Shaka King, Regina King and Lee Daniels on the Importance of Black Directors Telling Black History
By John Boone
Images via Warner Bros. / Amazon Studios / Hulu
Cinema has a way of being exactly what we need, when we need, to look back in order to look forward. There's perhaps no greater testament to that than the slate of films focused on Black history -- on race, on resilience, on revolution -- that were each written and filmed before any protesters took to the streets yet released in the past year, as those same subjects became the topic of a global conversation amid our own revolutionary times.
From Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods to Regina King's One Night in Miami, Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah and Lee Daniel's The United States vs. Billie Holiday, each film serves as a time capsule -- capturing the events of the era from which it was inspired -- but are also as timely today as ever, speaking directly to a culture that still needs to experience these stories. And moreover, that the Black history within them is being told by Black directors.
"When you're making a movie like this film or One Night in Miami or Da 5 Bloods or Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, I think that all of those writers and directors, they're coming from the place of, 'I'm making this for my mom to watch or my friends to watch,'" Shaka King tells ET. "They're seeing the people who look like them first when they see the audience, and that changes everything."
Each film has been lauded for its truth, among other high praise, and are now being celebrated with awards nominations. To mark Black History Month, ET reflects on what these directors told us about how their own experiences bleed into their work and the importance of looking at history through the Black perspective.
Shaka King on Telling the Story of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party
"The gaze is key," King says. "One of the things I would constantly be asking myself when making decisions about scenes is, 'Who is this movie for? Who is my primary audience?' I know for a fact that traditionally, Hollywood has used a term, the general audience... Generally, when they say that, they mean white people. So, most movies are made for white consumers and white consumption."
Judas and the Black Messiah (in theaters and on HBO Max on Feb. 12) stars Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, a revolutionary targeted by the government and assassinated at age 21 in 1969. Until King's film, Hollywood had yet to center Hampton in any sort of biopic.
Over the years, both Hampton and the Black Panther Party have been targets of misinformation about their intentions and widespread villainization. King set out to show the Panthers as they were -- as community organizers, not "terrorist, gun-wielding thugs" as they've been depicted -- and honor Hampton's legacy. (He enlisted Hampton's family as cultural consultants on the film.)
As Kaluuya told ET, "That's the importance of narratives being from an empathetic perspective, that eye that understands that point of view, that understands that way of life... I'm looking with the Black Panther Party not at the Black Panther Party."
"It changes how you contextualize things. I look at this film and we had some battles over how to start the movie, because there was a time when the first person you were going to see was J. Edgar Hoover and I was like, I can't do that," King explains. "We can't have J. Edgar Hoover talk about who the Panthers are and that's how we meet the Panthers. We have to have the Panthers speak for themselves and say who they are, and then we can meet the antagonist. I don't think a white director would have had that conversation with themselves or with their producers and studio, so the stakes are just a little higher for us."
Regina King on Telling the Story of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown
One Night in Miami(on Prime Video) is about four real people over the course of a night that did actually occur, when the cultural titans convened at a Miami hotel in 1964. Yet, King and screenwriter Kemp Powers' movie can only make an educated guess at the specifics of what actually went down that night.
"While this was an imagining of what could have happened on a real night, it just felt very true. I would never believe that Kemp wasn't a fly on the wall there," King says. In their account, they needed to humanize the men and show them as just that: Four friends who gather to celebrate each other, while also debating the civil rights efforts and the best way forward for their people.
"There was never a moment where we were in disagreement about the story that we wanted to tell," King explains. "I knew immediately upon reading that while it was through the voices of these iconic men, Kemp was writing a story about himself, about all of the men -- Black men, specifically -- in our lives that we know are so much more layered than what we get to see in film most times."
King, meanwhile, was able to add another perspective to the project that Kemp couldn't. "It really amused me how Regina could just follow up on things with her network so quickly, like her ladies network. I love the day that she called and was like, 'So, I had a conversation with Ambassador Shabazz' -- Malcolm's oldest daughter -- 'and she told me this story about how her dad used to leave these messages hidden in books.' And I'm like, 'Oh, sh*t! We got to get that in the movie!'" he recalls.
"She was able to reach out to the women in these iconic men's worlds and draw information that I hadn't been able to draw from years and years of research," Powers adds. "There was something wonderfully symbiotic about that, because it's this story about Black men, but my blind spot is how these men appear in the eyes of Black women. So, I feel really lucky that it was so additive."
Lee Daniels on Telling the Story of Billie Holiday
Daniels prefers to refer to The United States vs. Billie Holiday(on Hulu on Feb. 26) as a moment in time. "It's not a straight-on biopic, but it happened. Everything happened. It's all documented, so it's not like it didn't happen," he says. Instead, the film is "what happens when we all get together and tell a story, a Black story."
Andra Day embodies the titular singer, with the film showcasing her triumphs as well as her demons in battling addiction and abuse. For her acting debut, Day lost 39 pounds and took up drinking and smoking, going "method" and singing Holiday's songs live under Daniels' direction.
"I think that you have to intimate with each other because when I yell action, it should not feel like you're acting. It should feel like you're being," he says. "I think that that's what separates some of my work from movies that you feel like they're acting and they're pontificating and you know, 'Look at me say these words.' No. We'll be in an honest space, whether we're having sex, whether we're doing drugs, whether we're walking down the street with our dog. We are coming from a place of truth and authenticity."
Like Judas and the Black Messiah, The United States vs. Billie Holiday shows how the U.S. government -- in this case, the Federal Department of Narcotics -- targeted a public figure over their message. "She was this civil rights leader in a way that I certainly didn't know of," the director says.
Daniels saw a gap in his own personal knowledge of Black history, specifically, in Holiday's protest song, "Strange Fruit." "So, I thought it was important to tell her story," he explains. "I knew the song, but I did not really understand the lyrics until I began this. I am 60 years old. I take pride in knowing about Black history, but I didn't know the importance of that song. Hopefully [the film] will teach everybody."
Spike Lee on Telling the Story of the 1st Infantry Division
When it comes to Black directors telling Black history, Spike Lee has become the voice of the people. (Though he would never claim as much himself.) Whether in 1992's Denzel Washington-starring Malcolm X or 2018's BlacKkKlansman, Lee has very specific intentions for looking back in his films.
"It is my belief that we need diversity of narratives, because a lot of the narratives of these United States has a been a false narrative," he explains (via Netflix Film Club). "The whole sh*t's foundation is f**ked up. So, consequently, the narrative has been f**ked up, because if you want to keep that narrative going, based upon those immoral acts, you make up lies about the people you oppress. How's that done? Novels, songs, film and television."
"As a filmmaker interpreting historical moments, the first step is to know the history," he says "and if some lies have been told, you've got to try to retell that narrative. That's what I do."
That mission to break down this country's white mythology continues with Lee's Vietnam chronicle, Da 5 Bloods (now streaming on Netflix), which follows a squad of Black soldiers who dub themselves the Bloods. The film isn't just about the experience of fighting for a country that wouldn't fight for you, but how the traumas of the past stay with us to today and affect who we are and who we become.
"I did a film about World War II" -- 2008's The Miracle at St. Anna -- "but I was born in '57. I was not alive in World War II, but the Vietnam War was televised into American homes. I was 10 years old, so I know what's going on," Lee recalls. "I'm also watching on television the demonstrations here, too, so I remember this. I remember this. I remember Dr. King being assassinated. I remember RFK being assassinated, I remember Richard Nixon resigning. I was alive and thinking as those things were happening." Now, he's making sure the record accounts for that.
—Additional reporting by Melicia Johnson, Rachel Smith and Nischelle Turner.
For the latest content celebrating Black History Month, please visit our Black History Month page, or read more in our Black Stories section. And don’t miss our Black History Month special on ET Live.