‘I Expected a Bidding War. We Did Not Get That.’

The director Shaka King thought that his star-studded new film, Judas and the Black Messiah, would be an easy sell for studios. He was surprised.

Cutout of the director Shaka King against a red, yellow, and blue film strip
Tibrina Hobson / Getty / Warner Bros. Inc. / The Atlantic

Shaka King’s new film, Judas and the Black Messiah, is both a prestige picture and a pulpy thriller. It’s a biographical portrait of the Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), who by the age of 21 had become a major figure in the national party and founded the Rainbow Coalition movement. But much of the movie’s focus is on William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield): the informant who was planted in Hampton’s organization by the FBI, became his head of security, and ultimately betrayed him, passing along information that led to Hampton’s killing by Chicago police in 1969.

King’s background as a filmmaker before Judas and the Black Messiah was largely in comedy (including his excellent debut feature, Newlyweeds), and he blends genres masterfully. The new film thoughtfully illustrates Hampton’s efforts at community organizing while weaving in the tension of O’Neal’s role as a double agent, a plot point that feels straight out of crime epics like The Departed. The movie premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max on February 12; it figures to be a major Oscar player due to the Academy’s extended awards calendar this year.

Despite the story’s real-life resonance, the big stars, and the fact that Judas is produced by the Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, King struggled to find funding for the movie before landing with Warner Bros. He talked to The Atlantic about Hollywood’s ongoing skepticism toward adult dramas and films focused on Black characters, the frequently flawed representations of the Black Panthers onscreen, and the trickiness of theatrical releases during the pandemic. This interview has been edited for clarity.

David Sims: You have a background in comedy, and you’ve worked on TV. How did you get interested in this film project?

Shaka King: I do come from comedy. But my favorite movies have always been ’70s crime dramas. A lot of Sidney Lumet, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I watched that at night to go to sleep. That’s my comfort television.

Sims: The Friends of Eddie Coyle is so good. I haven’t seen that movie in a while.

King: Oh, it’s one of the greatest movies of all time. The dialogue is so incredibly naturalistic. With movies from that era, you never really feel like you’re watching a performance. You’re watching dramatized real life.

Sims: Absolutely. And they’re very unsentimental.

King: They’re not sentimental, and there’s very little exposition. Those are two things that I hate and try to avoid at all costs. In terms of how [Judas and the Black Messiah] came my way, I’ve been friends with [the comedians Kenny and Keith Lucas] for years. They developed this idea about a movie around William O’Neal and Fred Hampton that took place inside of the world of [the FBI counterintelligence program] COINTELPRO. I recognized that the only way to get a movie like this made was to couch it in a genre. Take a look at the market the last couple of years: Big-budget dramas, they’re dying. You get maybe a few of them for awards season.

In addition to that, I knew nothing about William O’Neal. As I started discovering more about him, the more I realized it was important to make him a central character as well.

Sims: There’s a dramatic hook to his character—a mystery that helps sell the movie.

King: Exactly. Fred Hampton came into this world fully realized. He knew what he was doing at a very young age. Whereas William O’Neal is in a conflict; he’s confused. And that’s always going to make for a more interesting protagonist.

Sims: What you’re saying about the genre dying is absolutely right. It’s the thing I bemoan the most—that these mid-budget adult movies feel like a tougher sell.

King: Incredibly, incredibly difficult.

Sims: Was that your experience trying to put this together?

King: The Lucas brothers and I started developing a script [before] we were introduced to [the writer] Will Berson, who had written a traditional Fred Hampton biopic. He and I decided to write a new, completely different version based off of the idea that the Lucas brothers and I had.

The moment we finished the draft, I called Ryan Coogler and asked him to produce, and he said yes. He enlisted Charles D. King to come on as an additional producer and co-financer. I had already written the thing with Lakeith [Stanfield], Daniel [Kaluuya], Dominique [Fishback], and Jesse [Plemons] in mind. Lakeith and Dominique were already in, and Ryan had a relationship with Daniel, having shot Black Panther together.

When we sat down together, [Kaluuya] had some qualities, as a person, that I’ve heard a lot of people use to describe Fred. A real sense of maturity, a gravitas, a power of presence, an old-school masculinity. In addition to that, he had a real youthful charisma to him—a wit, a cleverness. He was funny; he was quick. And Fred possessed that as well. Not to mention, obviously, I’d seen all of his work and knew of his talent. We took that package to the studios. And I expected a bidding war. We did not get that. Warner Bros. was one studio that said, “Yeah, we see this, and we see it for a budget level that we think is feasible.”

Sims: The thing you said about expecting a bidding war—I would agree with you. You’re talking about Daniel Kaluuya: an Oscar-nominated star. Lakeith is one of the most exciting actors around. This is a true story about a well-known historical figure.

King: You got [the producer] Charles King putting up half the budget. That’s rare. You have Ryan Coogler. He’s the director of Black Panther! Come on! I’m not even an executive. I’m just a guy, but it’s a layup. I remember going to see Black Panther in theaters, and people showing up in leather jackets and peacoats. The synergy was there already.

Sims: And the Black Panthers haven’t been dramatized in film that much, considering how they are lodged in people’s memories more than 50 years later. Why is this bar so high now? Is it just that adult dramas have been crowded out by big movies that have to play globally? Is that the only issue?

King: I think those are two separate questions. First, adult dramas at large aren’t being financed in the $20 to $50 million range, outside of Oscar contention. I don’t understand why that is. I think to some degree, the studios think internationally. They think: What is a movie that can interest people not only in the U.S. and across the world, but also [everyone from] babies to grandmas? Everyone wants a home run instead of singles, doubles, triples.

But I think with our film, it was because of the racist ideology that movies with non-white people don’t travel well overseas. Especially movies with Black people. That is a widely held mistruth, and it’s still held. It wasn’t that the studios were saying, “We don’t like the work. We’ll pass.” They were saying, “We like this idea. We want to develop the script with you. We really love this package. We can only offer you this dollar amount.” It was not only impossible to make a movie at that scale, but also not what they would offer a movie like The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Sims: A movie where Fred Hampton is a tertiary character.

King: And it’s a courtroom drama. When I found out how much money [The Trial of the Chicago 7] was made for, it really is telling to me. You could cut a trailer to our movie. If you don’t give a fuck about the Black Panthers, or any history, you could still be like, “I kind of want to see that, though. Because I like The Departed.” This is an incredibly commercial movie. One executive expressed the desire to make the movie, but then lowballed us. When I asked him why he was lowballing, he said when you crunch the numbers, our movie was only going to perform this well. He had said the same thing to me about BlacKkKlansman earlier. And I reminded him that that movie did incredibly well.

Sims: The audience is hungry for these kinds of movies; it’s just a proven fact. They always outperform.

King: How do they come to these numbers? And I realized—they do it based on what they think an actor’s box office is overseas. You know, there has been some backlash from people with Black American ancestry who are not comfortable with the casting of Daniel.

Sims: Because he’s British. I’m aware of that discourse.

King: It’s happening time and time again, with David Oyelowo [who played Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma] and Cynthia Erivo [who played Harriet Tubman in Harriet].

I cast Daniel first intuitively; then when I met him, he had these qualities that I spoke of. But in hindsight, I recognize that one of the things that probably made him appealing outside of all his talent is that he’s a superstar. In the minds of these executives, he can at least sell you the U.K. When people are like, “Why are you seeing British actors in these roles?”—it’s because to the studios, I believe at least, they have a greater value financially than Black American actors. And that is because of racism and American apartheid. And it’s embedded into every facet of our culture.

Sims: There’s probably all this unconscious stuff happening at the boardroom level.

King: I even think about why Warner took a flier on us. They’re a great company with really intelligent executives. But I think it didn’t hurt that Niija Kuykendall, who is one of the few, if not the only, Black executives with power in the entire town, was there and had been trying to make a movie about the Panthers for 10 years. When people say it’s important to get Black people and non-white people in positions of power at the studios,  these are some of the reasons why.

Sims: That’s all fascinating in terms of how the movie finally gets the green light. But then when you’re focusing on O’Neal, you’re focusing on that psychological-thriller element, the cat-and-mouse plot inside of this historical story. How do you strike that balance?

King: It was something that we were working through until the final edit. There are versions of this movie that are weighted far more in O’Neal’s direction. We did a remote screening, and there were probably 12 filmmakers. Most of them weren’t familiar with Fred Hampton’s story; two were incredibly familiar. The bulk of the conversation was led by these two, who were very upset that we chose to focus so much more on O’Neal in that cut. To the point where it crystallized for us: “We made the movie for these people. And these people are dissatisfied. So we have to address this.”

Sims: There’s not a lot of storytelling, especially from mainstream Hollywood, about these subjects.

King: We were leaning a little too much into not only the genre element, but also the nefariousness of what the FBI did, and the psychology behind that. You look at Hampton—this powerful presence—and you forget that he was a 21-year-old young man. He was assassinated, but he was also just a person who had a pregnant girlfriend, and had hopes and aspirations and was falling in love. For people who don’t connect to the politics, they can at least connect to the emotion of that. And so it was important to reflect that love and the universality to human connection. So the tragedy feels all the more tragic.

Sims: How did you and Lakeith talk about portraying William O’Neal? Were you doing a lot of research on the man himself? How do you make that into a human person versus a living dilemma?

King: There wasn’t a ton written on him, so you really had to just put yourself in that position. He used to use an FBI badge to steal cars. That gave me a window into how brilliant he was. Brilliant, but also a gambler. Then I started thinking about people I know who’ve been lifetime criminals, and how they’ve talked about the thrill of the crime—not necessarily getting the spoils, but the manipulation of the other individual, the sport of it all.

I looked at photos of him and how he dressed. He was a fop. That’s also a clue in terms of what he wants out of life. He’s a good-looking cat. Smart guy. He thinks he deserves more. There was this one line in the only  interview that was done with him where he said, “I’ve always wanted to become a police officer.” He talked about how police officers had respect in the neighborhood. And I realized he wanted to become a cop the same way someone like Rudy Giuliani wanted to become a lawyer. You know what I mean? It was, like, not to help. It was to exploit and to dominate.

Sims: To have the status.

King: And the power. That helped inform the larcenous side of him. But then you look at that interview; you see how Fred got to this dude. He reached him. Even if O’Neal’s politics didn’t change, [Hampton] reached him on a human level. I brought that to Lakeith and said, “Surprise me,” which he is the best at.

Sims: In terms of depicting the Panthers, how did you want to approach that? Because I feel like they are such one-dimensional figures in Hollywood most of the time.

King: I hate it. I hate it. They’re always glowering.

Sims: You think of Forrest Gump? Stuff where they’re just wallpaper.

King: Exactly. They’re caricature. I think that a lot of times, that caricature is supposed to be a substitute for actual entertainment.

Obviously, there’s violence. Even though [the film’s] got the word “messiah” in the title, I was trying to take down any saintly approach. These people see themselves as community organizers: people who love their people and have to protect themselves with arms. That’s secondary to the work that they’re really trying to do to heal their community, and provide the things to the community that the government has denied them.

Sims: As you were making a movie about Black-liberation movements, were you thinking about where the movement is today? Were you thinking about how things have changed and how things have stayed the same?

King: When I was making it, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. There was only one moment, in the portrayal of the Rainbow Coalition. It was just so fascinating that the Young Patriots Organization used the symbol of the Confederate flag. Down the line they got rid of that iconography, as a result of the relationship that they formed with the Black Panthers. But it wasn’t immediate. So I was like, let’s put that [imagery in the movie] and see how people react. That was the one of the few times where I was thinking about how the present and the past intertwined, because I recognize as a person how little things have changed. Fred says that the difference between reform and revolution is that revolution is actually change; reform is just cosmetic.

Sims: We’re in this new political moment; there’s a new president. But obviously, most things have not changed. So much of what was happening last summer around the George Floyd protests was people essentially saying that things haven’t changed.

King: We decided to start the movie with clips of the rebellion that took place after MLK’s assassination. And we stumbled upon a quote talking about the difference between rebellions and riots. Literally those same conversations were being had on social media and on the news. We made every step possible to basically immerse you in 1968 and ’69. But at the same time, you can’t help but think about now.

Sims: I’ve been talking with filmmakers about releasing movies on streaming during the pandemic for the last year. This film’s going to be widely accessible on HBO Max. Do you miss the big-screen experience? Or are you just happy that it’s gonna be out there for people to see?

King: I think this is actually quite an easy change to embrace. I don’t want anybody to go to the movie theater and die to watch my movie. I have no desire for that. And as a person who’s been home: Last year was a tough, tough year. I needed shit to watch to distract me. I had TV, but there weren’t a lot of movies. Everybody was holding all the good stuff until this shit went away. It was rough.

I think people are starving for something to watch. You have the definition of a captive audience. The whole reason for making this movie was to get to the widest audience possible. So I don’t think you could really ask for a better scenario, for those specific reasons. The big screen—I mean, yes, it would be nice, I guess. But it would be nice if there wasn’t a pandemic.