Awards Spotlight: How Daniel Kaluuya Found Fred Hampton in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Daniel Kaluuya is a serious Oscar contender for his electrifying portrayal of the Black Panthers chairman.


Daniel Kaluuya takes his opportunities as they come. He’s built a stellar career from his British TV comedy days as Posh Kenneth in “Skins” to a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his breakout role in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” in Marvel blockbuster “Black Panther,” and a Golden Globe Supporting Actor win for his most recent film, “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The 32-year-old has momentum as he heads for further glory at the Critics Choice, SAG, and BAFTA awards as well as the Oscars.

For a long time, Kaluuya thought he would head for a writing career. “I started writing, then got into acting,” he said in our Zoom video conversation. “I go with the flow. ‘What is this one? Let’s go that way.’ And then I figure out how to execute an idea.”

When Kaluuya first met Lena Waithe at a Chance the Rapper screening of “Get Out,” he told her how much he admired her script for “The Chi,” which hadn’t yet aired. (“When I think someone is amazing, I tell them.”) She later brought him into her feature-writing and producing debut, “Queen & Slim.” Director Steve McQueen saw Kaluuya in a play in 2010 and cast him as a threatening gangster in “Widows,” opposite Viola Davis. Ryan Coogler saw Kaluuya in one of his many short films before casting him in “Black Panther.” Writer-director Shaka King saw Kaluuya’s 2011 episode of “Black Mirror.” “I do work, put it out there, it ripples. Stuff is coming through, I’m blessed to have a lot of options. I listen to what feels honest.”

At a reshoot for “Black Panther,” Coogler told Kaluuya about “Judas and the Black Messiah,” King’s drama about how the FBI targeted Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton, murdering him at age 21. When King and Kaluuya met, he learned that King also was reaching out to his friend and “Get Out” costar LaKeith Stanfield. “[That] got me even more excited,” he said.

(from left) Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) in Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas.

“Queen & Slim”

Andre D. Wagner/Universal Pictures

Kaluuya respected the craft of King’s prior movie, “Newlyweeds.” “With creators in any medium, there’s a point where they’ve figured themselves out, their voice, their taste, and style,” Kaluuya said. “I was confident in his ability to pull out how tricky this is, the level of thought and detail in the script… He was clear and calm, and knew what to keep, what to fight for and protect, and when to let things go if they don’t make sense.”

Kaluuya shared his thoughts, ideas, and research as King wrote the script. “Shaka and I would go back and forth about it,” he said. “Sometimes they cut a scene, ‘I loved those lines,’ and it would come back in. I respect their process, I’m wanting to help.”

To play Fred Hampton, the fiery orator of the Black Panthers, Kaluuya not only had to nail down Chairman Fred’s peculiar southern-inflected Chicago accent, but also command the extraordinary rhythm of his speeches. He immersed himself in Hampton’s Chicago neighborhood, Mayhood, and reached out to his family. He also read the voluminous Black Panther reading list, which was compulsory for all members. Soon, Kaluuya realized: “I’m in a play and everyone else is in a film, in terms of the demands on my voice and vocal chords, doing big speeches all day.”

78th ANNUAL GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS -- Pctured: (l-r) Laura Dern presents the Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture award for ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ to winner Daniel Kaluuya at the 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 28, 2021. -- (Photo by: Christopher Polk/NBC)

Laura Dern presents the Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture award for “Judas and the Black Messiah” to winner Daniel Kaluuya.

Christopher Polk/NBC

To protect his voice, Kaluuya went to opera classes and sang gospel songs. “I felt like the attitude of the speeches were James Brown,” he said. “I’d do the speeches in order to find the cadence, how it felt for me. The speeches were a talking version of singing as opposed to a singing version of talking. It’s a tune, a song.”

Kaluuya eventually sat down for a marathon meeting: Fred Hampton, Jr. and his mother, Deborah Johnson; Dominique Fishback, who plays Deborah in the film; Shaka King; Coogler; and producer Charles King. It lasted for nearly eight hours. “Deborah Johnson, she’s direct and she listens and she’s seen it all,” said Kaluuya. “It was so incredible to have her be part of the process. I’d always take her words of encouragement before we started shooting, during, and after she saw it. She was around, as she was there.”

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH, Daniel Kaluuya (left), as Fred Hampton, Dominique Fishback (center), 2021. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

When it came time to film the speeches, Kaluuya spoke to no one on set. He exploded in front of a room of 450 extras who felt like his scene partner, keeping him up when he was exhausted. “It was an out-of-body experience,” he said. “I watch it back and I don’t remember the takes. I don’t remember anything in this film. It was really transcendent. Chairman Fred was speaking through me. In that moment, he was giving power to the people.”

What drove this man to be so rhetorically gifted at such a young age? “I just feel like he cared,” said Kaluuya. “He cared about awakening people who were being crushed in their sleep. He read and had original ideas and thoughts about what he read. He wasn’t taking on or inheriting any ideas before his existence… You can do incredible things if you love and if you care, and he did.”

The movie was supposed to hit theaters in August, but the pandemic kept it back until February, when it reached theaters and HBO Max at the same time. “You just want to serve this story and want the story to be out there,” said Kaluuya. “I want people to see it. It’s a shame. I always imagine it as communal experience. The world we live in is the worlds we live in.”

Next Up: Kaluuya’s attached to star in Netflix’s “The Upper World,” based on the sci-fi novel by Femi Fadugba, the first in a planned series. “It’s about quantum physics,” he said. “I’ve never seen black London portrayed in this way in terms of genre.”  He’s also honing a feature script he developed at the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, just before “Get Out.” “I’ve been writing all through,” he said.

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This Article is related to: Awards Spotlight Winter 2021 and tagged , , ,

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