Judas and the Black Messiah stars shine light on their story in Variety interview


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Kadiatou Diarra

Variety held an exclusive discussion with the stars of Judas and the Black Messiah via Streaming Room video chat on February 12th.

Hosted by editor Jenelle Riley, the interview looked into both the history of the movie’s story and the cast themselves. Daniel Kaluuya, Dominique Fishback, Lakeith Stanfield, director Shaka King and producer Charles King were all in attendance.

The film, released on the same day via HBO Max and movie theaters, is an elevated thriller while also a biopic, though not in the traditional sense of the depiction of an individual. Judas and the Black Messiah pairs contrasting ideologies that tell the story on both sides of the extremes, from the viewpoint of an individualist and a community organizer, a capitalist and a socialist, a coward and the bravest of men.

The movie is based on the true story of William O’Neal who worked with the FBI to go under cover in the Black Panther Party to find out information about Fred Hampton, the chairman and influential figure in the party.

“You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder the revolution. You can murder a freedom-fighter, but you can’t murder freedom,” echoed a short clip in which Kaluuya delivered a speech.

When asked how they became familiar with the story and the Black Panthers in general, Kaluuya, who plays Fred Hampton, led the discussion by saying he initially deep dove for the role but had an attachment to the Black Panthers out of personal interest prior to the movie.

Stanfield did his own research throughout high school and came across his character William O’Neal by watching documentaries.

Fishback, who plays Fred Hampton’s fiancé Deborah Johnson, became familiar with the Black Panthers as part of the Black Student Union at Pace University.

King said that even with Black nationalist parents he really didn’t know much about the story growing up so he really wanted to bring it to the big screen.

He went on saying he wanted to tell the story of not only Fred Hampton but William O’Neal, claiming “that’s the only way you can get a movie about Fred Hampton made.”

The discussion later turned to whether Stanfield found himself empathizing with O’Neal while humanizing his character for the role. Stanfield said he found his character to be so reprehensible but had to find a way to play him that felt human, not a caricature of a villain and not too guilt ridden either, finding a careful balance.

When asked whether or not it was intimidating playing his character, Kaluuya said he learned while working on Black Mirror that teaching yourself to play characters over time rather than overnight helps. Kaluuya starred on the second episode of the hit British show’s first season.

Fishback was personally intimidated when flying to meet the actual living people and family members of her character and having to tell them in a group meeting why she wanted to play the role of Johnson. The real Deborah Johnson took her and Kaluuya aside and said to her, “What if my spirit don’t match with your spirit?” Fishback then stated that they both had an automatic connection with Kaluuya.

King followed by saying that during the entirety of the time between the film’s conception and release, his idea of collaboration and ownership had eventually changed and grown.

When asked whether it was challenging to be in their character’s headspace, Stanfield reiterated that he was in direct contention with what his character had given and taken to the Black Panthers movement. King said he felt terrible about that, but his script supervisor turned to him one day and said “He loves it, he’s an actor.”

He turned to Stanfield and asked him whether there was a part of him that loved having to access something as awful as that, to which Stanfield responded that not once did he feel that way. King later said Stanfield had the hardest job of the entire cast.

”A thankless job, the only thanks is that the film got made,” King said.

On a final note, Kaluuya told the audience a memory of promoting his film “Queen & Slim” and having to do the iconic “I Am A Revolutionary” speech the next day for Judas and the Black Messiah. He recalled Melina Matsoukas, the director of Queen & Slim, noticing a heaviness in him and gave the audience his best piece of advice for this kind of situation. He says not to negate your feelings and instead put them into perspective of what the characters went through.