“Atlanta” star LaKeith Stanfield admits he was reluctant to join the cast of the fact-based drama “Judas and the Black Messiah.” While Daniel Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, Stanfield plays the man who paved the way for Hampton’s 1969 slaying: William O’Neal, an FBI informant who infiltrated the political organization.
“I had a bunch of judgments and I was like, ‘F— this dude.’ I didn’t like what he did, I had a lot of judgments and things,” Stanfield told TheWrap’s Brian Welk at TheWrap’s Sundance Studio presented by NFP and National Geographic. “I had to open up my heart and my space and myself to challenge myself to go against what my nature was and try to find some humanity. I was able to discover more about myself through Bill, in a strange way.”
For Kaluuya, who plays the Chicago-based Panther leader Hampton, the challenge was to dig deep into the party’s history to get into the activist’s mindset — with the help of the film’s director, Shaka King. “Shaka gave me the Black Panther reading list. In order to be a fully fledged Panther, you needed to go through six weeks of political education,” Kaluuya said. “I kind of took in the majority of the books on that. I kind of tried to get into the mindset, get into the perspective of him and be going back and forth about the script.”
King initially pitched his biopic about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton as a Martin Scorsese-style crime thriller. But along the way, he realized the driving force behind his film wasn’t the crime element, but Hampton himself and the slain activist’s “radical,” “brilliant” and revolutionary ideas.
“The story came to me via (writers) the Lucas Brothers, who told me that they wanted to make a movie about Fred Hampton and William O’Neal that they envisioned as ‘The Departed’ set inside the world of (the FBI’s counterintelligence program),” King said. “I just immediately recognized that was probably the only vessel that existed in terms of it being an undercover crime movie.”
King said he was especially drawn to Hampton’s philosophy. “The truth of the matter is it’s really a movie about ideas, in a lot of ways. I think that’s probably what drew me to it in the first place,” he said. “Fred’s ideas were so radical and so logical, and he had a way of expressing them in such an incredibly logical and funny and numerous and brilliant way, that I was compelled to move forward with it.”
Dominique Fishback, who stars as Hampton’s fiancée Deborah Johnson, welcomed the opportunity to actually meet her real-life counterpart in person. (Hampton was shot and killed in 1969 during a predawn raid of his home by the FBI.)
“It was a surreal experience,” Fishback said. “We went to Chicago to meet the family and we spoke around a table for about seven-plus hours and at certain points I would look around and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m in that house that Chairman Fred grew up in.’ I’ve always had an affinity for history, Black history in particularly, so to be here talking to Mama Akua, formerly known as Deborah Johnson, and Chairman Fred Jr. was surreal.”
“Judas and the Black Messiah” also stars Jesse Plemons, Lil Rel Howery and Martin Sheen. The film, directed by King and produced by Ryan Coogler, will make its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival ahead of Warner Bros. releasing it in theaters and on HBO Max on Feb. 12.
See TheWrap’s interview with King, Kaluuya, Stanfield and Fishback via the video above.