In Judas and the Black Messiah filmmaker Shaka King dives deep into the story of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and William O’Neal, who served as an FBI informant to help silence Hampton and the BPP. King, who co-wrote the movie with Will Berson, tells the overlooked story of the iconic revolutionary, the conflicted man who brought him down and how it reflects the current landscape when it comes to the country’s treatment of the Black community and activism. Not only that, it also makes people realize that there is a part of Hampton and O’Neal in all of us.
King, as well as stars Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield and Domnique Fishback, joined Deadline’s Contenders Film awards-season event to talk about the Warner Bros film, which now has a February 12 release date.
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“The truth of the matter is that it changed over the course of writing it,” says King, in regards to the journey of the story. “When Will and I started writing it, the touchstone for me was the Battle of Algiers, so it was a lot broader.”
He said that the initial story revolved around individuals like Wanda Ross, who helped organize the Black Panther Party Breakfast Program, and Doc Satchel, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Black Panther Party medical clinic. As they started honing the script, King said the focus turned toward O’Neal and Hampton.
For Hampton, they tapped into his politics, but also a glimpse into his personal life.
“I think a lot of times when we think about these freedom fighters and revolutionaries, we don’t think about them having families… and plans for the future — it was really important to focus on that on the Fred side of things,” says King. “On the side of O’Neal — [we wanted] to humanize him as well so that viewers of the film could leave the movie wondering, ‘Is there any of that in me?’ ”
The film is timely now as the 1968 events it depicts, and the actors talked about how this story impacted them while filming, and now with the recent events at the U.S. Capitol and with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Fishback, who plays Hampton’s fiancé Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njera), says she felt hopeless at the top of the pandemic, questioning her role as an actor and writer. After speaking with Kaluuya, she was re-inspired. and working on the film gave her hope.
“The story itself has always been a beautiful story to me and one that I wanted to tell… talking about the heroes that trailblazed the way to where we are at,” says Stanfield, who plays O’Neal. “The landscape has changed in a way where we need this story more now than ever.”
Kaluuya, who stepped into the role of Hampton, said that working on the film has enriched his perception of the issues. “After the murder of George Floyd and the reaction to that, I was like, ‘Oh wow…this film and these people articulate how people are feeling right now’,” he says. He added that the feelings were out there but people didn’t have the words or strategies to express it.
He said the release of Judas and the Black Messiah is “right on time” and that “a lot of people need to hear what Chairman Fred said and how he moved.”
Check back for the panel video.
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