‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Cinematographer on Why He Shot Black Panther and FBI Scenes in Different Colors

Sean Bobbitt (’12 Years a Slave’) also tells TheWrap he lobbied to shoot the historical drama starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in black and white

Judas and the Black Messiah Daniel Kaluuya
"Judas and the Black Messiah" / Warner Bros.

Telling the true-life story of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), “Judas and the Black Messiah” leans on  historical authenticity. That was important to director Shaka King, who spent years researching Hampton and William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), the FBI informant involved in the 1969 assassination of 21-year-old Hampton.

But visual artistry still took precedence in the filmmaking. The movie is not a documentary or even a handheld-camera-style docudrama. Veteran cinematographer Sean Bobbitt spoke to TheWrap about his work on the cinematic flourishes that he wove into the storytelling. A longtime collaborator of director Steve McQueen (“Shame,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Widows”), Bobbitt favors long takes, high contrasts between bright light and darkness, and a color palette that subtly changes depending on the characters. For “Judas and the Black Messiah,” that color motif shift was also seen in scenes featuring the Black Panthers and the FBI.

The film, which opens in theaters and via HBO Max on Feb. 12, has earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award nominations for Kaluuya’s performance. In the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) “longlists” of potential nominees, the film was cited in eight categories, including for Bobbitt’s cinematography.

From aboard his houseboat docked along the River Thames in Great Britain, Bobbitt explained his techniques for turning Hampton and O’Neal’s story into a rich and vibrant film experience.

When you first met with director Shaka King, what were his ideas for the visual look of the film?
Shaka and I had arranged to meet for a quick cup of tea, which went on for considerably longer than just a cup of tea. Because his knowledge, his passion, the research he’d done, and his ideas were so fully formed about the film. He had hundreds of stills and photographs that were taken in the 1960s in Chicago. Those photographs really became the initial reference for the look of the film. In fact, at one point, I suggested we should shoot the film in black and white.

And what did he say to that?
He said, “No.” And that was completely fine by me.

He wanted it to be more of a recreation of the period through lighting and framing?
Exactly. The historical photos were just the touchstone. And Shaka also had discussed those with the production designer Sam Lisenco. We wanted to echo and give a feel for that period, but without having it needing to absolutely be period correct. We wanted it to be an evocative film visually.

There are many scenes set at night. And quite a few moments where characters blend into the darkness of a shadow or emerge from one.
Night is a big part of the story, so I felt it was important to get that right. Night shoots are always a challenge. You’re trying to maintain the darkness, while at the same time have it lit just enough so you can see what the director wants you to see. It’s all about hiding and revealing. That’s the biggest part of visual storytelling.

And a big part of the character of William O’Neal, right?
Very much. But that, I think, is all about LaKeith. I can’t imagine another actor playing O’Neal. Because so much of it is done just in his face, his reactions. You can see the conflict going on in him with such stillness and such complexity. You know, there were times while we were filming, and I’m the one operating the camera, where I couldn’t tell what LaKeith was doing with the character. It’s only when you see it cut together onscreen, that’s when you see the sheer genius of his performance. The raw, natural talent and honesty that he brings to the role.

Can you talk about the color scheme you and your crew devised for the film? There seems to be a contrast between the Black Panther Party and the FBI.
Yes, there is a motif that we worked on. It’s very subtle, and it wasn’t too strict or written in stone. The Panthers have what we call “Panther Green,” a warm dark green which is a recurring color in their clothing and several of the key Panther locations. That amazing green was on the walls in several existing location that we used. It was something that kept occurring naturally as we went to different locations. But when we get into the FBI, with its omnipresent headquarters, we see more silhouettes and brown earth tones. There’s a real sharp contrast and a touch of coldness as well. 

Where was the movie shot?
In Cleveland, Ohio. Almost the entire film was shot on existing locations. And what’s great is that the Panthers would show up often while we were filming. They would just come by to see what we were filming and say hello, then they would go off together. It was a remarkable collaboration of so many people with a common goal.

You’re known for your long, extended takes in films. The opening of “Judas and the Black Messiah” is kind of a signature shot for you – an uninterrupted shot following O’Neal as he goes into a bar. Can you talk about that?
The opening scene was pretty much fully formed in Shaka’s head when I first met him. He had all the beats of it. It seemed to me that it was a fantastic opening. O’Neal’s coat sort of flapping in the wind, kind of like a superhero figure, which we’ll find out as the film goes on, is quite deceptive. 

And we are already sensing the duality of O’Neal’s character in the opening scene. 
Yes. The idea was that O’Neal’s face would be hidden the whole time, until he’s revealed when his hat is knocked off.

You love those shots where you follow a character from the back, don’t you?
Well, it’s a very classic approach. Following behind someone is such a powerful way of revealing the story. It quickly and efficiently lets the audience feel an affinity with the character. We are seeing the scene with him. And here, it also starts the film with this incredible balance. We’re somewhat sympathetic to William O’Neal, even though perhaps we shouldn’t be, especially compared to how sympathetic we are to Fred Hampton. And that’s what I love about the film. It separates the propaganda from the truth.


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