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How ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Cinematographer Captured the Ending’s ‘Sheer Horror’

Sean Bobbitt tells TheWrap about shooting Fred Hampton’s murder: “You don’t want people to look away; you want them to feel the whole emotion”

(Spoiler alert: This article discusses the ending of “Judas and the Black Messiah”)

Director Shaka King’s late-breaking awards hopeful “Judas and the Black Messiah” was filmed almost entirely in Cleveland with veteran cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave”) operating the camera. Bobbitt’s framing and his penchant for real locations over backlot sets is on full display throughout the entirety of the movie, as the moving camera often travels from an exterior into an interior in one unbroken take.

But for the film’s climactic scene, the brutal assassination on December 4, 1969, of 21-year-old Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, in an Oscar-nomination-lock performance) in an FBI raid, the filmmakers used a set.

Bobbitt, who spoke to TheWrap from aboard his houseboat on the River Thames, explained both the thought process and the physical demand of filming Hampton’s assassination scene.

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” co-starring LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal (the “Judas” of the title), is playing in theaters and available for streaming via HBO Max.

Fred Hampton’s murder is the most powerful scene in the film. From the beginning, did you understand the importance of that sequence?
Oh of course. Reading the script, it shocked me that I didn’t know more about Fred Hampton. I knew so little about the Black Panther movement. It opened my eyes to a period of American history that I was so ignorant of. What I thought I knew was essentially the propaganda, not really the truth. I mean, Fred Hampton’s death was much more than a miscarriage of justice. It was an FBI assassination. And America’s not supposed to do that.

It was crucial that the scene was filmed on a built set. Why was that?
There were three very important factors. One was to be as historically accurate as we could. So we really wanted to reconstruct the actual apartment that Fred lived in. We just adjusted it slightly for camera movements. We worked hard to get the exact sequence of events that happened. And tried to do it all in what felt like real-time. 

The second factor was just the sheer horror of the assassination. Those claustrophobic spaces needed to be controlled. Imagine the absolute terror — you’re asleep and you’re awoken by a fusillade of murderous gunfire. No warning. And you’re in darkness and the walls are being peppered. It’s a nightmare. It’s amazing, actually, that anyone survived that horror.

And the third was to be respectful to Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, who also lost his life. We were not there to turn this into some exciting thriller or base entertainment. We were there to show what happened as accurately as we could.

There’s a very deliberate choice made, in terms of where the camera is placed when Fred is killed. It’s on a medium closeup on Deborah (Dominique Fishback), Fred’s girlfriend. How did you and Shaka decide on that?
We were a bit unsure from the beginning of how that would play. We knew the moment had to be respectful. In looking at possibilities and talking about it, it became the solution. It’s interesting because Deborah survived, of course, and Fred Hampton Jr. and she were very much a part of the process.

Judas and the Black Messiah Daniel Kaluuya

Daniel Kaluuya in “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros.)

Did she offer any information that became reflected in that scene?
Very much so. She said to Shaka that when she was dragged out of the room and held by the officers, she was not going to cry. She was not going to give them that satisfaction. So that became a key direction for Dominque (Fishback) at that moment of the scene, which makes it so much more powerful — her fortitude.

We also don’t actually see Fred being shot. We know from her face. The reaction to horror can be as powerful.
Yes, and I think the fact that you don’t clearly see what’s going on is much more powerful. The imagination is enough. You don’t need to see the murder of another human being to have an emotional response to it.

There is a much-talked-about scene which you filmed from “12 Years a Slave,” where Patsy (Lupita Nyongo’o) is brutally whipped. But we actually don’t see as much as we think we do. A lot is suggested.
Everyone then can respond in their own way. A normal human reaction would be to be physically repulsed by what you’re seeing. But  to a degree that becomes titillation and exploitation to an audience. And people look away. You don’t want people to look away. You want them to feel the whole emotion of a scene, even if its horror. 

Can you describe the relationship between yourself and the actors, especially during an intense scene like this one?
It’s one of simple and total respect. I can’t do what they do. I only failed two courses at university — acting and theater lighting, ironically. So I have immense respect. I try to have the set pre-lit, so they have a sense of what the atmosphere is when they walk on the set. I try to have no lighting instruments on the floor, so they have the freedom to go wherever they want on the set. And the crews I work with tend to be very quiet and respectful as well. We leave the actors alone. 

But as the camera operator, you do have a very looming presence.
It’s true, but I try to disappear as much as possible. I’m sometimes only inches from the actors’ faces. And at the end of a take, they’ll look at me, you know, wanting to know if it was a good or bad take. I can’t say anything. I’ll always smile. But I’m aware of the line that you never cross. I just distance myself a bit and as politely as possible.

In the case of Daniel Kaluuya, you worked with him before on Steve McQueen’s “Widows.” Do you feel you have developed a level of trust with him?
I would hope so. He knows how I work and I know his intensity. He’s also a genuinely nice chap. With an actor like Daniel, operating the camera is the greatest privilege of all. For example, in the church scene where Fred has returned from prison, I’m right up in a tight closeup on him as he’s giving that amazing speech. And my eyes are the first thing that sees that. It’s such a privilege to witness that type of performance. I don’t have any hairs on the back of my neck anymore, but if I did, I could feel them rising.