Shaka King Puts Accomplishments Into Perspective For "Judas and the Black Messiah"
Shaka King (l) and Daniel Kaluuya on the set of "Judas and the Black Messiah" (photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)
Writer-director-producer’s film makes Oscar history but breakthroughs also may reflect a past not worthy of celebration
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Judas and the Black Messiah (Warner Bros. Pictures) earned six Oscar nominations--Best Picture, Original Screenplay (by Shaka King and Will Berson, story by Berson, King, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas), Cinematography (Sean Bobbitt, BSC), Supporting Actor (for both Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield) and Original Song (“Fight For You,” H.E.R., Dernst Emile II, Tiara Thomas).

This impressive tally is also historic on several fronts, including marking: 

  • The first time ever an all-Black produced film was nominated for Best Picture.
  • The first time two Black actors (male) from the same film were nominated.
  • And the most Black nominees ever from the same film--10 people nominated. The previous record holder was The Color Purple with seven nods.

While King--who also directed and served as a producer on Judas and the Black Messiah--is gratified over the recognition bestowed on each of the film’s nominees, he also shared, “At the same time it doesn’t feel like it’s something I earned. It doesn’t feel merit-based as much as it feels more like something that was incredibly long overdue.”

The historical achievements trigger questions, he continued. “How many all-Black produced studio films have been made? And if that number is below 10, why is that?”

King assessed that it can be “tricky” for a Black person to be the first to receive accolades because it also reflects that others “before you didn’t received the praise” that they deserved.

Still, King is appreciative of the Oscar nominations for Judas and the Black Messiah in that the recognition may cause people to seek out the film, to help it gain more exposure for an important chapter in American history. Judas and the Black Messiah recounts the events surrounding the betrayal and assassination of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton. The film chronicles the true story of William O’Neal (portrayed by Stanfield), a petty criminal offered a plea deal to become an FBI informant and gather intelligence on Hampton (Kaluuya), resulting in the brutal murder of the young charismatic leader by Chicago police in 1969 during a raid orchestrated by the FBI.

On the morning that Judas and the Black Messiah received its recognition from Academy voters, King released a statement which read, “Waking up to these nominations was honestly an incredible surprise and honor. We’re so thankful to see our cast and crew recognized for their efforts. But above all, we’re overjoyed that even more people will be inspired to learn about the legacy and sacrifice of Chairman Fred Hampton and the Illinois Black Panther Party. That is truly the ultimate reward.”

King noted that Judas and the Black Messiah has had “a number of lives” since coming out during the pandemic. The film saw much momentum build via streaming. Beyond the critical acclaim and being well received by audiences, interest in the movie’s story heightened further when government documents were released underscoring FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s first-hand knowledge of the assassination plot. And upon seeing Judas and the Black Messiah, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee reintroduced a bill on the House floor that would remove Hoover’s name from FBI headquarters. Now the Oscar attention brings even more life to the film, helping it to remain in the public consciousness.

Regarding his biggest takeaway or lessons learned from his experience on Judas and the Black Messiah, King shared that he was “sort of surprised to walk away with an appreciation for the development process when done correctly.” He observed that there “really is some benefit to creative tension between director and studio.” That creative tension can lead to an “aligned vision,” one that achieves “the scope and scale that the studio wants” along with “the truth and integrity that a filmmaker wants.”

That truth, integrity and sense of purpose resonated with the entire cast and crew. In an earlier Road To Oscar interview, cinematographer Bobbitt told SHOOT, “This film felt special from the beginning. We were filming in Cleveland and pulled in crew from all over America. All of the crew was there because they very much wanted to be. They knew the story of Fred Hampton and wanted to be part of telling that story. There was a camaraderie, a collective desire to make this right. As a result, people went out of their way. They were not there for the money but because they wanted this film to be good. What you see on the screen is testament to the desire and hard work of everyone on the crew and to the leadership of Shaka King.”

This is the 15th installment of a 16-part series with the next installment of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021, with full coverage in SHOOT.

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