When Judas and the Black Messiah debuted in February, the film was poised to offend everyone. After months of civil unrest fueled by police violence against Black Americans, the true story of Fred Hampton, a young Black socialist leader assassinated by Chicago police at the direction of the FBI, ran the risk of alienating people who view the Black Panthers with suspicion and those who believe Hampton’s revolutionary ideology hasn’t received its proper due.
Incredibly, director Shaka King managed to isolate this important piece of American history, wrap it in the sheen of a ’70s crime thriller, and deliver a critically adored film that reportedly attracted more viewers in its first week on HBO Max than Zack Snyder’s Justice League and also won an Oscar for supporting actor Daniel Kaluuya. King’s work proves that historical Black stories need not be limited to art house fare or slave narratives to be both critical and commercial successes. Up next, King is working on an original movie about an American political insurrection.
As director, you had to satisfy Warner Bros., your cowriters, Fred Hampton’s surviving family, and also various audiences. How did you decide which direction to steer the film?
You kind of have to treat it like a game. It becomes a less anxiety-inducing experience than when you treat it like a mandate. It’s really just prioritizing what you want out of it while simultaneously accommodating these other entities. It’s navigating when to remain steadfast, and when to be like water.
Was the idea to make Judas as entertaining as possible so that the inherently political story of a Black socialist leader betrayed by the U.S. government would go down more smoothly?
We were trying to cut a trailer where you just saw a gangster movie; you didn’t see any political stuff whatsoever. We wanted that trailer to exist so we could get people who would reject this movie if they knew the subject matter to say, “Oh, I want to see that.” There is a more popcorn ver- sion [of the story], but we couldn’t have made it with the participation of chairman Fred Hampton Jr. We couldn’t have taken those kinds of dramatic liberties just for the sake of entertainment value.
Your film deals with Black trauma in a graceful way, while several other recent projects have been accused of dealing with it in a more exploitive way. What distinguishes your approach?
With the projects that I’m developing, I always think: Who is this for and how are they taking it in? I got offered one project recently that was based on a sociology book that changed my life when I read it in high school, a tragic story about a Black family. I read it at a very formative time of my life, and I was shocked that producers were trying to adapt it. I was like, I can’t take part, because most Black people, even if they don’t know the information in the book, even if it hasn’t been phrased in this way, in these stark, clear terms, we know it. We know it in our bodies. We don’t need to watch that.
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