In new drama 'Judas And The Black Messiah' from Director Shaka King, FBI informant William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther Party, with the mission of keeping tabs on charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
Hampton's prowess grows just as he's falling for fellow revolutionary Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback).
Meanwhile, O'Neal is caught in the middle, and must decide whether to align with the forces of good, or follow the commands of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).
Here, Daniel Kaluuya, playing Chairman Fred Hampton, answers some questions about his role in the film.
What combination of factors drew you to this project? Chairman Fred Hampton – it’s a legacy to honour and show reverence and celebrate him. LaKeith Stanfield being a part of it, working with him again. I was working with Ryan Coogler at the time, and he introduced me to it. And then Ryan introduced me to Shaka King and sitting down with him, I thought, wow, he’s amazing. This guy’s just brilliant. And Dominique Fishback was part of it, and Jesse Plemons, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith and Darrell Britt-Gibson; it was just like every month, early in the process, I heard something else that made me go, ‘Wow, I’m even more excited about this’. And then, especially, the jewel was getting the family on board in a real way, and them being consultants, Chairman Fred Hampton, Jr. and Mama Akua – it was really incredible for that to happen.
What was your reaction when you read the script? I was just blown away – blown away about how brilliantly he lived, how he felt, his ideas, his concepts, how much love he had and how much he loved the people. I didn’t really engage with it as a film; I was just kind of lost in Chairman Fred and how powerfully he lived.
Who is Chairman Fred at the beginning of this? And where does his journey take him? The journey that he goes on in this film is about his work and loving the people – wanting the people to awaken and alert themselves – and to unify these groups within Chicago with every fiber of his being. The first time you see him introduced to an audience, he’s being quite cutting. And Deborah Johnson – played by Dominique Fishback – tells him that he needs these people. And I think he really goes on a journey to understand ‘unity’ in that way. I think you see it through his speeches – a real journey and growth in his reach – because he taps into a real sense of love within himself, especially after going to prison.
What kind of research did you do on Chairman Fred? A bunch. I went to Chicago, went to his old elementary school, his old high school, his childhood home, his family home. I read dissertations and the majority of the Black Panther reading list – you had to have six weeks of political education before you could become a fully-fledged Panther. I spoke to Chairman Fred, Jr., and to Mama Akua. I spoke to ex-Panthers and I really had a map of the time – all of these factors that led to this tipping point.
What was it like to work with Shaka King? Does he sleep? He doesn’t sleep, he was always working, working, working. I mean, he’s an incredible, incredible talent, and so collaborative. Just a real person, a real dude. It’s always nice to meet people like that, someone that makes you go, ‘Aw, we’d be friends at school’. He’s just so clear and does not buckle under the pressure of the shoot, handling the nuances and the difficulty of what he has to do. He’s just incredible, and I’m happy to work with him and know him.
He said he took nearly all of your notes – you gave the best notes of anyone. Did he say that?
He did say that. That’s incredible. Wow!
So, that seems like a very two-way artistic street, a collaborative set. How did that feel? How did that work? What is amazing about it is that Chairman Fred Hampton is a star of this film. So, the Black Panther Party is the star of this film, the ideology is the star of this film. . . So, it became about how can we refine and uphold what they were doing? It was a really free-flowing experience, where the best idea wins. I just love those kinds of environments. Sometimes, I would bring something up, and Shaka would say, well, okay, but here’s why we can’t do it that way. And I’d be like, okay, that makes sense. That built trust and collaboration. It was the process that you really want when you’re working on subject matter that’s this intense and this demanding.
What was it like working with LaKeith Stanfield? He’s just incredible. There’s a story I heard on-set. There was a scene where William O’Neal, who LaKeith plays, drives away, and the sound guy heard something. ‘What’s that sound, what’s that sound?’ He didn’t understand – he thought it might be the car, or something he was doing. . . It was LaKeith’s heart. Like, he really was feeling the feelings that the character was going through, and it was biologically shifting him. To work with someone with that level of commitment, it’s just a pleasure. Plus, he’s a funny guy, man, and he knows how to have fun.
Talk to me about working with producers Ryan Coogler and Charles D. King. How were they the right producers for this project? I don’t think this film could happen without Ryan Coogler and his specific skill set. To get Warner Bros. and Chairman Fred Hampton, Jr. to work on the same project is quite a feat in itself. There’s incredible producing just there and then. I mean Ryan, I’m just a huge fan of as a professional, as a person. He was great guidance and he understood how to empower us – to drop what we needed to hear at that time. He was there and a great support for Shaka. Charles is an amazing guy – he puts his money where his mouth is and made this film happen. This film has been trying to happen for a very long time and Charles really committed himself. I think it’s going to be an uncelebrated thing that he did, but this film couldn’t have happened without all the stuff that he’s done throughout his career and positioned himself in such a way to actually back it up. Plus, he’s a great guy on top of that.
How did the collaboration with Chairman Fred Hampton, Jr. and Akua Njeri work on-set? There was one day they took us aside at lunch, the whole cast. And they collectively activated us, gave us a real personal context of who these people were – like Jake Winters, who Algee Smith plays, and the characters played by Ian Duff and Caleb Eberhart, Doc Satchel and Bob Lee. It was an education on the philosophies and ideologies, but in a personal way. They were just dropping gems. I remember Chairman Fred, Jr. said: “When poverty enters the front door, morality leaves at the back.” And quoting Marcus Garvey. Words like that just stay with you and when they left, we were revitalised, in the ‘why’ we were doing this. Production had been going and after a while, the clock kicks in, you get tired. And this is heavy material – and he really helped us to think about the people we were representing and refocus the reasons why we were making this.
The art department basically turned back the clock to Chicago in the '60s. What was it like to be on those practical sets, in those clothes? It was incredible. Charlese Antoinette Jones killed it, our costume designer. Sian Richards, the makeup woman, killed it, really added so much richness to it. Rebecca Woodfork did an incredible job with the hair of the time, and it just felt authentic. Like, she changed how I saw my hair. It has never looked and felt so good. I was putting durags on before bed; it’s crazy. The art department, the sound – it was like everyone really cared and brought all that they could. Those sets were really authentic. Cleveland was an incredible host for this project. The Black Panther headquarters, it was really that abandoned. It really looked and felt like that. There was one day that we were shooting, and there was a bed of water in the ceiling, so they had to stop the scene then kind of tap it to release the water. But, it was super authentic [LAUGHS]. That’s a testament to the incredible location scout. It was just every single department, with all these great moments, stepped it up and brought it home in order to uphold Chairman Fred’s legacy.
How much are Chairman Fred and his decisions a product of their time? At that point, we’re in a society grappling with race equality and social justice, and we think we’ve got it solved because of the Civil Rights Act of '64. How much is that something that determines his trajectory? I think the reality in the Black community is very different. The law deals with the symptoms, but it doesn’t deal with the disease – and that disease is the continuous dehumanization of Black life. And in that time, they were really living that. You were seeing these incredible leaders, like Malcolm X, gone, Martin Luther King, murdered. And if Martin Luther King is pushing peace and he’s murdered, how does that make the rest of the Black community feel about peace? So, the Black Panther Party is a product of this – enough is enough. If they’re at war, then we’re at war. Their behavior – calling each other comrades and really activating the community, educating and feeding the kids, healing the sick – makes everyone feel strong in heart, body and mind.
In light of the protests of solidarity that took place around the world recently, how do you feel this film will land? I’m not sure how it will land. It’s a new time and people have a level of awareness and a level of awakening. There’s not a lot of compromises in the film, in terms of the message and what happened in this. So, to receive that and this film in a very unfiltered way. . . I’m excited to see how people take it in.