By Andrew Lawrence
January 11, 2021 at 02:00 PM EST
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Credit: Saskia Kahn

Much has been said and written about Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party in the 51 years since the chairman’s death. Enough to compel a director to work from the public record. But we can forget how pro-government and racially out-of-touch mainstream media outlets were back then. Shaka King didn’t.

What the director captures in Judas and the Black Messiah isn't a Hollywood version of the official tale. It's the story of real people whose lives were forever changed by a profound betrayal. "Shaka is a filmmaker who's got a point of view," says Judas producer Charles D. King (no relation). "Very well-read. Knows history. A real auteur."

King, 40, seems an unlikely fit for such a sober story. He's a creature of comedy, after all. He wrote and directed the quirky stoner feature Newlyweeds (2013), which marked him as a rising talent on the indie film circuit. He established himself helming episodes of TBS' People of Earth (2016-17) and HBO's High Maintenance (2018); in between, he explored racial satire in short films like LaZercism (which features Judas' LaKeith Stanfield as himself).

Once attached to the Hampton project in 2016, King spent the next four years parsing every detail of the chairman’s life, so much that he lost touch with the outside world. “Not to get too personal, but COVID affected me and my household in a major way,” he says. “I found myself numb sometimes, and I think it’s because I’ve been feeling death and my headspace had been in the face of it for so long.”

Credit: Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.

Still, throughout the making of Judas, he maintained a clear vision while staying open to input, and even gave the Hampton family an authorship stake in their own story. “It was a lot of pressure,” says Ryan Coogler, producing for the first time with Judas.

“It’s one thing when the family’s there early on; it’s another when you’re day 20 and they’re still on set. But Shaka handled it in an amazing way, and I think the film is better for it.” Adds King, “One of the most satisfying things is that we made it — and they still talk to me.”

The director certainly won’t be regarded as just a comedy guy after Judas drops. People will call him the real deal. “From the minute we wrapped, I was like, ‘Bro, change your f---ing number,’” Daniel Kaluuya says with a laugh.

"He was like, 'You funny.' But I told him, 'You'll see.'"

To read more on Judas and the Black Messiah, order the February issue of Entertainment Weekly — one cover features LaKeith Stanfield and the other Daniel Kaluuya — or find it on newsstands beginning Jan. 22. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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