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Defector At The Movies

Shaka King, Director Of ‘Judas And The Black Messiah,’ Talks Radical Politics, How To Make Black Movie Stars, And The Black Excellence Industrial Complex

A still from the movie Judas and the Black Messiah.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

The following is an interview with Shaka King, the director of Judas and the Black Messiah, a movie about the 1969 assassination of Civil Rights activist Fred Hampton. The movie is currently in theaters and is also streaming on HBO Max.

You’ve traveled a long and bumpy road to get here, but now you’ve vindicated that journey. Be honest: did you ever want to give up? Before Judas and the Black Messiah film got made? When your art is the end and not the means to an end, you do it because you’re compelled to. But being an artist, especially a black artist—I’m loath to use the term “creative” because it’s such a frayed and nebulous term—your vision will inevitably be at odds with your rent.

It’s the worst fucking term. The word creative as a noun … I feel like everybody who uses it makes branded content for Nike and Adidas.

It also tends to be a euphemism for grifter.

Yes. But to your question, I never wanted to give up. The alternative was always far worse than being an unsuccessful artist (by which I mean broke). I think the alternative is just getting a job, and I’ve done that before—I did that for seven years before I went to film school. So it was more I’d be fearful—like what the fuck am I going to do? I guess I could go back to teaching, which wouldn’t be the worst life ever, but certainly wouldn’t be why I spent all that money to go to film school. But there was a time I felt close to that sentiment. I can tell you exactly when it was. It was after Sundance when I sold Newlyweeds and that didn’t mean shit. I came home and no one cared. I felt like I was no further along in my career. It was a scary time. I hadn’t planned for a next move. But the experience of making a piece of art for the sense of making it—which is what I felt when I started visualizing Judas and the Black Messiah—that feeling reconnected me to my purpose.

Five or so years ago NPR ran this story about a white guy trying to track down a black maid he’d wronged when he was a kid. Eighty-plus years later, there he was seeking to make amends: he didn’t know her last name, surely she was deceased at that point. I’m haunted by something he said: that he was “smitten with grief.” 

Wow. He really said that?

He did. He meant stricken, of course. It was an unintentional but apt confession. There’s a certain sort of black story white audiences love. These narratives of black woe still center white people. I wonder if the white audience is too narcissistic to ever see that sort of story any other way. 

As tales of their own redemption. 

Your movie doesn’t provide much room for that brand of redemption. But I did think your film offered a sharp take on the white manipulation of black pain through agent Roy Mitchell: how he courts Bill O’Neal, invites him into his home, lets him hold his baby and have a taste of the good scotch. I read him, in a sense, as a stand-in for modern day mainstream white America and this moment of what you’ve called the “Black Excellence Industrial Complex.” Time Magazine recently proclaimed it a new Black Renaissance. There’s this unholy union between the powers that be and black creatives (here I’m purposely employing the term) in service to a cynical, ultra-capitalist bottom line, which results in the approximation of an intimate dynamic in which negroes are allowed to hold the baby and drink the scotch in the living room. In O’Neal’s case, that bargain doesn’t end well. He was left with a gas station and a lifetime of torturous guilt that chased him into traffic. How do you view this moment—the implications of audiences who are smitten with grief, the cynical promotion of black art, and the inevitable compromising of artistic integrity?

It’s funny you say that because I’ve noticed in the discourse around black movies being talked about this award season—our film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami, The United States vs. Billy Holiday, Da 5 Bloods—there are often comparisons between the films. I’ve heard commentators online and even heard the sentiment creep into even journalism too: this one is the best of those films. Or they’ll say things like, “Oh another film about this.” But Ma Rainey takes place during the Depression. It’s a completely different film from our film. None of these movies have real similarities! I think there’s a significant portion of our white viewership that in essence … I’m jumping around I know, bear with me: when I was in high school, I went to a really white school.

I went from a welfare hotel for the homeless and then a housing project to a New England prep. I think I know where this is going.

[Laughter]

In 8th grade they let maybe four black boys into my year, and three of them were really close friends, they became some of my best friends: Al, E, and Shawn. And there was a time when the white students couldn’t be bothered to learn their names—they just called each of them Alishawn. They looked nothing alike, but it didn’t matter. Our white audience does that with these movies. It’s all the same to them.

This is a thing I’ve come to understand with the industries of anti-racism and grievance: The point isn’t to parse the substance of any given talk, it’s really to say you attended the talk, to post a photo of the trending book to your Instagram as proof of value and decency. 

And to your earlier point, there’s a certain black movie that not only white people like to see, but are comfortable making. Now that I’ve made a successful film, the amount of movies that come across my desk just around black trauma … They can’t see what makes my movie specific, or the specificity of black humanity. That humanity becomes niggerized—they only see my black face. Always. At one point they saw that and didn’t want anything to do with it. Now they want to monetize it. But they’re still only seeing my black face.

You’re not making trauma porn; you’re not hustling black pathology; you’re not leaning on sentimentality or empty affirmation. But you are caught in a fundamental paradox when you create a piece of art that engages with black radical politics and socialism, but is itself a commodity, distilled through incontrovertibly American capitalist systems and processes. How do you navigate that inherent contradiction? 

It’s A) understanding that paradox from the outset. And B) being excited by the sport of it: Can I pull it off? I had this realization, which I later heard Daniel [Kaluuya] articulate—I don’t ever want to make a movie that I know I can make before I make it. The adventure is what’s interesting. The gymnastics you have to pull to make a movie about a radical black socialist within a deeply capitalist studio system is daunting but it’s a challenge I loved. Can we make a film that is—as big studio films are—for grandmothers and children while holding true to the integrity of the source material and the message? Can we disseminate this history—which, by the way, a lot of black folks even don’t know this history—to a widescale audience? Can we do this? That challenge is exciting. But also can we do this? There’s a part of it that’s scary. Handling this sort of essential, undersold history implies a real responsibility. But once you’re on set and you see Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. and Njeri, and you’re in these rich and crucial conversations, that responsibility is less of a burden than a blessing to carry.

What I loved about your film is it wasn’t perfect, nor was it easily digestible. It left me with a complexity of afterthought; it succeeded in places, and in other places not as much. Which is what a piece of art does: it provokes reflection, discourse and debate. So much of this recent rush of black and black-related art seems more like pure commodity. Commodity that flatters rather than challenges the delusions of liberal white audiences.

A lot of it is simply catnip for white liberals.

And because it goes down so easy, it arrives insulated from criticism. It doesn’t provoke discourse—it renders it moot. You don’t analyze and debate a Big Mac.

Yes, yes, yes.

Whereas a piece of art is supposed to have layers, to be picked apart. During this period of people tripping over themselves to praise and promote black art and black mascots, I’ve noticed the more interesting pieces of black art are met with harsher critiques. Because as with white audiences, I think black people can be cynical in terms of the specificity of black stories too. Has some of the backlash surprised you?

I think the movie has been judged a little more harshly than some other pieces, sure. When we sent it out for pre-screening, one journalist watched an hour of the movie and turned it off. She admitted she knew the story and didn’t want to watch the end because she wasn’t in a place emotionally to view the inevitable. I actually sympathize with her position, though I don’t quite understand how she could render a critique of the movie without having seen half of it. But I do understand the desire to turn it off. The unflinching portrayal of the brutality—not just physical but psychological—in the film, and just the skullduggery the government engaged in enrages and upsets some people who feel retraumatized by it. That’s part of the backlash. The other part of the backlash I’ve noticed is there’s a significant portion of black socialist Twitter that doesn’t fuck with the movie. The irony is that a lot of the elders fuck with it more. I mean the older black socialists versus the younger black socialists. They’ve been really hungry just for their legacy to get out to the younger generation. Many of them have gone into education and they see this as a potential teaching tool. They lean into the propaganda of it. I think a lot of young folks have grown up so immersed in propaganda they don’t know how to recognize it. Older folks are like, “There’s a Black Panther movie and we’re not the villains? This has utility.”

Whereas younger people are maybe a little more fundamentalist in their thinking?

Younger folks were ready to dislike the film from the moment they heard Hollywood was making a film about Fred Hampton. Rightfully so. And the fact Bill O’Neal is the central character put a lot of people on edge. I just hoped people would view the movie with an open mind, and look at the potential political upsides—the politics of the movie and what it’s trying to say. That the best way to show who Hampton was—

Could be to contrast him against who he wasn’t.

Right. They’re so accustomed to interfacing with people who think exactly the way they do, they don’t recognize that not only is a studio movie not going to exist within an echo chamber, but if you want to make a piece of radical material you want to keep the radical politics intact, but get it to the widest possible audience. In this case, people are showing up for a gangster picture but once they’re in the audience they get a lot more.

It’s like when I would watch my closest friend’s dog (RIP Maddy). She needed to take medication, but to get her to take it, you had to wrap it in a piece of soppressata.

Exactly. You give the audience the illusion of a treat. 

One of my frustrations with the performance of politics on social media is so many online fundamentalists and activists sit around peddling Snapple Facts and platitudes, but the people building a brand on the aesthetic of black radical politics aren’t actually doing anything. 

So many of us don’t want anything to change. What would our identity be? We’d be soldiers without a war to fight. It’s bugged because I might scroll through one of those Twitter feeds here and there and I’m like “My God, you are so deeply unhappy.” It’s either a list of worldwide atrocities past and present, or how lonely you are in your personal life. 

[Laughter]

I don’t mean to laugh because there’s a tragedy in all this.

It’s tragic, but it’s also a choice.

Given my background, observing this performance of blackness, these contrived identities built on an inviolable grievance by black people I know to be full of shit makes me feel more isolated and alienated. I imagine being in Hollywood with your background and your politics and ideas can leave you with similar feelings. What compromises do you make, what coping mechanisms have you developed, and how do you maintain your sanity in rooms with this sort of person?

The truth of the matter is, I haven’t been in rooms with them. I’m in my crib, bro. The pandemic has reshaped everything. So it’s isolating in that sense. But it’s kind of dope that I don’t have to do the dog and pony show. But I can’t say it’s good or bad because I’ve never been through it before. This is my first time making anything anyone has really seen.

One of my issues with the film is in casting a recognizable name, you had to sacrifice the power and depth of the characters’ youth. Youth deepens O’Neal’s character contextually, and clarifies the extraordinariness of Hampton. LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya mute that power and depth—those negroes look 35 years old!

[Laughter]

I can’t write anything without seeing actors who can potentially play the characters. Kaluuya was an instinctive, intuitive artistic choice. I saw him as I was writing the character. But the truth of the matter is 21 then wasn’t 21 now. Back then kids were working full-time jobs at 11. Folks had their second kid by 21. You look at Hampton and O’Neal in photos and they look significantly older.

World weary.

Yes. Then there’s also the fact you can’t name three bankable black actors I could assemble to make a movie and raise the financing for a movie with a budget upwards of $20 million. Because Hollywood hasn’t crafted a bankable class of black actors. This movie is making LaKeith Stanfield a movie star. Now, he was already one in my mind. But when you actually go back and look, he’d been the lead in Sorry to Bother You and Crown Heights—two independent films. Regardless of his name recognition, his mainstream roles were smaller. Since Atlanta hit, he has been one of the hottest actors in the world. But Hollywood hasn’t made him a star yet. So if I want to get a movie made I can’t just cast LaKeith—I have to have Daniel Kaluuya attached, Ryan Coogler attached, and I still need Charles King putting up half the budget. We eventually got Warner Bros. on board, but every other studio passed.

So their name recognition doesn’t inspire buy-in. Why not?

There’s a difference between name recognition and value. If I wanted to make, say, The Mighty Ducks 5, I can cast Tom Holland, Timothée Chalamet, any of these white actors from Hunger Games or whatever the latest dystopian teen movie is that made money overseas. Actors who have less name recognition than Daniel and LaKeith, yet are considered more valuable by the industry. And that’s fucking crazy, bro. Stars are made, man. With PR, magazine covers, TV interviews, etcetera. I’m watching it happen now with Dominique [Fishback]. She has been a world-class actor for years now. But now with this film, the machine is getting behind her. They don’t traditionally do that for black actors. It’s a regular thing for white actors. White actresses win Oscars for their first lead role. That happened to Lupita, but then she’s stuck playing an Alien.

[Laughter]

Netflix already showed you that movies and shows with black people make money. For their own capitalistic reasons they clarified that truth. But Hollywood has conveniently ignored that for years. Since the death of New Line Cinema. As a result of all this, I didn’t even consider casting younger actors—it just wasn’t an option. I didn’t think to myself, “Let me cast the lead from Stranger Things.” It’s impractical. 

One actor I thought of was dude from Snowfall, I can’t recall his name.

Precisely! You don’t know his name! You heard me say “the lead from Stranger Things.” And I make movies. I’m well aware who Damson Idris is. But they aren’t movie stars. Not because these guys aren’t great actors; they’re incredible actors. The kids from When They See Us blew my fucking brain apart. Why aren’t those kids Miles Morales? Why aren’t they doing a live action Spider-Man with one of these fucking kids? Why aren’t these kids the lead in the Star Wars Universe? Because that’s what’s going to make them fucking stars. What’s the next dystopian end of the world movie with kids in leotards or whatever? Put some blacks and Puerto Ricans and whatever else in it. Make action figures. Embed them in the collective public consciousness. So eventually one of them can go on to play young Che or something. That’s how this works.

Maybe you should’ve cast Cuba Gooding Jr. and Bokeem Woodbine. 

[Laughter]

I love Bokeem Woodbine. I really love Bokeem Woodbine. Deadass. 

He was on my mind because I’ve been revisiting The Sopranos, and recently I watched the Massive Genius episode. The Sopranos is a brilliant show: a study of the human condition and American culture disguised as a comedy disguised as a drama. But watching that particular episode I had this Ralph Ellison moment. Whenever a black person comes on screen—

They become terrible writers. 

Which is why it’s so important you have black people in these rooms, at studios, all of that. But how do you get the industry to want to develop and invest in black stars and sell black stories? Does there need to be a change of heart or vision to effect change in that sort of marketing and development? 

I joke about the Black Excellence Industrial Complex, but black directors are standing on the shoulders of other black directors and producers. Like it or not, that’s who is driving the content forward. We’re finding slippery ways to get shit made. But the onus can’t be totally on this small number of us. You need studios to hire way more non-white executives. And they need to draw executives from untraditional spaces. I don’t want to paint a certain group of black people with a broad brush, but I do think there’s a cycle of non-white people in Hollywood who have succeeded precisely by not challenging the system in which they work. This sounds counterintuitive, but you need to hire people who don’t want to be there. We need spooks who sat by the door, so to speak: people who can view the industry from a constructive, critical lens. And we need a lot of them—a couple at every studio in order to see real change. Because then it won’t be the artist walking in with the burden of explaining artistic vision and commercial viability, but someone on the inside who anticipates and can speak to those concerns as well. My ex-manager (who’s now a producer) was that for me, and I loved him for that. He understood me and my artistic vision, but he also spoke the studio’s language: how can this product sell. Because that’s what they care about at the end of the day.

When Judas and the Black Messiah ended, I found myself thinking for several days about what black leaders owe us. The cost of leadership for so many—Hampton, King, Malcolm and others—was life. Assassination. State-sanctioned murder. We’re in an era of glorified mascots, where ineffective and regressive politics are made more palatable by rebranding via brown packaging. I’m also thinking of Barack post-presidency curating these bland, market-tested playlists and the general fusion of celebrity culture and the political sphere. But black leadership didn’t pivot to a capitalist ethic so much as it was ushered that way by a hail of bullets. Authenticity and social uplift and integrity got you killed. Am I expecting too much of someone like Obama to be more than a social media influencer at this point in his life?

He’s not our leader though. He’s the former president of the United States. I have a former colleague who in an interview described Fred Hampton as the first Barack Obama. He tried to qualify it by saying Hampton was more left, more radical … Don’t even put them in the same conversation. The same sentence. Ever. Ever-ever-ever-ever. Obama was president of the United States. That’s it. But what’s also true is you don’t have the Black Excellence Industrial Complex without Barack Obama. This movie doesn’t exist without Barack Obama. I recognize that too. He was the leader of the United States, not the leader of black folks. And he’ll tell you that.

I think he legitimized a lane for a hyper-stylized, carefully curated black identity that was somehow just palatable enough to blacks and whites for them not to poke too hard at its emptiness. A standardized black identity that allowed one to hustle blackness despite a certain disconnect and distance from it.

And there are good things that have snuck through on the back of that palatable identity. Bad things too. That’s an entire conversation we’d need much more time to sort through.

Do you care about the Black British vs. Black American actor debate? People are having frequent, impassioned arguments about this online.

Not at all. But I have thoughts on it. I do have a theory. Biopics are mid-budget films—$20–50 million budgets. Hollywood doesn’t make many of those movies anymore—the number is shrinking. There’s still a widely held belief that black actors don’t sell overseas, internationally—the studios don’t believe they’ll make their money back. It wouldn’t surprise me if white executives think a British black actor will sell you the UK and their former colonies. It’s less a conspiracy than a business decision steeped in misguided assumptions and racist math. This was not why we cast who we cast in our film, I want to make that clear.

Circumstances being ideal, do you have a dream project?

I don’t know. Honestly I don’t. When I heard the pitch for Judas, that was perfectly up my alley. I love ’70s crime dramas. It’s my favorite genre of film. I love music from that era, and I was always fascinated by the Panthers. I can combine all these things? Incredibly exciting. Perfect storm. Certainly I have a list of ideas that interest me, but nothing that jumps out as ideal, as the project. But what excites me are things that intimidate me. The things I don’t know whether I can do. I could never make a movie like Holy Motors, which is one of my favorite movies ever. I look at that movie and it’s so damn genius. I can’t begin to make that movie. And that’s the sort of thing I love: a project that speaks to me but also scares me as well. Where I have something unique to contribute, but also doubt that I can pull it off.

You mentioned your love of film and music from the ’70s. We’re simpatico there. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is toward the end, in the bar, when the Ordells’ “Sippin a Cup of Coffee” is playing.

The Ka sample. 

Brownsville Ka! A friend and I call him Brownstone Ka, after that news story that exposed him as a firefighter who lived in a brownstone with his wife. 

That’s hilarious. 

No disrespect intended whatsoever. 

Ka is one of my favorite rappers of all time. 

Oh no doubt, he’s one of my guys. Roc Marciano too.

Roc Marci is one of my top five favorite rap producers of all time. Reloaded is a desert island album for me. Just an impeccably produced album. Those are two of my favorite rappers of all time. I love Ka so much as an MC, as a producer, and just as a mind. When I found out he directed his own videos, it blew me away. I saw him in the street one day and told him, “I’m a director, and I admire you.” I’ve never seen a style like his style. He’s a one of one. Though my favorite Ka album, he didn’t even produce. Preservation produced it.

Days of Dr. Yen Lo.

It’s one of the most cinematic albums I’ve heard in my entire life. It sounds like a Sidney Lumet film.

And that’s where the Ordells sample is from.

“Day 13.” That song is so cold. I spent a long time trying to track down the Ordells song for the movie. Finally found out Questlove’s father wrote the song and had the rights to it. Now if we’re talking dream project, maybe something with Ka. You know what? Recently someone suggested an MF Doom biopic.

A goal of mine is to write the MF Doom obituary he deserved, but mainstream culture was incapable of producing. You have these writers who lack the context in which to situate his life and his music. They’re name-checking Thom Yorke and Playboi Carti instead of starting with the likes of Brand Nubian and Kool Keith, then moving onto Ka, Roc Marciano, Sean Price, Mach Hommy. He wasn’t alternative in the way they conceive; but to understand that, you have to understand the nuance of blackness and hip hop.

Let me close with this: The only way to do a Doom biopic—and I think you’ll fuck with this idea—is everything is a lie. Every fucking thing is a lie. That’s the only way to do it. I’d sign on for that.