Shaka King on his poignant capture of the betrayal of an activist in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is without a doubt Shaka King’s magnum opus.
Inspired by true-life events, the movie looks at the betrayal of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party.
At 41, King, a former student of Spike Lee - he enlisted in a graduate film program at New York University Tisch School of the Arts - does his mentor proud with his second feature film, which has received six nods for the 93rd Academy Awards.
King, who shares the screenplay credit with Will Berson, established himself as a producer, director and writer with several TV shows, short films and his feature film debut, “Newlyweeds” (2013).
Reflecting on what drew him to Hampton’s story, King shared: “Really, it was when I read his words.
“It was his and the Panthers’ ideas around class solidarity… Their identification of systemic poverty, racism and the state design and proliferated evil — just even their making the connections between individuals having a lack of health care as a direct result of their poverty — it seemed like such a clear line.
“The way they articulated these thoughts, as I read them, they felt so ahead of their time. But then, you stop and think for a minute — they weren’t ahead of their time, they were just of the time, and times haven’t changed.
“It was the relevance of what he said and how he said it, along with the way he presented information.
“He was able to put these heady or academic concepts plainly; he was also witty and funny in how he presented these concepts.
“His oratory skill was captivating and magnetic.”
In the movie, British actor Daniel Kaluuya masterfully slips into the skin of Fred Hampton with Lakeith Stanfield cast as William "Bill" O'Neal, an FBI informant who infiltrates the Black Panther Party.
Jesse Plemons plays Roy Mitchell, O'Neal's FBI Special Agent handler.
King added: “Fred Hampton was really born a revolutionary.
“You have to understand that this is a guy whose phone was tapped by the FBI at 14-years-old. He was an NAACP youth leader at 16 years old, and recruited by Bobby Rush to be the face of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party.
“When we meet him, the Party is fledgling, but he has incredible confidence in his ideas and abilities, and that his words will permeate and he’ll be able to recruit members.
“We watch him as he is coalition-building, recruiting, and that’s the ride we go on. The more success he has, the more imperilled his journey becomes.
“Then, there’s the prospect of having a family, which doesn’t really occur to him, it’s not a choice. He’s kind of made the decision from birth that he’s willing to die for the things he believes in - but it definitely gives him something to reconsider.
“So, it’s really about a superhuman guy becoming human and, in doing so, really becoming a holistic force and, at that point, his life is cut short by the state.”
The director expanded on O’Neal’s dilemma.
He said: “William O’Neal is a really intelligent, good-looking young guy who recognizes that his race and class limit his prospects of obtaining the kind of power he desires.
“Now, his definition of power is very limited; it’s defined by the American capitalist culture, i.e., having a nice billfold, a nice car and a nice house.
“And he knows that he’s not going to get those - probably his best option in life as a young Black man on the west side of Chicago in 1968 is being a porter on the railroad.
“So, he’s like, ‘F**k it. I’m a thief’. He’s a good thief, a deft manipulator, and I think he finds power in getting over on others.
“Ultimately, however, he took his own life the night that the truth was going to come to light, in terms of the role that he played in Fred Hampton’s assassination.
“So, it’s kind of obvious that even though he got what he desired, he didn’t find it ultimately fulfilling.”
King aptly ends the movie with archived footage of Hampton’s speeches, funeral procession as well as an interview he gave circa 1989.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is showing at cinemas, nationwide.