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.
Read: The double standard of the American riot
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.