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The Fight, and the Trick, to Getting ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Made

The first major studio film to document the life and death of Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton is staged less like a biopic and more like a thriller. Such are the choices one has to face making a radical story for an historically un-radical medium.

AJ Dungo

Members of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party never hesitated to call a spade a spade. “Yeah we’re armed, we’re an armed propaganda unit,a representative once boasted at a rally for the party’s then-imprisoned 21-year-old chairman, Fred Hampton. The crowd at that gathering surely held more than a few federal agents, but no matter. The group’s title gave it away anyway: Panthers. A trove of daring, committed doers with no time for pretense. A cluster of youth and ingenuity. A den of defiance.

The beginning of Judas and the Black Messiah, the first major studio film to truly document the lives of the Black Panther Party, is an opening drill on the terms of the party’s platform. A shining and bearded Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) lectures a classroom of cubs on Mao Zedong and the nature of politics. Self-determination and socialism were hallmarks of their appeal, but political pedagogy and an aversion to bullshit were their root emblems. The lesson is as follows: The students are corralled in occupied territory; they face a legion of wealth and, so, power; their battle will be most challenging, but there is a path. Two words, etched in talcum-white capital letters on a midnight chalkboard, reveal their weapon of choice: THE PEOPLE.

“Because we’ve grown so accustomed to being poor we think it’s normal for our kids to go to school hungry. We think it’s normal for us to go to the hospital with a runny nose and come home in a bodybag. So our job at the Black Panther Party,” the teacher elucidates, “is to heighten the contradictions. … The people can decide whether they want to overthrow their government or not.”

Released last Friday in theaters and on HBO Max, Judas and the Black Messiah is nothing if not clear. The film takes multiple forms: It is a historical tale, owing to what was once documented and, just as vitally, what was once not. It’s a movie meant to entertain and fill in the gaps. And most crucially, it’s the latest in a type of subversive art that is dependent on its ability to balance the demands of mainstream commercialism with the commitments of anti-establishment politics; a movie immersed in the pictures and ideas of what is often termed radical thought and, yet, whose existence was made possible by the shifting gears of an inherently unradical industry. But Judas and the Black Messiah doesn’t run from these pressure points, or the queries they provoke. Its commitment, plainly enough, is to heighten the contradictions.

The Black Panther Party was born in Oakland, but it blossomed in Chicago. Like all great American cities, Chicago was—and still is—a testament to the United States’ incomparable ability to both create and pillage. Housing, policing, education, and wealth in Chicago were doled out by lineage. These are the things that inspired a 19-year-old Fred Hampton to join the newly formed Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. Before Hampton had even graduated from high school he was a veteran field organizer, assisting student movements at Proviso East High School by forming multiracial coalitions. He spent the next few years as the president for the NAACP Youth Council in Chicago, but grew disenchanted by the organization’s aversion to radical change. People were dying and the NAACP wanted reform. The Panthers, dedicated to the politics of revolution and the advancement of the underclass, were a fit made in heaven.

The government knew this. Directed by FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, agents infiltrated the group. They incarcerated Panthers too, but their most effective weapon was erasure. That is how Fred Hampton was taken, at the age of 21, shot dead in his sleep. The papers claimed that his comrades were the initiators but these assumptions, fed to the media by law enforcement, were revealed to be faulty. By 1974, the Chicago chapter had dissolved, the effect of a war waged on both bodies and memory. But this was not the first distortion of the Panthers’ image, nor would it be the last. In Hollywood, their actual politics were downplayed in favor of a glowering, Afroed curio—think the dour and hypermasculine sect in Forrest Gump.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a film committed to exposing this onslaught. Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield—who star as Hampton, the aforementioned Illinois Chapter chairman, and William O’Neal, a former chapter head of security and paid FBI informant—form the yin and yang of a vibrant thriller centered on O’Neal’s infiltration of the Panther ranks, Hampton’s rise, and his assassination at the hands of the Chicago Police Department. Over the course of the film, viewers are indoctrinated to the ideologies of both the Black Panther Party and, just as vitally, the government that tried to destroy it. Directed and cowritten by Shaka King, a 40-year-old Brooklyn-based auteur who made noise on the indie circuit for 2013’s Newlyweeds, the film eschews the traditional biopic framework in favor of a Departed-esque romp through the world of late-’60s government surveillance and Black defiance. But even the film’s style is a testament to the broken, mixed-up world it’s been released into—it’s a thriller because it needed to be. “It [wasn’t] even so much to get people to watch it as much as it’s to get it made,” King tells me. “Because they don’t make adult dramas anymore in Hollywood, period, unless it’s during an Oscar season. And they definitely don’t make them about Black socialist revolutionaries.”

In 2016, King was approached by the Lucas brothers, the twin standup comedy duo of Netflix’s On Drugs, with a script about Fred Hampton. King had a cursory understanding of Hampton’s life from his childhood, but after reading the script, he was determined to unfurl the entire story. He dove into research on the Oakland Panthers, and then the Illinois Chapter. He scrounged for pieces on Hampton and other party members’ lives. He immersed himself in William O’Neal’s treachery and the FBI’s surveillance program, the autocratic tactics of Chicago’s six-term mayor, Richard J. Daley, and the marauding attacks of the city’s police.

King, the Lucas brothers, and their cowriter, Will Berson, spent years tending to their narrative, toiling to convince a number of stakeholders, ranging from star actors to producers to financial backers, to get behind the story. King’s first producers were Ryan Coogler, fresh off of helming a different Black Panther flick (Marvel’s $1.35 billion hit), and Charles D. King, an independent financier who’d produced films ranging from the August Wilson adaptation Fences to Boots Riley’s social satire Sorry to Bother You. Next, the director recruited his aforementioned all-star cast—which also features Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s partner, Deborah Johnson, and Martin Sheen as Hoover. And then, finally, he got Warner Bros. to buy in.

But, as is the nature of working within a rigid industry, the creative team was forced to make compromises along the way. “We wanted to prove that we’d done all this research. We wanted to keep it as accurate as possible. Then you go through the process of development and you find yourself changing things for dramatic purposes and to fit a certain budget level,” King says. “For the first five, six drafts we were just struggling because we felt like ‘A lot of these people died, a lot of these people went to prison for the rest of their lives.’ To put a person in a place that they weren’t felt disrespectful.”

The first versions of the film focused primarily on Hampton’s rise, the growth of the Black Panthers’ multiracial Rainbow Coalition, and the reach of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which was ostensibly created to disrupt the communist movement but most notably spied on and destabilized Black political organizations. O’Neal’s arc as the group’s Judas was pushed to the periphery. As the filmmaking process dragged on, King and his creative team became hyperaware of the tension this choice aroused between them and the studio. Judas and the Black Messiah fit into a growing continuum of films that dive headfirst into the long-averted corners of American life, worlds of Blackness that were once deemed too unconventional, too unmarketable, too unimportant. While almost unilaterally successful on the commercial side, the trend has resulted in a mixed bag, creatively. It’s difficult to watch a film like 2011’s The Help or 2018’s Green Book—both of which espouse conciliatory racial politics and feature benevolent white main characters—without wondering for whom, exactly, each narrative was made. Others, like Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight or Jordan Peele’s Get Out, have been stunning and murky stories indebted to lives that were priceless long before Hollywood hitmakers affixed their glare on them. But all of them were and are, just like any other movie, unavoidably financial enterprises. And that’s the hitch: The world that would host Judas and the Black Messiah had no incentives to ensure that its story remained true to its original purpose. This is Hollywood, after all. And while submitting to the whims of an employer and industry in order to secure funding for your art can seem like an easy choice in the abstract, the repercussions can be agonizing. It’s a debilitating mandate, but also a rite of passage.

“I remember having a conversation with Ryan [Coogler] and it really shifted my perspective on things, where he was like, ‘Look, you pitched this movie to us as The Departed inside the world of COINTELPRO. And you’re not doing that. And if you don’t do that, not only will the movie probably not get made, but it won’t be seen by anyone.’ He talked to me a lot about just who we make these movies for and I was like, ‘OK, yeah, you’re right. You’re right.’”

In Judas and the Black Messiah, William O’Neal is always slinking between the background and the foreground. In the classroom scene, it is O’Neal’s face that viewers see framed in the final shot, lurking at a desk toward the back of the room. He’s a man playing versions of other men, pretending as an act of survival and, at times, adventure. In the film’s opening sequence, O’Neal attempts to rob a member of the Crowns, a fictional gang who patrol Chicago’s west side, by impersonating a federal officer. After a brief escape attempt he is caught and arrested, then interrogated and manipulated by the FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), another figure shrouded in moral inconsistencies.

While the film never truly allows viewers to see his inner workings, each moment with O’Neal catapults the narrative forward, fostering an atmosphere equally appalling and addictive. O’Neal provides intel on the Panthers’ activities and is tipped off to incoming raids. Later, in the wake of one ransacking, he feigns exasperation to party members, woefully rueing the potential existence of a “rat” in the chapter. While backing out of the parking lot behind the group’s headquarters, O’Neal unfurls a stifled laugh in a moment of adrenaline-fueled enjoyment. Off screen, details of O’Neal’s life are relatively scant—there are a few books detailing his infiltration, but none fully grapple with what lay inside of the man. He was a teenager when he first met Mitchell, when the rest of his life was devastatingly charted out for him—there is an undeniable tragedy in that. On screen, Stanfield plays him as a twisted figure, terrified of leaking his cache of secrets but visibly tickled by the power each deception imbues him with. By the time the story closes, the charlatan simply wants out of his kingdom of lies.

In the most affecting scene in the film, Hampton is writhing with near-mythic vigor at a pulpit surrounded by supporters. While the Chairman preaches, O’Neal falls into the beat of the protest, then stops, slowly, in subdued horror. Buried in the mass of onlookers stands Mitchell, staring directly at him, mouthing a cheer for the leader they will later conspire to kill.

“I remember at the beginning I was reading books about Chairman Fred and I was like, ‘This is all about how he was murdered,’” Kaluuya says over a Zoom call. “The fact that you’re looking at it and going, ‘Wow I’m getting to know him and understanding him and he’s really not documented.’ It’s like a cultural assassination at the same time as well.”

When Kaluuya was first cast as Hampton he read a collection of historical and political texts that new Panthers were once required to complete, made sure to study the chairman’s old speeches, and spoke to former Panthers from around the country. He soon realized that the role would require a performance different from any he had executed before. As Hampton, Kaluuya has a harmonic vocal pattern, a product of the commonalities he found between gospel music and the activist’s delivery. Hampton can lead a class and organize a medical clinic, serve breakfast to hungry children and foster a diverse political coalition. King described the character’s arc as that of a “superhuman who becomes human.” He is a leader; fearless and righteous, wise beyond his years and, still, unmistakably young. “There was a breakthrough moment for me in realizing that this is an interpretation, not an impersonation,” Kaluuya says.

The nature of Hampton’s relationships with those around him was integral to Kaluuya’s vision. Early in Black Messiah, Hampton meets a poet named Deborah Johnson. He loses, and wins, and finds himself, all while they fall deeper in love and start a family together. The man on screen is not perfect—his devotion to the cause is in direct opposition to his responsibilities as a father. The more you see him, the more tragic his prematurely stifled life becomes.

Fishback and King met at a cafe in Brooklyn before she agreed to play Deborah. Around that time, Fishback was reading the former Oakland Panther and national chairman Elaine Brown’s memoir, A Taste of Power, which documents much of the sexism rampant throughout the movement. A few days after their meeting she emailed the director with some suggestions. “I know that it’s not a romance, but I’m a romantic,” Fishback remembers saying. “This was the only opportunity we got to sit in their youth. In those quiet moments in love.”

She was drawn to the relationship between Deborah and Fred, viewing it not as a digression from the plot but as central to it. In Deborah, Fishback saw a chance to expose and expand the limitations of what is considered revolutionary, highlighting the varying forms of freedom fighting often available to women and partners carrying a child in a masculinized movement. “A lot of times for Black women in this medium, especially in this genre, we always have to prove ourselves in love,” Fishback says. “I wanted to make sure that we, as an audience, knew that he saw her worth outside of her physical, even before she’s a comrade—just because of her existence, because who she is as a person and her essence.”

The process that both she and Kaluuya describe is one born out of a particular necessity. The killing of Fred Hampton and the dismantling of the Black Panther Party were purges in which bodies were not the only things taken. Memories were sullied, legacies expunged. There is a reason for the relative paltry amount of Panther-focused content across mediums, and it is not merely because of the party’s appalling high mortality rate. The same forces that culled them, the same forces that distorted them, are, today, the same ones that make channeling the vibrant and tragic essence of their stories a highwire balancing act. Reflecting an honest vision of these lives depended on actors willing to look beyond the circumstantial, creators ready to circumvent a crucible raised to blunt their efforts, and guides willing to convey the memory of a people lost to time.

Before they signed on as consultants for Judas and the Black Messiah, Fred Hampton Jr. and his mother, Akua Njeri (formerly Deborah Johnson), had spent years contemplating a cinematic adaptation of Fred Sr.’s life. Shaka King was not the first filmmaker to approach the family about bringing the slain activist’s story to the big screen—at one point they had even attempted to tell it on their own, actually shooting test footage with the rapper Mos Def in the lead role. They did not trust Hollywood to cast the man, let alone carry on his politics. Something about Judas and the Black Messiah convinced them to.

Outside of one multiday break, King can’t remember a time when Hampton Jr. wasn’t on set. “He would tell us ‘I’m duty bound. I didn’t make this decision to green-light this and be here on my own,’” the director recalls. King believes that the film’s commitment to historical accuracy is what originally convinced Njeri and Hampton Jr. to sign on as consultants. As the script began to shift, though, the family and the production team were both forced to make sacrifices in order to shepherd the film through. “It was very hard for [them]. I mean, think of having to relive that trauma, think of having to make concessions with us, that’s not easy to ask,” King says. “I think it would have been hard to satisfy them with a traditional Fred Hampton biopic but to have William O’Neal be such a focal point and for them to still be satisfied with what we did is just remarkable. I’m so impressed with them.”

Kaluuya remembers being reluctant to encroach upon Njeri during the few times she visited with the actors and crew. This was a woman whose partner—the father of her unborn child—was killed in front of her eyes as part of an attack in which police officers fired at least 82 shots into an apartment full of sleeping, law-abiding citizens. After the attack she was charged with aggravated assault and attempted murder (the charges were dropped after five months) and forced to fight for another 13 years just to reach a financial settlement with the government that took Hampton from her.

“I didn’t feel comfortable going ‘Oh tell me about Fred, tell me about this …’” Kaluuya says. “[I thought] ‘I’m in awe of who you are and what you’ve experienced, what you’ve gone through and the fact that you still have yourself, even despite all the stuff that you’ve experienced.’ So I kind of just spoke. I just got to know them as people and as myself, not me as Fred. This is me. I just kind of let go.”

On the night before filming the assassination scene, Fishback remembers being wracked with anxiety. She couldn’t sleep or stop crying—the chairman’s death had always felt like something more than tragic to her, something unnatural. “He could have lived. … He was fine,” Fishback says. “No bullets had gotten to him until [police] stood over him and did what they did.” Then she remembered what Njeri had told her about actually living through the moment. “She said she didn’t cry,” Fishback says. “She remembers the cops bringing Chairman Fred’s body out and chanting, ‘Chairman Fred is dead.’ And they were laughing and smiling. She wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction, to let them see her shed a tear. I understood that.”

In the scene, Fishback never cracks.

If Judas and the Black Messiah has any through line, it’s that the people who made it possible—not the studio or the industry that birthed it, but the people who really made it—did so because they felt compelled to. Now we’re here, with a movie about a man and a movement that was taken, and it’s being distributed on a large, mainstream platform, and what’s more, it’s not even half bad. But would the person who it’s about actually want it? Would the movement, as it once was?

When I asked King what he thought Hampton and the Panthers’ response to the film would be, he said that the chairman would liken it to a “delicious piece of propaganda.” When I asked Kaluuya the same question he said he couldn’t possibly know—the man is dead, how could he purport to know his feelings? Fishback compared Hampton to a dream. She said that he was more than anyone could ever ask for, more than any one person could hold on to. “When you have a big dream,” she told me, “you have to surrender to it; otherwise, you don’t service anybody.”

But these are scholars, poets, freedom fighters—these Panthers—they knew what America does to stories like theirs. Surely they’d have little faith in modern corporate entities, little faith in Warner Bros., little faith in Hollywood. That’s why that documentary, the one with the man yelling “Yeah, we’re armed,” was produced by Panthers, not Hollywood. Because who else could be trusted to preserve such gems?

So what would the Panthers want today? What would they want their story to look like? It would have to be something that fell in line with their ideology. Something that honored the movement, not through a recitation of their lives, but through an articulation of their very purpose. It would need to be a kind of subterfuge to ensure it reached the largest crowd possible, and it would have to contain an appeal without pretense—an appeal to the people. You know, heighten the contradictions. Then they can decide.

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