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'Judas and the Black Messiah' cast and director talk getting Fred Hampton's story right

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  • Fred Hampton
    African-American activist (1948-1969)

'Judas and the Black Messiah' is already receiving awards buzz for its performances by Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield, who plays turncoat William O'Neal. The cast and Shaka King, who directed and co-wrote the film, recently spoke with Yahoo Entertainment about how they decided to tell the real-life tale and the challenges they faced.

"The first thing I really connected to were his words," King said of Hampton. "He not only had a way of making potentially lofty concepts incredibly accessible, he also made them entertaining."

"There was a weight of the cultural responsibility," Kaluuya said of playing the role of Hampton. "And then meeting the [Hampton] family, there was an emotional resonsibility."

Watch more from the interview in the video above.

Video transcript

- You can murder a liberator, but you can't murder liberation. You can murder a revolutionary, but you can't murder a revolution. You can murder a freedom fighter, but you can't murder freedom.

KEVIN POLOWY: This story of Fred Hampton is such a vital one, such a relevant one, also one we haven't yet seen in this high profile of film. What were the most important things you felt like you needed to get right in telling this story?

SHAKA KING: The first thing I really connected to were his words and the power of them. The power of these ideas and the way that he phrased them. He, not only did he have a way of making potentially lofty concepts incredibly accessible, but he also made them entertaining. I recognized an opportunity to make revolutionary politics entertaining, and so that, it was important to get that right. That was one thing that was important to get right.

It was also important to, you know, get right and really, like, nail the fact that all the Black Panthers did was motivate out of a sense of love for their people, love for their comrades, and this idea of what revolutionary love looks like, and to really just make sure we imbued that throughout the movie, whether that be with Fred and Deborah, whether that be with Fred and his comrades in moments of levity. You don't say something like, I'mma die for the people, because I-- he said it, he said, I'mma die for the people because I live for the people. I live for the people because I love the people, you know, so it was important to really bring that to the surface.

- The Black Panthers are forming a rainbow coalition of oppressed brothers and sisters of every color.

KEVIN POLOWY: Did this feel more intimidating than past roles for you?

DANIEL KALUUYA: I wouldn't say it's intimidating. It's just a really, kind of, oh, [INAUDIBLE]. There's boundaries there that you've inherited as opposed to that you've made, so it was that kind of, like, it was a different kind of process. I was like, really, oh my god, what is this process like and this, that, and the other. But when I started viewing those boundaries as guides, then it really helped me going, oh, go this way, go that way, go this way. But it's-- and also there's a, yeah, there was a weight, the cultural responsibility, and then meeting the family, there was an emotional responsibility. And getting to know them, you know, and them being on set the majority of the day.

KEVIN POLOWY: Did your perception of the Black Panthers or Chairman Fred Hampton change at all over the course of making this film, like, diving so, so deeply into their legacy?

DOMINIQUE FISHBACK: I don't want to say changed, I would just say, it just got, I got just more knowledgeable. I guess seeing the fact that he was 21 years old, and Deborah Johnson, Mama Akua now, was 19 at the time, I think really put in the pressure, the weight of that in my mind of like, yeah, they're revolutionary. He's dynamic on stage, and he's powerful when he's up on the podium, but when he's in these quiet moments with this woman, he's not that same person. And the levels and layers that we have as human beings to be able to get to show that on screen as Black and brown people is really important.

KEVIN POLOWY: William O'Neil, who you know, described right there in the title is Judas, right, he's considered a traitor to his people. Where did, where did that appeal lie for you in representing this guy in telling his story?

LAKEITH STANFIELD: Jumping into O'Neil, I also had to find the humanity in him, you know. Like, I judged him at first, you know. I was like, oh yeah, he's a snitch. He's a person that betrayed and like, how could you do that to your people. But I opened up my awareness. I'm just like, as human beings, it's a different experience. He wasn't concerned with the Civil Rights movement.

Back then in the '60s, people wanna be like either you are a Black militant and you were really, like, fighting against the, like, white supremacy bullshit that was on top of us at the time, or you hate Black people. There's no, like, middle ground. But some people just weren't involved politically like that. He was like, I just want to get money, and whatever aligns me with money, that's what I'm on. So I had to just tap into that part of humanity that was like, you know, it was hard for me to get to, but it was, it was useful when I did.

KEVIN POLOWY: The Black Panther Party and the Black Power movement in general, it's long scared people. I mean, white people, particularly. It's also stoked division within the Black community as well. Given the racial reckoning we've seen over the past year, do you think there's been any kind of shift in how Freedom Fighters like Fred Hampton are viewed? I mean, do you think this movie would have been accepted any differently like a year ago.

SHAKA KING: That's an interesting question. I think the truth of the matter is, like, we didn't make the movie post George Floyd rebellion. Movie was in the can prior. We all felt like this is a movie that people are going to connect to, and people's eyes and ears are open and ready to, sort of, have it, take a dose of its medicine.

We couldn't have imagined what happened [INAUDIBLE] as people's political pores would be open quite to the degree that they are now. I always thought that, especially, with the decision we made to sort of couch this information and this politics in genre, that it was going to go down easy, and it was go down, it was going to go down easy whether it came out this year or whether it came out, you know, two years later.

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