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

Director Shaka King on the set of<em> Judas and the Black Messiah.</em> The film<em> </em>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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2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc
Director Shaka King on the set of Judas and the Black Messiah. The film 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.

As the current chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs, Fred Hampton, Jr. was guarded when he heard a studio wanted to make a movie about his late father, Fred Hampton. With good reason, too. The elder Hampton was the fiery and charismatic chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. The FBI had its eye on him through a program called COINTELPRO, where they would infiltrate groups like the Black Panthers and use information to launch disinformation smear campaigns.

Hampton was in the midst of corralling disparate, multi-racial groups under the banner of the Rainbow Coalition. The idea was to organize these groups to fight poverty and police brutality. Then, Chicago police shot and killed Hampton and another member of the Black Panther Party in an early morning raid. In an interview, Hampton, Jr. pointed out others have tried to make this movie without coming correct — no knowledge or respect for the legacy of Hampton and the Illinois Black Panther party. "Legacy," he said, "is more important than our life."

This is what director Shaka King was thinking about when he signed on to make Judas and the Black Messiah, the new movie about the life of Fred Hampton through the eyes of William O'Neal — the man who infiltrated the Black Panthers on behalf of the FBI. The pitch he got from the movie's co-writers, Kenny and Keith Lucas, was a movie about Hampton and O'Neal that was like Martin Scorsese's gangster film, The Departed, but set inside the world of COINTELPRO. It didn't take much beyond that. "I was like, I see it. I'm done. I'm in," said King.

The result is a tense, thrilling movie that draws as much from The Talented Mr. Ripley as it does The Departed, packaging Hampton's radical politics beneath a sheen of high budget movie making. Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton's partner Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri), says she trusted King with Hampton's legacy. "His confidence and ability to make an authentic story, but not at the cost of somebody's life," she said helped her feel more comfortable to make the acting choices she made.

This big, complex movie with stakes bigger than any one person's life is a big jump from King's first movie, 2013's Newlyweeds. That movie tells the story of a young couple in Brooklyn who smoke a lot of weed. It's tender and funny, hitting the same notes as movies from other indie darling directors such as Joe Swanberg or the Duplass brothers. And it got decent buzz when it went around the festival circuit. The Film Independent Spirit Awards gave King the Someone to Watch Award, which came with a $25,000 grant.

But after that initial fanfare, King struggled to find buyers for the movie. "I was so depressed after making Newlyweeds," he said. It was a movie starring two Black actors who no one knew. "And at that time, that was deemed worthless," said King.

2013 wasn't that long ago. But it was before what a friend of King's ironically dubbed the Black Excellence Industrial Complex, when movie studios realized you could make a lot of money releasing films by and starring Black people — Selma,Moonlight, Black Panther and so on. The experience with Newlyweeds burnt King out on the idea of making another feature film. "I stopped caring," he said.

Judas and the Black Messiah producer, Charles D. King (no relation), didn't know that about director Shaka King. As the head of Macro, which produces movies and TV shows by people of color including Judas, Charles King is possibly one of the biggest names in the Black Excellence Industrial Complex. From his perch as producer, he's seen young directors struggle with getting the momentum going for a second movie — particularly women and people of color. So he wasn't surprised King felt the same way.

"It was before the #Oscarssowhite moment of 2015," said King. "A lot's happened since then. There's much more of an openness and I think an understanding of the business opportunity there."

After Newlyweeds, what tethered director King to the idea of moviemaking was a kind of silly, kind of outrageous idea he had rolling around in his head for a short satire, titled Mulignans,after the Italian slur for Black people that used to be heard frequently on the streets of Brooklyn. In it, King and two other actors play three Black guys who talk like they're out of the Italian mobster movies King has such a fondness for. It was slightly inspired by his time growing up in a mostly Black part of Brooklyn, before going to school in South Brooklyn. There, he noticed that everyone — the Irish kids, the Greek kids, the Jewish kids, the Asian kids — all talked like the Italian kids.

"And those kids were hilarious," said King. "They were profane, they were quick witted — we weren't friends — but I could appreciate their sense of humor."

The movie has the spirit and feel of hanging out with your friends while it concisely makes points about gender politics, race and gentrification. It reminded King of the sheer fun of making something just to see if you can. "That movie saved me," he said. "It saved me."

King brought that energy to the challenge of making Judas and the Black Messiah, a movie about a Black radical anti-capitalist, within the very capitalist world of Hollywood. "I'm completely aware of the myriad of contradictions that exist not only to try and make a movie like this, but me just wanting to have the kind of career I want to have, and the politics that I have and all of those co-existing," he said.

Fred Hampton, Jr. was a consultant for the movie and on set during production. When I spoke with him, he said he was only just now able to watch the movie through the eyes of a regular audience member. He liked it well enough, though he wished they could've gotten some more of the politics in there. Then he smiled and said, "a revolutionary is never satisfied."

Nina Gregory edited this story.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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