Directed by Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Fred Hampton’s betrayal in great detail. As an activist, Hampton aimed to unite all types of people. However, once the FBI counterintelligence program (Cointelpro) got involved, all those plans never came to fruition. He was labeled a “Black Messiah,” by the Feds which put a target on his back.
William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) was coerced by the FBI into infiltrating the Chicago Black Panther Party chapter to avoid a five year prison sentence for theft. His goal is to get close to Hampton (played by Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya) and gather information that could be useful to law enforcement.
Author and culture writer Valerie Complex sat down with King for a brief chat about the legacy of Fred Hampton and the journey from concept to film of Judas and the Black Messiah.
Valerie Complex: What is your first actual memory of the Black Panther party that you can remember?
Shaka King: That’s a tough one because I know I was really young. In the case of Fred Hampton, I was part of the Junior Engineers club as a child. Are you from New York?
Yes! I’m from the Bronx originally.
So you might know about this. I grew up in Brooklyn where it’s a different culture. There was a guy named Brother Khafra who was a Kinetic scientist, I believe. He had this group called the junior engineers club and kids would come there and learn engineering, Tai-Chi, hieroglyphics and Black and African history. He mentioned Fred Hampton and talking about how brave he was, and how his death was orchestrated by the U.S. government.
What made you want to put the Black Panther Party front and center?
I knew they were freedom fighters. They stood up to a repressive US government that still remains oppressive. I wanted to tell the story for years as it’s something that was brewing inside of me. When the opportunity came to tell it, and it was presented to me in a way that it was, I knew it was something that was needed now.
We don’t often get films about Black revolutionaries. Do you find these types of films are difficult to get made in Hollywood?
I think part of the reason why you don’t see movies about the Black Panthers is that it’s difficult to get a Hollywood studio to finance and distribute films about Black socialists, Black revolutionaries.
When writing the script, did you already have an idea of who you wanted to cast for each role?
I wrote the movie with Daniel, Lakeith, Dominique in mind. We got recommendations from our wonderful casting director as well.
Can you talk a little bit about your emotional journey while creating the story? I imagine revisiting this traumatic event would stir up feelings, anger, resentment, bitterness, hope, whatever.
I don’t think I realized it until the pandemic hit. I put myself in a dark emotional space over several years writing, producing and directing, so it definitely took its toll. But I think about the actors. It was a lot harder for them to play their roles and physically put themselves in the space to commit to the narrative.
What do you hope the audience takes away from watching Judas and the Black Messiah?
I think we’re in a unique cultural time where people are open to discussing the idea of socialism. I want it to shine a light on the past practices of repressing voices of dissent. There is a danger in being apolitical can lead you astray. Showing the corruption of the overall prison, military industrial complex, and incarceral system that is the lifeline of this country. Hopefully, the movie does a good of making clear the Panthers were not violent criminals. They were invested in improving the lives of their people and the people around them.
Judas and the Black Messiah will be in select theaters and on HBO Max Friday, February 12, 2021.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros