'That ending is not a Hollywood ending': Director Shaka King on making Judas and the Black Messiah
The Fred Hampton biopic sets the record straight on the Black Panther Party's legacy
Shaka King faced more than a few obstacles when he set out to make Judas and the Black Messiah, his new crime thriller about Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton and the man who betrayed him.
For one thing, the director said it was difficult to convince "a big studio that is as capitalist as you could possibly get" to back a film about a "Black revolutionary Marxist–Leninist." There was also a matter of name recognition.
"Many people, including myself, are far more familiar with the tragic way he lost his life than we are [with] the way he lived his life," King told q's Tom Power in a recent interview.
WATCH | Official trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah:
Hampton was only 21 years old when he was murdered by the Chicago Police Department (with the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation) in an organized raid on his apartment on Dec. 4, 1969. The shocking circumstances surrounding his death presented another challenge to getting the film greenlit.
"That ending is not a Hollywood ending," said King. "That ending shows the FBI shooting a 21-year-old in the head next to his pregnant girlfriend — and she's visibly pregnant — and then shoving a gun against a pregnant belly."
King noted that in the decades following that tragic event, Hampton's fiancée Akua Njeri (formerly known as Deborah Johnson) and his son Fred Hampton Jr., "haven't always been comfortable with Hollywood taking on the subject matter." They chose to remain on set for some of the most harrowing scenes of the film.
"Many times, we asked them if they were sure they wanted to be present... we were very, very, very scared for them," said King. He added that Hampton's relatives had the option of speaking with an on set therapist.
Challenging public perception of the Black Panther Party
Both the director and the cast — which includes Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O'Neal — have made it clear that the film is intended to expel myths about the Black Panther Party and set the record straight on its legacy.
Historically, the Black Panther Party has been mischaracterized as an anti-white organization. That was the biggest misconception King said he wanted to address.
"The fact is that [the party had] a national mandate to build coalitions across racial lines," he explained. "It actually put the Black Panther Party ideologically at odds with a lot of Black cultural nationalists, you know, thinkers and organizers and activists."
Instead of "militant folks with guns and leather jackets," the film depicts the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party as a group of intelligent thinkers who sought revolutionary change.
When asked what he personally took away from making the film, King shared his thoughts about the importance of purpose and utility.
"Anything I make has to have utility beyond just being entertaining because I recognize that everything is propaganda. Every single thing. And so that's what I take from it; that it has utility."
Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Ty Callender.