Director Shaka King On 'Judas And The Black Messiah': 'I See It ... I'm In' Judas and the Black Messiah chronicles the life of Illinois Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton through the eyes of William O'Neal — the man who infiltrated the group on behalf of the FBI.
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Director Shaka King's Journey From 'Newlyweeds' To 'The Black Messiah'

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Director Shaka King's Journey From 'Newlyweeds' To 'The Black Messiah'

Director Shaka King's Journey From 'Newlyweeds' To 'The Black Messiah'

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the 1960s, Fred Hampton was chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. He was a rising leader, organizing disparate multiracial groups in Chicago until police shot and killed him and another Black Panther member in an early morning raid. There's a new movie about Fred Hampton out this week. It is called "Judas And The Black Messiah."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH")

DANIEL KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) It's not a question of violence or nonviolence. It's a question of resistance to fascism or nonexistence within fascism.

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: The film got rave reviews after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last week. It's the second feature from director Shaka King, who, until this project came along, was on the verge of giving up making feature films altogether. NPR's Andrew Limbong takes it from here.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Yes, "Judas And The Black Messiah" is about Fred Hampton and how he led the Black Panthers in Chicago. But it's also about William O'Neal, the man who infiltrated the Black Panthers and spied on Hampton on behalf of the FBI. Shaka King told me that the Lucas brothers, who co-wrote the story, sold the idea to him like this.

SHAKA KING: Their pitch that they laid out was, we want to make a movie about Fred Hampton and William O'Neal that's kind of like "The Departed"...

LIMBONG: The 2006 Martin Scorsese movie.

S KING: ...Inside the world of COINTELPRO.

LIMBONG: Or Counterintelligence Program - the 1960s project where the FBI infiltrated and disrupted groups like the Black Panthers.

S KING: And I was like, I see it. I'm done. I'm in.

LIMBONG: "Judas" is a tight and tense movie, yes, like "The Departed" and other Scorsese-type crime movies. It's a long way, though, from King's first feature film, "Newlyweeds" from 2013.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEWLYWEEDS")

TRAE HARRIS: (As Nina) Oh, so what you got here?

LIMBONG: "Newlyweeds" tells the story of a young couple in Brooklyn who smoke a lot of weed. Where "Judas" is loud and fast, "Newlyweeds" is quiet and tender.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEWLYWEEDS")

AMARI CHEATOM: (As Lyle) I'm done. I'm done unwinding. I'm unwound. I want to hang out. Can we hang out? Can we do that?

HARRIS: (As Nina) How are we supposed to go to the Galapagos if you're buying a bag every two minutes?

LIMBONG: It hits similar beats as movies by other indie darling directors like Joe Swanberg or the Duplass brothers. The Film Independent Spirit Awards even gave King the Someone to Watch Award after it came out, which came with a $25,000 grant - not bad for someone fresh out of NYU film school. But after that initial fanfare...

S KING: I was so depressed after making "Newlyweeds" and my expectations for the release just not coming to fruition.

LIMBONG: The movie didn't get much attention outside the festival circuit from agents and distributors.

S KING: Largely because it was a movie with Black actors who no one knew. And at that time, that was deemed worthless.

LIMBONG: The film's release in 2013 wasn't that long ago, but it was just before what a friend of King's jokingly dubbed the Black Excellence Industrial Complex - your "Selmas" and "Moonlights" and "Black Panthers" - when movie studios realized they could make a lot of money by releasing films by and starring Black people.

"Newlyweeds'" loss of momentum burned King out on the idea of making another feature film. But he did have an idea for a short rolling around in his head. It was kind of silly, kind of outrageous.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MULIGNANS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hey, sweetheart. Lips. Hey, excuse me, miss.

LIMBONG: It's called "Mulignans" after the Italian slur for Black people once heard on the streets of Brooklyn. In it, King and two others play these three Black guys who talk like they're in the mob movies King has such a fondness for. It was somewhat inspired by King's experience growing up in a mostly Black part of Brooklyn but going to high school in south Brooklyn, where everyone - the Irish Americans, Greek Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans - all talked like the Italian American kids.

S KING: And those kids were hilarious. They were profane. They were quick-witted. And we were not friends, but, like, I could appreciate their sense of humor.

LIMBONG: The movie is a concise examination of race, gender, gentrification as King's character gets into an argument with his sister over a metro card...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MULIGNANS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You did not have $8 on there.

S KING: (As character) I had $8 on the metro card.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You didn't have [expletive] $8 on the [expletive] metro card.

LIMBONG: ...Until a white guy comes by and says hi to the sister.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MULIGNANS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hi. How you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Hey. How are you? Hey, guys. I'm Will (ph). How are you?

S KING: (As character) [Expletive] off. Get the [expletive] out of here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, laughter).

S KING: (As character) Hey, you get the [expletive] out of here.

LIMBONG: The movie is fun and poignant, and the process reminded King how much he loved making movies.

S KING: That movie saved me. It saved me.

CHARLES D KING: I didn't see that or know that about Shaka, but I could understand and I could see how that could happen.

LIMBONG: Charles D. King - no relation to director Shaka King - is the CEO and founder of Macro, which since its founding in 2015 has produced movies and TV shows featuring nonwhite people, including "Judas And The Black Messiah."

C KING: It was before the #OscarsSoWhite moment of 2015. There's a lot that's happened since then. There is much more of an openness and, I think, an understanding of the business opportunity there.

LIMBONG: Which brings us to King today, making a movie about an anti-capitalist Black radical at a very capitalist Hollywood studio without watering down the politics.

FRED HAMPTON JR: The deal is to respect the authenticity.

LIMBONG: Fred Hampton Jr. is the current chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs and son of Fred Hampton. He says he and the other Panthers had their guards up when they were approached about this film. The Panthers have long been subjected to propaganda campaigns and misrepresentations, but he says King and the rest of the cast and crew deftly navigated the crossroads between their creative goals and the Panthers' political ones - well enough anyway.

HAMPTON: A revolutionary is never satisfied, you know, 'cause I wish there was some more political content we could've pushed in at certain points. However, I'll put the people's needs before my needs - my wants and desires.

LIMBONG: For instance, the relationship between Fred Hampton and his partner Deborah Johnson was a tricky thing to get right.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH")

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) The poet - what a pleasant surprise.

DOMINIQUE FISHBACK: (As Deborah Johnson) I saw your ad in the paper looking for a new speechwriter. I figured I'd better come lend a hand.

LIMBONG: How to show a type of fire and agency in her without making her say things the real Deborah Johnson, whose name is now Akua Njeri, wouldn't say. Actor Dominique Fishback says director Shaka King's commitment to the legacy of Hampton and the Panthers made her feel comfortable to make her choices about the character.

FISHBACK: His confidence in his ability to make an authentic story but not at the cost of somebody's life, because, you know, the Black Panther Party, the Black Panther Party Cubs - they're still living this reality. You know what I mean? It's not just a movie for them. It's their life.

LIMBONG: Shaka King is clear about the myriad contradictions that come up by way of this movie even existing, that the capitalist forces that led to Fred Hampton's death are arguably the same ones that led to this movie making it to the screen.

King recalled a moment in a documentary he made in college about global capitalism's impact on rap music. He interviewed cultural critic Greg Tate, who said this about the rap group Public Enemy.

S KING: It's kind of ridiculous to, like, expect a pop album to jump-start a revolution. And I was like, oh, you're right.

LIMBONG: In the same way, King doesn't expect this movie to start the revolution, but it can get the word out about it.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVIL NEEDLE AND CHROMONICCI'S "FIRST CLASS")

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