At once an intimate character study of two men caught at the crossroads of history, a tense and fast-moving thriller and a tender love story, Shaka King’s ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ makes for an arresting watch at the UAE cinemas this week.
Bringing to light an important and shockingly-overlooked American civil rights story, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ follows the final year in the life of Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter chairman, Fred Hampton, only 21 when he was shot down by the FBI.
However, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is as much about the messiah as it is about Judas: In this case, William O’Neal — a young man who made the choice to infiltrate the Black Panther Party, which eventually led to Hampton’s assassination.
The script for King’s directorial debut was written by comedian-writer duo Keith and Kenny Lucas or the Lucas Brothers. They were especially concerned about bringing authenticity to their story but also doing it from a unique point of view.
“I know a lot of brothers who when they watch this movie that they’re probably going to see themselves more in Will than Fred. Fred is a very unique kind of person. You don’t meet a lot of Fred Hamptons, you don’t meet a lot of people who are willing to die for their beliefs. But you do meet a lot of people who make pragmatic choices all the time. I certainly saw myself more in Will than in Fred. I can admit that, that’s why I was more attracted to this story. I felt like the story of the William O’Neals of the world is not told because of that fear and sometimes when you’re an artist you have to not think about that fear,” said Keith Lucas about their choice to tell the story from O’Neal’s point of view.
Here’s what the cast had to say about the ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’, at a virtual summit held by Warner Bros:
DANIEL KALUUYA, WHO PLAYS FRED HAMPTON
On playing Chairman Fred Hampton:
“I feel humbled and honoured. When I really took in the scope of his ideas, his concepts, his beliefs, his love for the people... I felt just honoured to kind of spiritually step into this position and to be a part of continuing his legacy in my medium, and with Chairman Fred Hampton Jr doing it out in the real world as well. I just wanted to honour that,” said Kaluuya on taking on the big role.
On what stayed with him about the role:
“The way I see it, he had an internal revolution. He was free within his own mind, within his own spirit, within his own soul and he wanted to give people the tools to free themselves… To free themselves with education, with food, with legal aid… With all these tools they put in place to promote individual, internal liberation as well as community union.”
LAKEITH STANFIELD, WHO PLAYS WILLIAM O’NEAL
On his character William O’Neal:
“He starts off as a petty car thief, a petty criminal. And he sort of gets seduced by the power in that — he likes the power — and then he gets caught by the FBI, and Agent Mitchell gives him an ultimatum: He can do jail time, or he can turn against the Black Panther Party. He chooses the latter… I think it’s survival at that point, right? It’s a game of cat and mouse, really, trying not to be found out by his constituency, but also paying his debts to the government… and making sure he just continues to play the role.”
On working with Kaluuya:
“It’s always great; it’s always a treat. Daniel to me was Fred. When I first heard him do that big speech, even at the table read, I was crying, because I felt like he embodied the spirit of Fred and it was just a beautiful thing to see. And I’m appreciative of that on many levels: one, in terms of just storytelling, it’s great to see someone that can embody Fred; but also, as an actor, it’s something that I admire, his ability to transform.”
On thinking he’d be playing Fred Hampton first:
“When I first got the script, for some reason, I just assumed I’d be playing Fred. It didn’t even cross my mind that I’d be playing anyone else. I was never told I’d be playing Fred… But it was just wishful thinking on my part, in retrospect. And when I called Shaka, we talked about the story, I said, ‘This is so exciting, I just can’t wait to play Fred’. And he just let me ramble on for a while, and then he said, ‘Actually, I was thinking about you for the role of William O ‘Neal.’ And then there was this silence.”
“And at first, I was really kinda against it. I was like, ‘I can’t play this dude, there’s no way. I hate this guy’. But as we progressed on, after I saw ‘Eyes on the Prize’, I got an indication that a lot of the exterior bravado that he was bringing to the interview was sort of boring and secondary to me to the what it was ‘in-between’ the words he was saying… which to me, there was this sense of regret. I wanted to pay attention to that.
"I already went into that character thinking I’m going to take that sliver of insecurity and try and magnify that to bring the character to life. I wanted to really get into what his fears were and hopefully making him more relatable to me can make him more relatable to the people. But I also didn’t want to risk being too relatable and too emotionally available to the audience to offset the fact that he did some really horrible things. So I tried to find a balance with Shaka.”
DOMINIQUE FISHBACK, WHO PLAYS DEBORAH JOHNSON
On working with director Shaka King:
“Honestly, I can’t talk enough about Shaka, about the person that he is, about the artist that he is. He is responsible for everything, and this is such a massive undertaking, and still he made time for his artists. I remember, it was a busy day on set and I’m just trying to get into the head space of the character. I look across the room and he’s by the monitor; he looks at me and mouths, ‘Are you okay?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I’m okay.’
"The level of attention that he showed to me made me feel completely, completely safe. I would write him three-page essays on women in the party and Black women, and ask, ‘Maybe we should show this?’ And there he was, responsible for so many aspects and he had so many voices that he had to listen to and find a balance… and he always made time.”
On Fred Hampton’s role in bringing more women into the Black Panther Party:
“I think about the scene in the movie, where Bill O’Neal is trying to talk to one of the sisters in education class, and Chairman Fred calls him out about this, ‘That’s not what we’re here to do.’ The level of respect that he had for women and their contribution, not just in the Free Breakfast Program and other parts, but in general.
"The thought process was that everybody mattered, even in terms of going outside of the Party and recruiting people. Everybody served a purpose. Everybody was valuable, whether you had a jail record, or you were quote/unquote a criminal, or a sex worker, a mother — everybody had space in the revolution and Chairman Fred made sure that the women were valued and that everybody’s contribution was important. Because, you know, he couldn’t do it alone.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is currently showing in UAE cinemas.