“You can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom.”
Last fall, Aaron Sorkin delivered his timely and compelling “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which covered the federal government’s 1969 charging of seven activists with conspiracy arising from the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Originally there were eight defendants, for Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale, who merely gave a speech during the demonstrations, was also indicted. During the trial he’s ordered bound and gagged by Judge Julius Hoffman who sentenced him to four years in prison for sixteen counts of contempt. The film features an adviser to Seale, Fred Hampton (played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. In the powerful and resonant new film “Judas and the Black Mesiah” (2021), which plays out like an urgent thriller, we get a full account of Hampton. Potently well-directed by Shaka King, it has two lofty performances in Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. It reminded me of the great movies from the 70s by Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula which focused on troubling subjects in highly entertaining ways. It is as engrossing as it is incensing in its depiction of J. Edgar Hoover’s (a scary Martin Sheen) determination to dowse dissenting domestic political voices and organizations through surveillance and infiltration and disturbance.
We’re introduced to William O’Neal – a petty thief caught for driving a stolen car and impersonating an FBI agent. Roy Mitchell (a sensational Jesse Plemons), an actual FBI interrogator, asks him why he used a badge. “A badge is scarier than the gun,” answers O’Neal. “A badge is like you’ve got the whole army behind you.” O’Neal’s given the choice between facing seven years in jail or becoming an informant, infiltrating the Illinois Black Panther Party and reporting on its activities.
O’Neal – the Judas of the title – earns the trust of Hampton and is quickly in his inner circle, becoming the head of security. He sees first hand how the charismatic Hampton fights to end police brutality and the killing of Black people in Chicago — and he also learns that Hampton wants to educate and feed the youth and build free medical clinics in the poorest and most oppressed neighborhoods. Hampton is able to assemble a ‘rainbow coalition’ uniting latinx and poor young southerners in his cause. Hoover and the FBI call him a “Black Messiah,” identifying him as a key militant leader who poses a danger to National Security. The film makes palpable that what Hampton was advocating is till relevant 50 years since his assassination.
As O’Neal gets more involved with the Black Panthers, he conversely starts to be seduced by Agent Mitchell’s world of security and luxury, being invited to partake in steak dinners and drink his scotch. “Don’t let Hampton fool you,” Mitchell indoctrinates O’Neal. “The Panthers and the Klan are one and the same. Their aim is to sow hatred and inspire terror. Plain and simple. I’m all for civil rights, but you can’t cheat your way to equality.” O’Neil will eventually aid the FBI in Hampton’s murder. The film devotes equal time to the enigmatic character. We never fully understand his motivations and reasonings but he remains a fascination nevertheless. Stanfield, whom I wrote about last week in his unpredictable turn in “The Photograph,” continues to astound. There seems to be nothing he cannot do splendidly. This is a very tricky role – demanding the actor to be simultaneously sympathetic and treasonous.
Stanfield’s reunited with his co-star from “Get Out” – Academy Award nominee Daniel Kaluuya – who delivers a fiery turn as Hampton. Halfway through the film,, when he’s released from prison and addresses a Chicago church – he gives a rousing speech that gets the audience worked up and yelling with him “I am a revolutionary” – I had goosebumps. And then he’s incredibly tender in the quiet moments with his activist fiancé , Deborah Johnson, who is pregnant with his child. Speaking of “Get Out” reunions, keep an eye out for Lil Rel Howery (who played TSA agent Rodney Williams) do another scene-stealing turn as a shifty character that crosses paths with O’Neil late at night at a bar.
Director King, who also co-wrote the script, enlisted director of photography Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave”) to create the gritty and austere look of 60s life in Chicago. Composers Craig Harris and Mark Isham add a mix of jazz and melancholia. Quelle Chris and Chris Keys bring percussion tones that highlight the tension and drama, and make the film feel and sound pulsating. King has total command of the complex storytelling keeping it vibrant, taut and angry. The last clip of the real life O’Neal speaking about it all is sobering. I know it’s early for we’re only in February, but this is one of the best of 2021.
Hampton: “America is on fire right now.”
Available to stream on HBO Max
Screenplay by Will Berson and Shaka King
Story by Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenneth Lucas and Keith Lucas
Directed by Shaka King
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith and Martin Sheen
Bringing “Judas and the Black Messiah” to the Screen
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.” (indiewire.com)
Director and Co-Writer Shaka King on the Research for “Judas and the Black Messiah”
“I read ‘Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party’ and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination.’ Obviously ‘The Assassination of Fred Hampton,’ but I educated myself on the national chapter. I remember the first book I read was ‘Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party,’ which just covers the national party. I read a book called ‘From the Bullet to the Ballot,’ which focuses specifically on the Illinois chapter, and that was very useful—even though I came to find out after the fact that all these books have some inaccuracies. I watched ‘Eyes on the Prize’ and the making of ‘Eyes on the Prize’ because I wanted to get as much information on William O’Neal as I could. There’s a book about William O’Neal that was written by this cop who he framed, which is a crazy story, called ‘The Badge They Are Trying to Bury’ that I bought for like $800 because there’s only one of them. I read this book called ‘Just Another Nigger’ by Don Cox, who’s a former Panther. And this book called ‘Nine Lives of a Black Panther,’ ‘A Taste of Power,’ and as many of the autobiographies that I could get my hands on. I read a lot of books, man.
Imagine how traumatized [the Black Panther Party] must have been after the events of December 4 [following Hampton’s murder]. Traditionally, they haven’t been forthcoming about their history with strangers, so they’re rightfully cautious about who they talk to. So we were really lucky that I was able to get some contacts within the Illinois chapter who were willing to speak with me. Lynn French was the first, and she introduced me to some others, like Michael McCarty. And obviously, we were beyond fortunate to have been in dialogue with Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. for like, a good year before we started rolling. And while we were in prep, we met with [his mother] Mama Akua Njeri, formerly known as Deborah Johnson, on at least two occasions. The second week of filming, they signed on as consultants. One of the stipulations was that Fred Hampton Jr. be on set every day—and he was, which was invaluable to everyone. And that’s not to say that it wasn’t incredibly challenging, for him and for us, but we were able to find those points of interest and the movie you see is a result of that. (gq.com)
LaKeith Stanfield on Playing William O’ Neal
When Stanfield first received the Judas script from King, he cried for hours “at both the tragedy and the beauty of the story being told,” he says. “I was like, ‘I can’t wait to play Fred. Obviously, that’s who you’re thinking about me for, right? Because I know you ain’t thinking about me for that other dude.’”…Stanfield nearly lost himself entirely. The deeper he dived into his O’Neal role over the course of Judas’ 42-day shoot, the more he found himself suffering panic attacks in his pursuit of bringing truth to the character. “I think I realized after doing this film how important therapy is,” he says. “Sometimes you get so deep into things that you lose track. We’re very ambitious. We wanna make this thing, make it right and do everything in our power to make sure we’re being honest with the details. But sometimes through that process of playing characters who have been through a lot of emotional trauma, you end up tapping back into your own emotional trauma — and sometimes you’re not prepared to do that.” Not surprisingly, Njeri, who actually lived this story, wrestled with her emotions too. “It triggered a lot of things that I had forgotten, a lot of things that I didn’t want to remember,” she says. PTSD is an unavoidable occupational risk for a Black creator who feels duty-bound to tell authentically Black stories in a world where Black trauma never ends. So it figures that a film as tough on the soul as Judas would forge Krazy-Glue-tight bonds across the call sheet. It wasn’t at all uncommon for actors to pull up to set on off days to watch their other castmates work. “This is the first time I’ve shown up to set when I haven’t been working,” Kaluuya jokes. “But then Ashton Sanders [who plays Hampton confidant Jimmy Palmer] would be filming a cool scene, and I’d call Dom and LaKeith and be like, ‘Let’s pull up!’” “Sometimes we’d roll up and just be like, ‘Hop in the car,’” Stanfield says. “Don’t even go back into your trailer. Jump in the car. We goin’ straight to the bowling alley or the dance place or whatever.” (ew.com)
About Composer Mark Isham
Mark Isham is an electronic music innovator, jazz artist and prolific film composer. He traverses the musical landscape with unique performances and imaginative scores. As a musician, his trumpet sound is described as cool, avant-garde, sexy, haunting – even achingly beautiful. He has performed worldwide, and collaborated with celebrated artists in multiple genres. Mark Isham’s ability to create unforgettable melodies combined with his willingness to experiment with innovative musical palettes have earned him accolades including: Grammy and Emmy awards, and Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. Mark Isham’s collaborators include many of the most respected names in film and music – Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, Brian De Palma, Frank Darabont, John Ridley, Jodi Foster, Robert Altman, Sting, Wil.I.Am, Sydney Lumet, and Mick Jagger. Mark Isham’s signature sound is heard on albums of music icons including Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Ziggy Marley, Joni Mitchell, The Rolling Stones, Chris Isaak, and Van Morrison.
Isham’s inimitable musical voice is evident in his memorable scores for award-winning features including the Oscar-winning Crash and A River Runs Through It, along with Golden Globe winning Bobby, and The Black Dahlia. For The Black Dahlia, Isham was awarded “Best Score” by the International Film Music Critics Association. Originally from New York City, Mark Isham was exposed to all types of music through his parents who were musicians. The young Isham studied piano and violin, but the trumpet captured his imagination and became his signature instrument. The Ishams moved from NYC to San Francisco, and by the age 15 Mark Isham was playing in jazz clubs, simultaneously performing with Oakland and San Francisco symphonies. He ultimately formed his own band Group 87. (highresaudio.com)
About Composer Craig Harris
When Craig Harris exploded onto the jazz scene in 1976, he brought the entire history of the jazz trombone with him. From the growling gutbucket intensity of early New Orleans music through the refined, articulate improvisation of the modern era set forth by J.J. Johnson, and into the confrontational expressionism of the ’60s avant-garde, Craig handled the total vernacular the way a skilled orator utilizes the spoken word. He has performed with a veritable Who’s Who of progressive jazz’ most important figures – including Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Sam Rivers, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jaki Byard, Muhal Richard Abrams, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Lester Bowie, The WORLD Saxophone Quartet, The Roots, RAKIM and the list goes on and on – his own projects displayed both a unique sense of concept and a total command of the sweeping expanse of musical expression. And it’s those two qualities that have dominated Craig’s past 15 years of activity, bringing him far beyond the confines of the jazz world and into the sphere of multimedia and performance art as composer, performer, conceptualist, curator and artistic director. Projects like, Souls Within the Veil, composed to commemorate the centennial of W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Brown Butterfly, a multi-media work based on the movement of Muhamed Ali with video, dance, and music. God’s Trombones, based on James Weldon Johnson’s classic collection of poems that refigure inspirational sermons by itinerant Negro preachers. (craigsharris.com)
About Director and Co-Writer Shaka King
Shaka King was born in Crown Heights and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant…he took a winding path to filmmaking. As a teenager, he worked as a stagehand on a local play written and produced by his parents, full-time public-school teachers whom King described as “very Afrocentric.” He hated the work at the time — his real passions were rap music and basketball — but discovered his own love of creative writing in a high school short-fiction class. “I was a low C, D student until I did well in that class,” King told me, on the curbside patio of a cafe in Williamsburg in January. “I hadn’t been good at anything in a long time. It helped make me want to get my act together.” King turned his grades around and went to Vassar College. He was spinning his wheels as a political science major when his roommate, Kristan Sprague, encouraged King to join him in a film-production course. The two imagined themselves following in the footsteps of their hometown film heroes Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. While still in school, they made a documentary called “Stolen Moments” about hip-hop and capitalism (King directed, Sprague edited) and have been frequent collaborators ever since, including on “Newlyweeds” and “Judas and the Black Messiah.” “He would get excited by movies that he felt weren’t cookie cutter, that were challenging to the audience while still being entertaining,” Sprague told me. “We would talk about things like ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and how a story could take surprising shifts in direction and tone.” After graduating, King worked for several years as an after-school tutor and youth counselor in New York while writing screenplays on the side. In 2007, he was accepted to New York University’s graduate film program, where he studied the work of Sidney Lumet, Bong Joon Ho and Robert Altman.
“Newlyweeds,” his thesis film, reflected his talent for blending moments of naturalistic intimacy with more stylized genre sequences. In one scene, a morally conflicted repo man on the verge of substance withdrawal has a paranoid vision of his girlfriend getting overly cozy with a co-worker. King shot the vision like a ’70s horror film: the frame rate switches to slow-motion as the camera zooms in, lingering on the characters’ eerily half-lit, maniacally laughing faces. A SALES AGENT who declined to represent “Newlyweeds” at Sundance in 2013 gave King some feedback that puzzled him. “He said he couldn’t sell the film because there weren’t any famous Black people in it,” King said. “I was like, ‘This is Sundance — the festival that breaks talent. I don’t know who any of these white people are in these movies.’” That experience, and the success of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017), helped convince King that he would have to be more tactical if he wanted to make challenging movies about Black people in Hollywood. The trick seemed to be to work, at least nominally, within a genre that had undeniable commercial potential. In 2016, he got the idea for what would become “Judas” while hanging out with Keith and Kenny Lucas, of the comedy duo the Lucas Brothers. (nytimes.com)