Fred Hampton was 21 years old when he was assassinated by the FBI, who coerced a petty criminal named William O’Neal to help them silence him and the Black Panther Party. But 50 years later, Hampton’s words about revolution still echo, maybe louder than ever. Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” aims to tell his story.
Produced by Ryan Coogler, King’s second feature is unlike his first in terms of scope and scale, as he makes the leap from indie stoner comedy “Newlyweeds” to his first studio picture. But King’s original idea for the film was even more ambitious. The touchstone for him was Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece “The Battle of Algiers,” telling a story that would’ve been broader, encompassing almost the entire Black Panther Party narrative.
“It would’ve had to be a TV series if we went that route, because it was just was too much and we tried, but it was too long,” said King, adding that he never considered pitching it as a television series. It had been six years since “Newlyweeds,” and he was anxious to make another film.
“It came to me as a movie, and I just didn’t feel like I had it in me to commit to probably a year’s worth of production. We realized that we needed more time to develop the characters, if we were going to take on the story of the entire Black Panther Party, because this would’ve been something that required at least five seasons to properly flesh out. It’s also such a tragic story, and I don’t know if I have the stomach to see it through. But ‘Battle of Algiers” is beyond great. It’s such a politically profound piece of filmmaking, and it would’ve been challenging to replicate that with what we were working with.”
Fred Hampton scripts had been shopped around by various writers over the years, including both the Lucas brothers (comedians Keith and Kenny) and Will Berson writing individual screenplays beginning around 2014. Berson’s version almost got made with F. Gary Gray directing, but it fell through. King was eventually hired to helm the project, based on a story by the Lucas brothers, with Berson and King scripting.
Over five decades since his death, Hampton has become an almost folkloric figure, especially within the Black community, even if awareness of his life story mostly begins and ends with the particulars of his assassination.
And yet, King’s “Judas” is the first feature-length dramatization of any part of Hampton’s life that prominently features the slain leader, even though the biopic is a Hollywood staple, especially during Oscar season. But when it comes to stories about Black people, the industry hasn’t demonstrated the same degree of enthusiasm, despite a deep well of notable Black historical figures.
“Maybe I was naive at the time, but I thought that a film about a Black Panther, produced by the director [Coogler] of a superhero movie that grossed over a billion dollars, a financer [Charles D. King] who had committed to putting up half the budget, and two of the best young Black actors working today starring, that studios would be lining up,” King said. “But it was a surprise to me when things didn’t play out that way. There’s been all this conversation about Hollywood being more diverse, but I have yet to see much change in how the industry engages Black creatives.”
King first met Coogler in 2013; both had feature film debuts (“Newlyweeds” and “Fruitvale Station”) premiering at the Sundance Film Festival that year. They stayed in touch and became friends. Coogler would eventually meet and develop a relationship with Charles D. King, and would sell him on King’s “Judas” script years later. Participant and Bron Creative would come on board after.
“It was a match made in heaven,” the filmmaker said. “Not many filmmakers have Ryan and Charles get behind them. And to have the film coming out now, no one could have predicted the protests, the calls to action after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. So all of that leads me to believe there’s a reason for this movie to exist in the time it does. I don’t know what reactions will be, but this feels like it was meant to be.”
The filmmaker might seem like an unlikely choice for such a solemn story, given his comedy background. Following his stoner feature debut, he cut his teeth directing episodes of TBS’ “People of Earth” (2016-17) and HBO’s “High Maintenance” (2018). He also directed short films, “Mulignans” (2015) and “LaZercism” (2017), which coincidentally features “Judas” co-star LaKeith Stanfield.
But “Judas” is the kind of story he knew he always had in him to tell.
“When I sat down with the Lucas brothers, and talked about how we all envisioned the film, the connection was instant, and I saw the movie immediately,” King said. “I jumped right in at the opportunity. It wasn’t like anything I had done before, but I wasn’t intimidated at all. It was too good to not do. We sat on it for a year, and I woke up New Year’s eve, 2016, and said to myself, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ That was the beginning.”
King spent the next three years digging into details of Hampton’s life, enamored with the profundity of his words, wit and braggadocio, especially as a 20-year-old. And with the participation of Hampton’s family, King had his pickings of the Black Panther Leader’s many rousing speeches to feature in “Judas,” which yielded some of its most unforgettable moments. Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton, firing up a crowd as he roars, “I am a revolutionary,” is undeniably powerful.
“I just cherry-picked the best parts that spoke to me,” King said. “But I also wanted to show his intelligence, complexity and expressiveness, at such a young age. It all shows a complete lack of fear. The chance to present him this way, in a feature film, a thriller, was irresistible to me.”
The main cast was finalized in 2019, and filming began that fall, wrapping just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country, and much of the world. “We were fortunate in a lot of ways, but it affected us in post-production significantly,” King said. “We had to go on hiatus for a little while, but we eventually found a way to work remotely, even though we were all scattered. But there was never a point at which we were uncertain that we would be able to get the film finished.”
In the end, King made exactly the film he wanted. His hope is that a new generation is introduced to a humanized Hampton, and the movie inspires even more stories about the Black Panthers.
“I couldn’t be happier, because Ryan and Charles were supportive of my vision, and, of course they had their own insight, but for the most part, they trusted me, and I feel lucky to have been able to see this through,” he said. “With this film, I just hope audiences are inspired to learn more about our country’s history as a suppressor of dissenting voices. There’s been a lot of disinformation about the Panthers, painting them as brutes, like how Black people have been vilified in media from the very beginning. So I just hope this film enlightens people.”
“Judas and the Black Messiah” was scheduled to be released on August 21, 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was pulled from the schedule. The film had its premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on February 1, 2021, and is now scheduled to be released in the U.S. by Warner Bros. on February 12, simultaneously in theaters and digitally on HBO Max.