King of Shaka Goes to Hollywood
How the Judas and the Black Messiah filmmaker went with a studio movie about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton from underdog to trailblazer.
Shaka King had a sad feeling. At the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, it was his last scheduled day and the trip hadn't gone well. Apparently every big corporation in Hollywood had rejected King's directorial debut, a bittersweet film about the misadventures of a marijuana-addicted couple named 'Newlyweeds.' Newlyweeds" had cost six figures to King and his investors, but eventually sold for just $25,000 to a small Canadian distributor, a result that still leaves a bad taste in his mouth." A nasty snowstorm in Park City, Utah, had grounded his flight home to New York, leaving him stuck in town for a deflating additional night. Even the weather seemed to be against King.
King happened to run into another first-time filmmaker, Ryan Coogler, at his hotel that evening, whose flight had also been canceled. The experience of Coogler at Sundance was almost the opposite of King's. He had just won the top prize for his film "Fruitvale Station." But the two men had met each other when doing the rounds, among the very few black directors at the festival. They wanted to have a dinner meet-up.
"You and Shaka make fast friends," Coogler, who went on to direct "Creed" and "Black Panther," recently told me. "He's funny and intelligent and charismatic—you just want to be around him."
While his Sundance experience was a disappointment, the friendship would ultimately lead to the kind of sensational career breakthrough that King had hoped for, one that few filmmakers and even fewer color filmmakers have ever witnessed.
His second film, "Judas and the Black Messiah," which he and Coogler created together with Charles D. King, arrives on Friday as one of the most awaited movies of the year in theaters and on HBO Max. Its stars, Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, the chief of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and Lakeith Stanfield as William O'Neal, the mistaken informant who supported the F.B.I. to orchestrate his killing, seem all but intended for Oscar nominations. And the reviews have sung the praises of the King, with A.O. "While King's fast-paced direction does not spare the suspense, Scott writes in The New York Times, "It also leaves room for sorrow, rage and even a measure of exhilaration.
But the more impressive achievement might be that the film — a pointed fable about the unprecedented acceptance of white nationalist violence in the United States government, backed with the imprimatur and promotional might of a major studio — exists at all. It announces the arrival of a young, unconventional voice, and could serve as a test for a bold plan to route Hollywood through a revolution in racial justice.
KING, 40, IS TALL with an unruly dreadlock coil; a short, fleecy beard; and golden, oversized aviator eyeglasses with gentle eyes behind them. He talks with a relaxed accent in Brooklyn (born in Crown Heights and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant) and in long paragraphs that loop impulsively from one fascinating story to the next (or comical or disturbing).
He has taken a winding journey to filmmaking. As a teenager, he worked on a local play written and created by his parents as a stagehand, full-time public school teachers whom King described as "very Afrocentric." At the time he hated the role, his real interests were rap music and basketball, but in a high school short-fiction class he found his own love of creative writing.
"Until I did well in that class, I was a low-C, D student," King told me, on the curbside patio of a Williamsburg cafe in January. I haven't been good in a long time at anything. It helped make me want to get together for my act.
King turned the grades around and went to college at Vassar. When his roommate, Kristan Sprague, invited King to join him in a film-production course, he was spinning his wheels as a political science student. The two of them saw themselves following in the footsteps of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, their hometown film heroes. They made a documentary about hip-hop and capitalism called "Stolen Moments" while still in school (King directed, Sprague edited) and have since been regular collaborators, including on "Newlyweeds" and "Judas and the Black Messiah."
"Sprague told me, "He would be delighted with movies that he thought were not a cookie cutter, that were challenging to the viewer while still being fun." We would talk about things like 'Dog Day Afternoon' and how a story could take surprising shifts in direction and tone."
King served as an after-school mentor and youth counselor in New York for several years after graduating, while writing screenplays on the side. He was admitted to the graduate film program at New York University in 2007, where he studied the work of Sidney Lumet, Bong Joon Ho and Robert Altman.
His thesis film, 'Newlyweeds,' mirrored his knack for combining moments of naturalistic intimacy with more stylized genre sequences. In one scene, a morally conflicted repo man has a delusional vision of his girlfriend getting too intimate with a co-worker on the verge of drug withdrawal. King filmed the vision like a '70s horror film: as the camera zooms in, the frame rate changes to slow-motion, lingering on the eerily half-lit, maniacally laughing faces of the actors.
A SALES AGENT who in 2013 refused to represent "Newlyweeds" at Sundance gave King some input that confused him. "He said he couldn't sell the movie because it didn't have any famous Black people in it," said King. "I was like,' This is Sundance, the talent-breaking festival. I have no idea who any of these white people are in these films.'
That experience, and the success of "Get Out" by Jordan Peele (2017), helped persuade King that if he wanted to make difficult films about Black people in Hollywood, he would have to be more tactical. The trick seemed to be to operate inside a genre that had undeniable commercial potential, at least nominally.
In 2016, while hanging out with Keith and Kenny Lucas, of the comedy duo the Lucas Brothers, he got the idea of what would become "Judas." The brothers, who collaborated on a TV pilot with King, thought the story of Hampton, O'Neal, and the F.B.I. would make a strong crime thriller, "'The Departed,' set in the world of Cointelpro."
King recalled, "I thought it was the best idea I'd ever heard." "I could instantly see the whole movie."
He started working on a script, joining forces with another writer, Will Berson, who had written a story based on Hampton's life for his own draft. King sent a script to Coogler in 2017, who decided to produce the film under his label, Proximity Media, and brought in half of the budget to fund Charles D. King, the Black creator and chief executive of the Macro production company.
King, Berson and Coogler sought to optimize the entertainment value of the story in many rounds of script creation, avoiding traditional biopic formulas and limiting the plot to a few key characters. They realized that Hampton's ideals had been written out of popular history books in his short life, memorialized in fiery speeches extolling the progressive potential of a socialist, cross-racial movement toward capitalism and white supremacy, and were due to be revisited. But to attract the broadest possible audience, they needed to position them.
Someone might not be specifically interested in a period movie or in the Panther Party, but they might be interested in a fire movie to watch this weekend," said Coogler." "I felt that if we could thread both needles, entertainment and politics, then the content of this film would be very difficult for people to dismiss."
They had to find a studio to help fund the film and get it on screens before the filmmakers could have a chance to test their idea on moviegoers. The pitch was not a slam dunk, even with the pulpy script, the attachment of rising stars Kaluuya and Stanfield, and the involvement of Coogler, fresh from the record-setting success of "Black Panther" by then.
Many studios created what the manufacturers considered apparent lowball deals. "It was disconcerting to me," said King. "I've learned that you can't apply logic to racism." But they found a champion in Niija Kuykendall, Warner Bros.'s senior vice president of production, and one of the industry's few black women managers.
Studio filmmaking is an extremely collaborative environment in which artists' artistic ideas on a set have to be plausibly brought into line with the desires of Wall Street shareholders. It took King some time to warm up to the experience.
Before shooting, he spent weeks arguing over potential changes to the script with Warner Bros. executives and other producers, including the inclusion of an early scene focused on F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover on Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).
A different type of stakeholder provided additional, and more intimate, critical feedback. Initially, King had told the tale primarily from the viewpoint of O'Neal, but he made dramatic cuts after an early screening for fellow Black directors, including Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay, who gave Hampton more screen time.
The lessons were welcome for King, who had spent nearly a decade knocking at Hollywood's door as an outsider.
"It took Ryan a couple of long conversations before I learned how to take the note behind the note," he said. Hearing what people were looking for and finding out how to do that in my own way. The movie got better, it got bigger, it got more watchable, and it led to something much greater than what I had expected on my own, until I knew how to do that.