There was something about that haunting melody of jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “The Inflated Tear” that spoke to director Shaka King. It just captured what he was reaching for with “Judas and the Black Messiah,” his film about Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) who helped the FBI murder the Black Panther leader.
“I was bringing that song, ‘Inflated Tear,’ into pitch meetings,” said King when he was guest on the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “[Executive producer] Ryan [Coogler] was like, ‘You really want to play that for the studio?’”
King is very familiar with how off-putting Kirk’s screeching saxophone can be for some people. After one test screening, it was decided the track wouldn’t stay in the film unless it was warmed up with a contrabass clarinet. But King, initially, wasn’t bringing the track to distributors because he intended to actually use it in his film.
“It’s so funny, because [I wasn’t] playing it like, ‘I was going to put it in the movie,’” said King. “I was playing like, ‘This is what this feels like to me.’”
If he was going to use the jazz track in the film, the director thought it might work as a sort of “noir score” for the opening scene where O’Neal, using a fake FBI badge, busts into a bar and steals a car from a group who believe the law itself is nabbing the vehicle. When it helped align the viewer with the Crowns and a bartender, more than the hidden-faced O’Neal, King decided to bring it back just once more when the mysterious FBI agent (or, perhaps, just FBI connected) Wayne (Lil Rel Howery) hands O’Neal back his fake badge in the third act.
“We wanted to bring the viewer back to the first time we saw O’Neal weaponizing the badge, and it’s now being weaponized against him,” explained King. “But then [composer] Mark Isham brilliantly decided to do an interpolation of the song for the credits at the end. I remember we dropped it in and I heard it, and I said, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible. Let’s take those same strings and use those to start the movie, and we’ll have them bookend the film.’ So you hear it over the logos in the beginning.”
Isham’s string interpolation of the track opened an enormous door for King in how he saw the potential of the music used in the film. The track itself, and Isham’s version, could be used as incredible piece of characterization — every time O’Neal inches closer to the edge, it’s there.
“It’s the FBI’s theme music in some ways,” explained King. “For example, when O’Neal really decides to work for [FBI agent] Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), [because] there’s an opportunity to make money, the fact that we bring those strings in when O’Neal asks, ‘How much money do you make?’ which is kind of like those strings symbolize danger, and that’s the beginning of a very dangerous decision O’Neal is making.”
The film wraps the heroic story of Hampton in the more genre-informed story of O’Neal, and King uses the track to breathe life into the noir-like danger and emotional discordance of “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
While on the podcast, King also broke down the unique structure and evolution of the “Judas” script, his collaboration with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (after Bradford Young had to step away form the project to have a baby), how his team turned modern-day Cleveland into 1960s Chicago, and the vital role actress Dominique Fishback had in shaping the film’s third act and the role of Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri).
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.