Shaka King was doing a stint in television after directing the indie comedy Newlyweeds (2013) when he was pitched the concept for his first studio feature, Judas and the Black Messiah, which tells the story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and William O'Neal, an FBI informant who worked on Hampton's security team. "It was The Departed set inside the world of COINTELPRO," said King, now forty, referring to the illegal covert program created by notoriously racist FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to disrupt or neutralize "subversives" he believed presented a dangerous threat to national security. "I thought it was a brilliant idea," King explained, "and we set about figuring out what that looked like."
A graduate of New York University's masters program in film, King spent most of the next four years preparing the midbudget thriller, produced by Ryan Coogler and Charles King, whose company Macro put up fifty percent of the film's financing. The three filmmakers had collaborated earlier on the advocacy group Blackout for Human Rights. An activist named Rosa Clemente put the filmmakers in contact with Hampton's family, whom they consulted at length about the Panthers, the seminal Black revolutionary group founded in 1966 that advocated for armed self-defense and ran free breakfast programs and medical clinics in their communities.
The only previous Hollywood movie about the organization was the 1995 drama Panther by Mario Van Peebles that was based on a novel by his father, the pioneering independent filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles. It featured some talented young actors but didn't exactly set the world on fire, politically, critically, or financially. Judas and the Black Messiah, which received glowing reviews upon its U.S. release in February, is, first and foremost, authentic to the events it depicts in late 1960s Chicago, and yet still manages to look and sound utterly original. For King, who grew up in Brooklyn admiring hometown filmmakers like Spike Lee and Sidney Lumet, working on the project was an opportunity to flip the script. Many people tend to focus on the tragic way Hampton died, not the heroic way he lived. "I wanted to change that," King said. [See review on page 42 in this issue.]
The movie shows Hampton as a master organizer, someone able to turn antagonists into allies--as with his Rainbow Coalition that united the Chicago chapter of the Panthers with the white Young Patriots Organization and the Latino organization the Young Lords--as well as a well-read political thinker inspired by contemporaneous uprisings in Mozambique and China. Hampton's revolutionary rhetoric often reflected a highly romantic notion of armed struggle, such as his belief in how glorious it would be to "die for the people." His belief in them was unshakable and King's movie--filled with images of smiling, animated children being led in "The Black Child's Pledge" and other scenes of activism that capture the spirit of Black pride and nationalism--is so compelling that, at times, it recalls the political vitality of the nationwide movement at its height.
Judas and the...