

Seven years ago, writer, director and producer Shaka King accepted the Film Independent Someone to Watch Award for his quirky comedic debut, Newlyweeds. After years directing shorts and episodes of TV shows Shrill, High Maintenance and People of the Earth, the 40-year-old filmmaker returns to the big screen. Collaborating with producers Ryan Coogler and Charles D King (no relation), he tackles the compelling story of how FBI informer, William O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), infiltrated the Black Panther Party and befriended Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), leading to the deputy chairman’s death in a police raid in 1969.

By Nadia Neophytou

Deadline: It’s been over 50 years since Fred Hampton was killed, and previous attempts to tell his story have stalled in the past. I know it took quite some time for this film to come to life. What did it mean for you personally to see it all the way through the challenges that it brought up for you as a director?

Shaka King: My first compelling reason for wanting to make the movie was that it was an opportunity to correct the record in terms of the misinformation that’s been put forth about the Black Panther party, in terms of them being terrorists and focusing on the militancy of their politics, as opposed to focusing on this more so holistic vision that they had for bettering the world, through free healthcare and free breakfast and access to livable, decent housing, and just the number of causes they championed.
So being able to put forth some of their politics, which are incredibly relevant today obviously, was the reason that anytime I had my doubts, whether they were related to creative difficulties or things of that nature, the priority, the importance — especially after having met Fred Hampton Jr. and having met Akua Njeri — there was no option for this not happening. We just had too unique and important an opportunity.

Deadline: How did you work with the family’s involvement in the film?

King: It all happened on a case by case basis. Fred Hampton Jr. was on set nearly 90% of the time. He joined the production officially a week into shooting, and from that day on, he was on set. I think maybe he missed two days, tops. He had read the script a million times, many versions of the script, and the final one he read many, many times. But it’s very different reading something and then being on set watching it unfold. There would be things in the moment that he hadn’t considered that he would now be confronted with and it would really push us to change course. Sometimes we could do that, and there were instances when we weren’t able to do that because of something, for example, that we shot prior. If it was going to affect something that was to be shot later, we would always try to consider it. Sometimes we could accommodate. Sometimes we couldn’t. Sometimes it made scenes better.
For me as a director, it was an opportunity to learn how to make sideways moves, which wasn’t something that I had to do just to satisfy Fred Hampton Jr.’s desires, it was something I had to do to satisfy studio and producer notes, that I might not necessarily agree with, but that they thought were important to address. So ultimately, the process of collaborating with all of these different voices made me, I feel, a better artist.

Deadline: You gave Daniel Kaluuya the Black Panther reading list…

King: Yeah, the Black Panthers had a reading list that you had to read during six week-long political education courses. So Daniel asked me for those books and I gave him that list.

Deadline: Your own research, I imagine, must have been quite extensive as well. What did you rely on?

King: A million books, articles, interviews, books that were out of print. The amount of several-hundred-dollars books that I bought, just because this history isn’t widely covered. It’s intentionally kept from us, but also, you have to understand that you’re talking about a community that was traumatized and just quite simply traumatized by the US government, not just the events of Fred Hampton’s assassination, but the war that the FBI waged with the COINTELPRO [Counterintelligence Program], imprisoning so many Panthers, a good amount of whom are still in prison as elders now, all these years later.
As the film highlights counter-intelligence in the form of utilizing informants was rampant in terms of what the Bureau was doing. So, as a result, they’re pretty rightfully mistrustful of outsiders, and so there just isn’t that much written about this history. It took a lot of research on my part and on Will Berson, my co-writer’s part, to get to the truth on this stuff.

Deadline: From the video footage that exists, it’s evident Daniel Kaluuya captures the magnetism of Fred Hampton. What let you know that he would rise so well to the challenge of playing him?

King: I just knew. I knew intuitively that he was the guy. And when I met him, he possessed just certain qualities that people who knew Fred Hampton would talk about — how mature he was but also how charismatic. And you hear the youthful charisma in the way he presents his ideas, less so in the ideas themselves. He was very funny. He was profane. And Daniel is the same, just that mix of gravitas and youthful charisma. It’s rare that you find that in one person. I was writing this for Daniel prior to meeting him. And when I met him, I observed those qualities. But I think in addition to that, you see it in his other performances, the commitment to the material and his seriousness. I think that is a big part of the reason why. He just did the preparation.

It’s a very hard dialect to nail. Fred’s dialect is very hard to nail. We talked exhaustively about it, because it was a fine line to ride. If you listened to his actual speeches, he spoke so fast and there’s a Southern inflection in his words, there’s a bit of Chicago too. And then there’s also, I suspect, I could be wrong but I have a number of friends with deviated septums. So they have a very nasal tonality to their voice as well, which he had, which gives it a muffled tonality. So it was like, how do we find that tone where you can understand clearly what he’s saying because it’s so important that these words are clearly understood, but also that you sound enough like Fred so people who know his voice and love this man, and have been waiting for a movie to be made about him for so long, come away from it saying, “Yeah, this guy nailed it”? It was a real, real difficult thing to pull off, and I think Daniel did.

Deadline: You’ve worked with LaKeith Stanfield on the comedic short, LaZercism, but this is very different to that. What kind of support did this require in directing him for this role of being an FBI informer?

King: It’s night and day from the last thing I did with him. And the last thing I did, he was essentially doing an Allstate commercial. You know what I mean? This was a lot different. It required him to do a lot of personal work — a lot of which I’m only learning about now, in doing this press, and just the personal trauma that he had to tap into doing certain scenes, that I just can’t imagine. Now it makes sense, why some of the things he was experiencing while filming were happening.

There was one scene, it’s the scene where he drugs Fred Hampton. And we shot that, by the way, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination. He woke up that morning throwing up. Our head make-up artist, Sian Richards, called me and said, “Just so you know, LaKeith has been throwing up in his trailer all day and crying nonstop.” And that’s because this scene was conjuring up certain things in his own life that he was using to give the most compelling performance possible in that moment, in the entire movie. But that was really very hard for him.

I remember another day where he was driving, in the scene where he reveals that he’s wearing a wire, and his hands started to tingle and we had to stop. He was actually being towed, so there wasn’t any danger in terms of him actually operating a vehicle. But just the fact that his hands were tingling, we just stopped filming, to see if his blood pressure was elevated. If we’d potentially have to take him to the hospital. After the shoot, he actually ended up being hospitalized with high blood pressure. Wouldn’t surprise me that this experience played a big part. So it was really hard for him, especially him being a person who has the politics that he has and the kind of human being he is. To play someone completely unlike him, and to play him accurately, we had to find those things within himself that are like this person, which is incredibly difficult work.
So I used to tell him all the time, everybody on this set has a really, really difficult job. Daniel is playing an icon. Dominique is playing an icon who is still alive. I said, “But you have the thankless job of playing William O’Neil. And it’s a real worthy sacrifice because the only way this movie gets made is if we make it this way.” I knew that for a multitude of reasons. So it was a real, real sacrifice that he had to make to play someone like this. Because when I first called, he thought he was playing Fred Hampton.

Deadline:
You won the Film Independent Someone to Watch award after your comedy film Newlyweeds came out — how did making this film change your style as a director? Did it change your approach at all?

King: There were a lot of new experiences, to start. Like for example, this was my first time doing action. So there was a learning curve there, and I’m going to be a student of this artform forever, so I have a lot to learn in that department. It was my first time working, developing a movie, with major producers at a studio. That was just completely new terrain for me — having to take notes from 12 different individuals. Sometimes the notes contradict one another. And I have my own vision of what I want to do. And then also the true life aspect of it I also have to take into account. After we all — myself, producers, studio — have agreed upon, “This is what we’re moving forward with,” then the family comes in and says, “No, you can’t do that. You can’t do this.” So you have to make those adjustments. There were a lot of creative challenges that I don’t know how much they changed my process, but they’ve changed me as an artist. So I’m guessing my process has changed when I make the next thing.

Deadline: What kind of impact personally did it have on you to make this movie?

King: It’s hard for me to tell how it’s changed me. Honestly, I just haven’t had the mental space yet to reflect on the ways it’s changed me individually as a person. I feel like anything I’d say would just be me just making something up. I’m sure it has. I just unfortunately haven’t had the time really to think about how it. Probably by the time I do have time, I’ll be thinking about the next thing I’m making, so I won’t even inventory that.

Deadline: You had to finish the film during the Covid-19 pandemic and the film will play at the virtual Sundance Film Festival. How did you manage dealing with that?

King: We were able to get a cut together before New York shut down, but then it shut down. And there was a time when we were just on hiatus, and then eventually we started working together remotely, and were able to do some work remotely. We really were blessed when things opened back up and we could work in the same room again and work on this in earnest again and bring it home. But it was challenging, producers on the other side of the country, and we still had the same timetable. It was slightly adjusted, but it was still a tight window to finish everything.

I was accustomed to doing work without any reshoots. I went into this like, I never even thought about reshoots as a possibility. But what I come to find out, most studio films of this size have reshoots built in, they’re planning reshoots, that everyone’s anticipating them. I wasn’t. And luckily, we didn’t need them to tell the story that we made. But it would have been nice to have for some scenes. But we didn’t have that. It’s another challenge you have to deal with, just like things in editing that you have to be like, “Okay, well, we can’t reshoot that. We can’t grab it. How do we make this work?” And we did.

The process of making this film taught me that. Every challenge that I experienced, I’m really glad I did. Because the outcome of it is, I think, most often better than what we would have done. And also I was able to learn from and grow from.

So as a result of that, I think I now look at challenges and difficulties, I try to, at least, with also just seeing the other side. Is there any positive to it? With this release, I think I could sit here and mope about the fact that I don’t get to have the experience of going around the world and screening it for people, talking and traveling, and going to festivals and all the stuff that … the ego strokes. No, I’m going to be in my f***ing house. You know what I’m saying? I’m going to do everything on Zoom.

But my friends who have had that experience, they’re like, “Yeah, by the end, I’m haggard. I’m sick. I’ve had the flu three times. I miss my family.” And that’s a downside I don’t have to experience. I just am staring at a screen for a lot of hours a day, but like I said, everything has its positive and negative. So I just more so than not try to focus on the positives where I can.

Deadline: It still will travel.

You get way more eyes on it. Look, I think about it like this, the Black Panther party was all about getting what they felt the people needed, to the people, as free and as easy as possible. And so, in the middle of the pandemic, there’s no justification for denying people. As a person who really needed TV and movies at different points during this year after a hard day, it’s the only way. In some ways it’s the right thing to do for people.