Movies

Director Shaka King On Bringing ‘Judas And The Black Messiah’ To Life

Since the pandemic started, sure, yes, we all want things to go back to normal, which would include watching movies in theaters. But a few months ago there was a definitive push by some filmmakers to just put movies in theaters and see what happens. They’d talk about the sanctity of the movie theater experience, and that’s all fine and good, but this goes against most logic right now. (There seems to be a trend that, whatever a person wants to do at any given moment, that’s somehow the one safe thing that can still be done.) In an interview with The Atlantic, Shaka King – whose excellent Judas and the Black Messiah is on HBO MAX right now as you read this – was asked about this and, finally, a filmmaker gave the perfect answer:

“I think this is actually quite an easy change to embrace. I don’t want anybody to go to the movie theater and die to watch my movie. I have no desire for that. And as a person who’s been home: Last year was a tough, tough year. I needed shit to watch to distract me. I had TV, but there weren’t a lot of movies. Everybody was holding all the good stuff until this shit went away. It was rough.”

This is a remarkable answer because it’s a filmmaker leaving his ego at the door. Look, if you’re a director, of course you want your movie in a theater. And especially someone in King’s position, who has made his breakthrough film and, as you’ll read ahead, worked so hard to get this story about Fred Hampton made – with so many ups and downs along the way before Warner Bros. gave him the green light. King really should be commended.

Judas and the Black Messiah (again, you can watch it right now on HBO Max) is the story of Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya, who is gobbling up acting nominations every week), but it’s also the story of William O’Neal (who is played by the excellent LaKeith Stanfield who should be getting nominations), the man who infiltrated the Black Panthers on behalf of the FBI and betrayed Fred Hampton. It’s a story that draws some comparisons to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which King sees, but, as he explains, it’s more influenced by The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Are you in New York?

I live in New York.

Okay, me too. I read the interview you did with David Sims at The Atlantic and I thought the answer you gave him about movie theaters was perfect and I’ve been waiting for a filmmaker to say that. And it read like someone who was in New York City last March and April.

Yes. I mean, that’s exactly how I feel. You remember.

I do.

I need something every night. I need something. And we’re still there. I think it’s not just New York — we, fortunately, are in a far more stable place than a lot of other places. Granted, we have winter to contend with, so we can’t really hang out outside. But I was doing this sort of like, hey, let’s have breakfast outside thing like a month ago. And it just got to a place, I was like, I’m freezing. I’d rather have been alone. So I think with it being cold, folks are staying inside more and just looking for something to take their mind away from everything else going on in the world. That’s what this movie’s going to do. It’s going to make you not think about anything that’s going on in the world.

There were certain directors who demanded their movies be seen in theaters only. Directors who are in positions where they have their own movie theaters. Anyway, I’m just glad you said what you said because I’ve been waiting for that answer for a long time.

I’m surprised. I assumed a lot more people felt that way.

Reading about how this movie got made, it sounds like you assumed it would go to a smaller outlet, which didn’t materialize. Then all of a sudden it’s Warner Bros. Was that surprising?

I didn’t anticipate that. To be honest, I had limited experience in terms of navigating studios. It wasn’t so much that I thought one place would appreciate it more. I didn’t know really the difference between the cultures of the studios until going through this process.

Ah, right.

But I expected, quite frankly, all of the studios to jump at the opportunity to make it just because of the stacked team we were bringing to them. With Ryan Coogler right on the heels of Black Panther. Charles King putting up half the budget. Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield attached in leading roles. And, not to mention, and this was the biggest one for me: understanding and knowing, I didn’t know about individual studio cultures. But I was aware of how much they now rely on algorithms in terms of the movies that they green light. Especially coming off the heels of the success of Black Panther, which, I remember going to the theater and seeing people show up in berets and black leather jackets because it’s a Marvel movie, so the people were making that connection. And the fact that we have the director of that movie in the producer role on this film? I felt like that was going to begin the bidding war essentially.

Right, because that adds could be like what Spielberg always did when he produced, “From the mind that brought you E.T. presents…”

Exactly! I was literally thinking the same thing! “That was the true story of the true Black Panther.” You can Moviefone the commercial!

Right. “You saw the superhero version, now hear the real story from the mind who brought you the Marvel movie.” Yeah, it works. By the way, I have a terrible movie trailer voice. They would never hire me to do that.

I don’t have the greatest. We have other talents.

Well, that’s frustrating, it was set up on a tee.

Yeah. I mean, it surprised me somewhat, but only briefly, and then it was just like, okay! We got one! Yes! And not only did we get one, but we got it from Warner Bros.

Exactly.

You want to talk about name recognition, you want to talk about legacy, you want to talk about the right place to make a historical epic? This is where you want to do it. So I wasn’t disappointed as much as I was surprised. I was over the moon because we were making this movie with Warner Bros.

Were you surprises there weren’t a lot of other movies about Fred Hampton? It’s like you’re making the movie of record.

Do you feel like you knew a lot of people who knew him or knew about him?

Do I?

Yeah, do you?

I think people know the name. But I don’t think people knew a lot about him. I think they know generally what he did and they know how his life ended. But as far as everything else, I would probably say no.

I think you’d be surprised about how few people even know the name.

Ah, okay.

I think in the circles you move in, perhaps, and in the circles I move in, certainly, but I think when you’re talking about going out to LA and Hollywood specifically, the name recognition wouldn’t be there. And it won’t be there until this movie comes out.

When I talked to LaKeith he said he had a tough time playing William O’Neal and often came to you for advice. That he felt what he did was “reprehensible,” but yet he’s giving this guy some humanity and he really struggled with that. What was that dynamic like between you and LaKeith? Because that seems like an extremely difficult character to portray.

I mean, it was really hard for him and it was very obviously hard for him in the moment. But it wasn’t until after the fact that he and I had some conversations and some personal memories that he was unearthing and processing while tapping into some of the darker aspects of William’s personality, that I understood the depth to which he was sacrificing as much as he was. But even in the moment, I just used to come to him and just say, look, you have the hardest job out of all of us. Because Daniel’s here, he’s playing an icon, that’s a challenge. Dominique’s here, she’s playing a living icon, arguably more difficult. But you have the thankless job of playing this person that everyone hates. And actually not portraying him sympathetically, but giving context to some of his decisions. And it’s a thankless job and you’re doing it because we want to get a movie about Fred Hampton out to the universe. And this is the way to do that. So, it’s a tremendous sacrifice that you’re making and I thank you for that. And in those dark moments, I would just remind him of the fact, even though you’re playing a coward, what you’re doing is actually quite heroic.

Something just popped into my head when you said “coward.” I was trying to think who he kind of reminds me of, but he kind of reminded me of Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This guy who starts looking up to Fred Hampton and then betrays him and has to live with that. Obviously, these are different movies, but just that character…

It’s an analogy that a lot of people have made, and the thing that’s funny is that I actually didn’t see that movie until after I made this film. But when I watched the movie, I was like, oh yeah, I can totally see how people would make that connection. There’s definitely something happening there. Even though I also think there are many differences.

Oh, yes.

But I do think that movie, which is what’s interesting, it’s about a guy who gets close to greatness and he loves this guy. He actually loves this guy. And to me, that movie is almost more like The Talented Mr. Ripley in terms of the characters.

Oh, that’s interesting.

And what’s funny is that that was a reference for this cast, was Ripley. Yeah, there’s something there. There’s something there.

‘Jesus And The Black Messiah’ is currently streaming via HBO Max. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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