To capture the essence of Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton, “Judas and the Black Messiah” director Shaka King couldn’t just read a few history books. He had to put boots on the ground. King traveled to Chicago to speak with the real-life players from the Illinois chapter of the party and to find out what made Hampton tick from the people who knew him best.
It was more than a fact-finding mission. It was also an exercise in earning the trust of individuals whose stories had been inaccurately portrayed in the past.
“It didn’t surprise me that a lot of folks didn’t want their names on the record because they were infiltrated and people were murdered, so they’re very private people,” King explains.
“Someone who I’m not allowed to name told me this story about how Fred Hampton used to take Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. tapes or records and recite [the speeches] along with them. He’d do that for fun in the basement hanging out,” King says. “I was like, ‘That’s
going in the movie.’ It inspired the scene where you find out that Deborah [Johnson, Hampton’s fiancée] did the same thing. But that’s not something I would’ve learned had I not gone to Chicago and made it my business to talk to people who knew him.”
Ultimately, the most important connection King and his team made was with the late chairman’s widow (now known as Akua Njeri or, more affectionately, Mama Akua) and Fred Hampton Jr., chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs. Acting as consultants on the film, the family gave permission to use Hampton’s words in the project, leading to one of the film’s most affecting scenes, the re-creation of Hampton’s “I am a revolutionary” speech.
King compares the scene to a “Gladiator”-type moment as Daniel Kaluuya’s Hampton ascends the stairs into his version of the Colosseum: “He just got out of prison — literally he was a panther in a cage, and he’s now out,” says the director. “It’s also the scene where our background extras did just the most incredible work that they did throughout the process. It’s the kind of thing you don’t think about as being important. But you’re talking about a scene where you’re showing the might of your hero, and his power is the way his words affect people. So for them to feed off of Daniel the way they did in that moment, and for Daniel to feed off of them the way that he did, it made the entire experience real.”
After the first take, Kaluuya threw down the mic and walked out of the arena. He later told the director that he was so invested in the character that he barely knew what he was doing.
“It was the highlight of my career,” says King.