Moment of Truth: Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield stun in Judas and the Black Messiah
When it comes to emotional scene work, LaKeith Stanfield's method is to retreat into silence. Something about it sends his mind racing to call up every dark moment, difficult loss, and deep-seated sadness. But on Dec. 4, 2019, things got a little too quiet for the Atlanta star on the Cleveland set of Judas and the Black Messiah, the bravura first studio film from director Shaka King that rehashes the state-sanctioned killing of 21-year-old Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton. On the docket was a scene that called for Stanfield, who plays a college-age FBI informant named William O'Neal, to betray an unwitting Hampton during a Last Supper-type party at the chairman's home, hours before Chicago police would storm in (on O'Neal's intel) and pockmark the place — and Hampton — in a hail of bullets. The hush that came over the set that day was palpable.
The apartment looked too real to Stanfield. The cigarette smoke, the food on the stove — they hit differently. Every time his eye caught a jug of Kool-Aid (a key prop in the scene), Stanfield would swallow a little harder. And then there was the man playing Hampton, Stanfield's dear friend and former Get Out scene partner, Daniel Kaluuya. "Daniel felt like Fred," recalls Stanfield, 29, who struggled to keep himself together. Between takes, he'd go from weeping to throwing up. "I was trying to purge all these weird emotions."
Kaluuya could feel it too. "It wasn't easy on the heart, if I'm being honest," says the 32-year-old Oscar nominee. "There were days that you just felt... low with the weight of the reality. To be channeling those ideas, that time and that dynamic, it lay heavy on the cast."
"The night before [the raid] scene, I couldn't sleep," adds Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton's partner, Deb Johnson. "My heart was pounding so hard. I had to keep telling myself, 'Daniel's gonna be okay...'" How they were even able to push through, with Hampton's real-life only child and widow looking on, and finish filming that moment — right around the 50th anniversary of Hampton's assassination, at that — is a testament to the collective commitment of the Judas cast and crew. It's also a reflection of the responsibility they felt to not just tell the chairman's story, but to tell it like it was. "I found out how much Fred meant to me and how much I believe in his ideas, his concepts — concepts that are still here within America," Kaluuya says.
Marvel's Black Panther has been churning in the culture for long enough; you could almost forget there was a time in the not-too-distant past when the phrase was anything but comic. In 1969, J. Edgar Hoover famously labeled the real-life Black Panther Party and its estimated 5,000 national members "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country" — a moment reprised in Judas with Martin Sheen playing the infamous FBI director. (That's right. President Bartlet's gone rogue.)
It hardly mattered that the Black Panther Party was largely made up of poor and working-class young people of various races who were pooling their time and resources to give away breakfast to children, build free clinics, and police their own neighborhoods. Hampton, the charismatic Chicagoan in charge of the party's largest chapter, was simply too charismatic. Too organized. Too much like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. He had to go.
In our COVID-stricken, racially charged zeitgeist, Judas feels like a story from five minutes ago, not 50 years. It's easy to get depressed about how seemingly little progress has been made, until you consider how many of Hampton's ideas — not least, giving needy kids free hot meals — have become institutionalized. It just goes to show, as the man himself once said, that you can kill the revolutionary but not the revolution. This film, distributed by Warner Bros. (and, as part of the studio's 2021 release plan, bowing simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max Feb. 12), sets the record straight. The accepted pro-cop slant propagated in the American media had stopped the Hampton family from blessing any project, to the point where they figured the only movie that could ever get it right was one they made themselves. So they tried, about eight years ago. "I have footage of Mos Def set to play the chairman, [and the] Lady of Rage was Deb," says chairman Fred Hampton Jr., 51.
Meanwhile, Shaka King was quietly making his mark in comedy. A Hampton project didn't occur to the filmmaker until the stand-up twins Kenny and Keith Lucas (2017's Netflix special On Drugs) sold him on the idea in 2016. Then King brought in brawny producers in superagent-turned-rainmaker Charles D. King (who says his company, MACRO, helped front part of the funding for Judas) and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, an old friend. (They'd met at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013.) For the longest time, Coogler could never quite figure out how to tell a story that always hit too close to home. "The pressure to get it right was something that I — not that I was afraid of it, but it just didn't feel like a natural thing for me to think about as a writer-director," says Coogler, an Oakland native with family ties to the Panther Party.
It helped that Hampton Jr. remembered Coogler from his days passing out party flyers at a Bay Area flea market some years back. And that racial profiling was more than just thematic tinseling for the Black-led Judas cast. "I'm from East New York," says Fishback, 29. "I've had family members who were murdered by cops. Cops raided my 20th birthday party. Just because we were in East New York. Just because we were having fun."
Johnson, who changed her name to Akua Njeri, recalls one late night after a preproduction meeting at Hampton's childhood home — now a nonprofit headquarters — when her son instructed one member of the Hampton team to look up the worst community in Chicago, then asked the room, "Who all gonna go?" After a beat of pin-drop silence, Fishback and Kaluuya didn't hesitate. "Oh, we goin,'" they said. Njeri, now 70, was overcome. "I think 11 people had just gotten killed in that area," Njeri recalls. "And they went at, like, 1:30 in the morning. I really took note of that, how everyone was willing to listen and learn our point of view."
As film archetypes go, you'd be hard-pressed to find one more cliché than the snitch. What King and co-writer Will Berson captured with William O'Neal, more deeply than perhaps any filmmakers before them, is the frailty at the root of the treachery and how, really, any one of us could be boxed into a similar position. "Making this movie has made me at times think, Where has this ancestor manifested in my behavior?" says King. "I hope that's an effect the movie has on the viewer, because that's the only real reason to humanize William O'Neal."
When Stanfield first received the Judas script from King, he cried for hours "at both the tragedy and the beauty of the story being told," he says. "I was like, 'I can't wait to play Fred. Obviously, that's who you're thinking about me for, right? Because I know you ain't thinking about me for that other dude.'" When King confirmed his fear, Stanfield went straight to Google. "I was like, 'Damn, I kinda look like this dude.'" In Judas, O'Neal's antihero journey drives a three-way cat-and-mouse game between O'Neal and Hampton, O'Neal and himself, and O'Neal and FBI agent Roy Mitchell, whom Jesse Plemons portrays with trademark understatement. Fishback is equally subtle as Deb, arming her with an unflinching inner strength and a journal full of poems written in the character's voice that she was able to work into the film.
Kaluuya's performance as Fred, on the other hand, was much bigger — bigger than even he could grasp at times. "Usually when I do a job, I can remember what take they use," Kaluuya says. "But when I saw myself in the trailer doing the 'I am a revolutionary' speech, I [didn't] remember shooting that. I kinda went to another place. I'm saying Chairman Fred's actual words. Everyone's dressed as the time. The Panthers were there. The spirit of the time entered the room. There were certain moments where I'd lose my voice, and then there'd be a take where I'd find it again. I don't know where that second wind came from. It was very much an out-of-body experience."
Stanfield nearly lost himself entirely. The deeper he dived into his O'Neal role over the course of Judas' 42-day shoot, the more he found himself suffering panic attacks in his pursuit of bringing truth to the character. "I think I realized after doing this film how important therapy is," he says. "Sometimes you get so deep into things that you lose track. We're very ambitious. We wanna make this thing, make it right and do everything in our power to make sure we're being honest with the details. But sometimes through that process of playing characters who have been through a lot of emotional trauma, you end up tapping back into your own emotional trauma — and sometimes you're not prepared to do that."
Not surprisingly, Njeri, who actually lived this story, wrestled with her emotions too. "It triggered a lot of things that I had forgotten, a lot of things that I didn't want to remember," she says. PTSD is an unavoidable occupational risk for a Black creator who feels duty-bound to tell authentically Black stories in a world where Black trauma never ends. So it figures that a film as tough on the soul as Judas would forge Krazy-Glue-tight bonds across the call sheet. It wasn't at all uncommon for actors to pull up to set on off days to watch their other castmates work. "This is the first time I've shown up to set when I haven't been working," Kaluuya jokes. "But then Ashton Sanders [who plays Hampton confidant Jimmy Palmer] would be filming a cool scene, and I'd call Dom and LaKeith and be like, 'Let's pull up!'"
"Sometimes we'd roll up and just be like, 'Hop in the car,'" Stanfield says. "Don't even go back into your trailer. Jump in the car. We goin' straight to the bowling alley or the dance place or whatever."
Stanfield and Kaluuya have remained inextricably linked since their fraught first meeting at the Armitage family's ominous garden party in Get Out. Shortly after that film's 2017 release, both men were working in Atlanta — Stanfield on his Emmy-winning FX series, and Kaluuya on Black Panther — and the pair grew closer. They'd later find themselves monologuing as South African children on Carnegie Hall's Perelman Stage for a star-studded, one-off charity event directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle, or catching up with each other on the festival circuit over the years. Stanfield heightened his vulnerable onscreen presence in Sorry to Bother You (2018) and The Photograph (2020), while Kaluuya doubled down on his commanding intensity in Widows (2018) and Queen & Slim (2019).
They became family. That much was obvious in a December Zoom interview for this story when Stanfield belched in the middle of an expansive answer about his early impressions of the Judas script, and kept right on talking until his costar called him out. ("You tried to pass that like it was nothin'!" Kaluuya howled.) Their seemingly effortless fraternal dynamic undergirds some of the warmest moments in Judas, a deserved awards front-runner that could well launch its leading men into even more rarefied Hollywood air. For as difficult as it can be for them to tackle a project of Judas' severity, that Kaluuya, a Black man from London, and Stanfield, a brother from Victorville, Calif., can even build careers around this kind of work — separately and together — is in itself evidence of Hampton's lasting impact.
"We're lucky to be able to share the screen again — and again, it's gonna be for something that's gonna move people, that's gonna be a culturally relevant moment," says Stanfield. "We're just getting started in Black storytelling. For real."
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