‘Black Messiah’ creators and activists discuss film

The film’s poster was designed by Emory Douglas, the artist behind the Black Panther Party’s artwork. Douglas was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party until it disbanded in the 1980s. // Photo courtesy of Bron Creative

Many single people see ValentinWarner Bros. Pictures new film, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” directed by Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”) and starring Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), LaKeith Stanfield (“Knives Out”) and Dominique Fishback (“Project Power”), is deeply American and profoundly timely.

The film tells the story of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and the events leading up to his assassination by the FBI and Chicago Police. Since his untimely death, his legacy, along with the legacy of the Black Panther Party, has been tainted with lies and misinformation. With this film, the first production given the blessing of Fred Hampton’s family, the filmmakers hope to repair this tarnished legacy, and to normalize the revolutionary love that Chairman Fred, and the Black Panthers, stood for.

Speaking at a Warner Bros. Summit event last week, writer and director Shaka King spoke about the purpose of the film. King said “Essentially, you’re taking about the correction of propaganda.”

The United States has normalized police brutality and even framed it is a heroic light. In movies and television, the detective or officer who gets results by coloring outside the lines and doing what has to be done regardless of the cost has framed unlawful actions by police in such a positive, sympathetic or even heroic light.

“You only get to [this] place after hundreds and hundreds of years of a certain narrative,” King said. Through this film, King hopes to normalize the “revolutionary love” that Chairman Fred stood for, the same way society has normalized police violence.

Also at the summit were members of the cast and crew, who spoke about the process of stepping into such a powerful story, especially in today’s day and age.

Kaluyaa said “I felt really honored that I’m in this space and that I’m aligned in this way where I could let Chairman Fred come though me;” Kaluuya is the star of films such as “Get Out,” “Black Panther” and “Queen & Slim,” who steps into the lead role of Chairman Fred Hampton.

The entire cast and crew, Kaluuya says, “approached the film with humility and reverence,” and in order to bring truth to the narrative and to step into the role fully, meeting the family of Chairman Fred, was absolutely necessary. Mother Akua, formerly Deborah Johnson, and her son, Chairman Fred Hampton Jr., along with numerous former members of the Black Panther Party and current members of the Black Panther Party Cubs, were constantly around the production, and contributed to both the authenticity of the story, and to the understanding and growth of the cast and crew.

Kaluuya and Dominique Fishback, who portrays Deborah Johnson in the film, sat down with Mother Akua and her son in what became an almost eight-hour meeting at Chairman Fred’s childhood home in Chicago. After the meeting, the group went out into the Chicago streets, which Fred Hampton Jr. describes as the real office of the Panthers.

There they visited a site of a recent killing, and witnessed firsthand the reality of what’s at stake in the United States, not only the killing, but the spread of misinformation, for when they got there, they saw that the memorial had been destroyed and the messages from loved ones had been changed and erased.

Kaluuya remarks that they “went to the valley, where they people are and felt the energy of true revolutionaries.”

It was a transformative experience for the entire cast and crew, an experience rooted in truth and a real desire to understand and honor the legacy of Chairman Fred and the Black Panther Party. During production, which took place in Cleveland in late 2019, several members of the cast and crew took a journey to watch Fred Hampton Jr. speak at an anniversary service of the murder of Tamir Rice.

Hampton Jr. said “None of it was forced. It wasn’t just part of a contract.” That receptivity and openness became the soul of the film, and the reason why the film is such a moving one.

Everyone involved was anxious in approaching such a monumental and important film. The cast were anxious to bring a truth and reverence to the story, and the family members were anxious to have their truth told.

Mother Akua and her son had rejected several proposed films telling this story before giving King’s production their blessing. During the meeting at the Hampton House, Mother Akua admits she was hard on Dominique. She was looking for certain things in the actress, but Fishback delivered. Akua said Fishback “even got her side-eye right.” Mother Akua goes on to explain how even she learned things from the actors in return.

“When I saw Daniel and Dominique in that movie,” she said, “I hadn’t realized how much I missed the love and comradery.”

LaKeith Stanfield also had a difficult role to step into — that of William (Bill) O’Neal, an FBI informant within the Black Panther Party, who betrays Hampton, and in instrumental in his assassination.

Stanfield said “it was terrible.” Initially under the impression that he would be playing the role of Chairman Fred, Stanfield admits it was a difficult transition, saying that upon finding out he did not want to do the film. He told Shaka King “I’ll be an extra, I’ll play someone’s hat. I don’t want to play this guy.”

But Stanfield, through studying the role found a sense of regret and insecurity that he latched on to, “I went into the character thinking ‘I’m going to take that sliver of insecurity and try to magnify that to bring this character to life.’” With so little information about O’Neal, Stanfield had to approach the role like a puzzle, diving deeply into the one on camera interview O’Neal gave, and the second-hand accounts of the few that knew him.

Something unique about this film is that it follows O’Neal as much, or perhaps more closely, than it does Hampton. Kenny and Keith Lucas, the co-writers of the film who developed the story, describe the choice as a way of getting the audience to connect with O’Neal. In many ways a victim, O’Neal’s manipulation by the system would connect him to the audience and his ultimate betrayal of Chairman Hampton would in turn cause more introspective reflection on the mart of that audience.

Ultimately the film and its creators aim to change the narrative and set the record straight, but “Judas and the Black Messiah” aims higher. The reality is that so little has changed in America since the time of Chairman Fred.

Fishback drew a powerful connection between Chairman Hampton and Breonna Taylor, who, fifty years apart, were both murdered in their beds. More than setting the record straight, Fishback remarked that the film wants to inspire “revolutionary love for each other and to spur people to action.”

As it is so often stated in the film: “Where there is people, there is power.” To learn more about how you can help, visit liveforthepeople.com, a service set up by the creators of the film to continue the work of Chairman Hampton. As Mother Akua puts it, “Not everyone is a revolutionary, but everyone can do something”.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is available to stream on HBO Max.