Daniel Kaluuya and Fred Hampton Jr. on the True Story of 'Judas and the Black Messiah' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
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Daniel Kaluuya goes from Black Panther to the Black Panthers with Judas and the Black Messiah, the true-story drama in which he stars as civil rights leader Fred Hampton, the deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party who was assassinated in 1969.
Kaluuya's Hampton is the Black Messiah of the title, while the traitorous Judas refers to William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), an informant coerced by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and report back on the chairman they deemed a radical threat. O'Neal provided the tip that led Chicago police to raid Hampton's apartment, at which time he was shot and killed. He was 21.
Over five decades since his death, director Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah arrives as Hollywood's first biopic to center Hampton's story, also underscoring how little has changed in the treatment of Black activists fighting for justice since then. Kaluuya's performance has been nominated at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, among others.
Ahead of the film's release, ET's Kevin Frazier sat down with Kaluuya and Fred Hampton Jr., who co-signed the film as Hampton's only child, to discuss Chairman Fred's legacy, awards season love and what's to come with the other Black Panther.
ET: Fred, what is it like watching your parents' legacy in this film?
Fred Hampton Jr.: Let me preface with this: We -- when I say we, the organization that I'm honored to represent, the Black Panther Party Cubs -- [believe] a legacy is more important than your life. A legacy is more important than your life. And the legacy of such a force of Chairman Fred and the Black Panther Party in general, we hold it tight. There's a combination of feelings, you know what I'm saying? One in particular, it's inspiring to be able to have a climate in which we can have some conversations about an organization that was one of the most revolutionary organizations that this country, that the world has witnessed. So, it's inspiring, because so many people were told don't talk about this or whisper this and speak in coded conversations, just to have the conversation about not only Little Chairman Fred, assassinations, COINTELPRO and the Black Panther Party.
Was it also hard to watch this? I know for most people, the hard thing is the promise -- what could've been, what should've been -- was it hard for you to watch that promise being snuffed out?
Hampton: I've been asked a number of times, "Why do you always reference, you know, your father as Chairman Fred?" And my response is that Chairman Fred does not negate him from being my father or Deborah Johnson's -- now Akua Njeri -- husband. This was a representative of our people, and I don't see it subjectively. This was a major hit to our Black community, in particular, but humanity in general. And though this government graphically took Chairman Fred from us, this is a system that thrives on taking all of our fathers and mothers one way or another -- shoot 'em down, strangle 'em out, lock 'em up, whatever the case may be -- and as long as it's handled with care to provide that example to the world, [that] this is what happens to some degree to all of us, in particular those who stand up and fight for liberation. And Chairman Fred was very clear that he was willing to pay the price for liberation. So, I'm honored and humbled to not only know about his death, but his life and why he was assassinated, why he was targeted.
Daniel, you went to Chicago and you had a chance to really sit with the family and learn the stories and dive deep into Fred's life. What was that like for you?
Daniel Kaluuya: Yeah, I had a trip and there, and then we went back to Chicago to sit down with Chairman Fred Jr. and Mama Akua and we had like a seven-hour, eight-hour meeting. And it was enlightening.
What was the revelation for you?
Kaluuya: Myself. Chairman Fred Jr. and Mama Akua asked questions of me that tapped directly into my soul, directly into my reason, into my why. Why do I do this? Why am I doing this? It made me aware of it. It made me conscious my unconscious. And I just spoke my truth. Especially being at the family home, you just understand. There's something that it just moves you, there's something that sits in you. When you're there, you understand the stakes. You understand the energies. You understand what this means, not on an intellectual level but on a deeper level.
What was it like bringing Fred to life, then, and also showcasing the dignity and elegance of this man, because for so long the Black Panther Party was villainized?
Kaluuya: I feel that the villainization of the Black Panther Party had nothing to do with the truth. It was to do with how they're perceived, not how they feel about themselves and how they feel about people around them is how I felt about it. For me, the dignity of the man, the elegance of the man, this is who he was. This is the truth. This is what it is, you know? 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. And so, I saw it as an incredible opportunity to be a vessel for that and to serve that and to understand, I'm going to look with the Black Panther Party not at the Black Panther Party. Because the people that look at the Black Panther Party were the people that wanted to annihilate the Black Panther Party.
Fred, your father was just 21 years old when he was assassinated, which is unbelievable -- that a teenager could unite such vast and different worlds. Is that why the government was so concerned about him?
Hampton: I dare not attempt to limit that scope, why that scope was placed on Chairman Fred. We're talking about an individual who's FBI file starts when he'd just turned 14 years old, who took the junior NAACP from about seven to 300 members in approximately a seven-and-a-half-month time period, who became the deputy chairman amongst a chapter of the Black Panther Party at 19, 20 years old. This system studies us. It knows our potential before we know our own potential, so there's a myriad of reasons, you know what I'm saying? But in particular, his charisma, his sincerity, crazy as it sounds. As Che Guevara said, a revolutionary, no matter how preposterous it may sound, is guided by the most sincerest sentiments of love. Chairman Fred loved the people, literally. I know it's difficult for some people to relate to that. And they couldn't bat it out, the state had to literally snuff it out. And they can't do that, it still stands.
Daniel, what does it mean to you to be receiving awards nominations for this movie and your performance in it?
Kaluuya: It's nice to be recognized, but that's stuff that's out of my control. I did this for Chairman Fred, to serve chairman and be invested with Chairman Fred and to get this story out, to get this narrative out, to get these ideas out. It's nice to be recognized by your peers -- because that's always nice in any profession -- but you know, you just got to keep moving.
I also want to ask you about the other Black Panther. It's been announced that there's going to be a TV series set in Wakanda on Disney+. Daniel, are you going to be a part of it? Do you know anything about the new series?
Kaluuya: I have no idea about it. I'm going to text Ryan [Coogler] tonight, like, 'Yo, what's going on?' No, I'm joking. I'm not going to even pressure him like that. [Laughs] I'm just happy for Ryan to expand the world, and I'm watching it, because I think he's an incredible talent.
And I hear that you'll start shooting the second one soon? Is that true?
Kaluuya: Apparently, that's what the streets say. Apparently, that's what I heard. I don't know nothing. That's real! I don't know nothing. I'm just living my life, bro.
Judas and the Black Messiah is in theaters and on HBO Max on Feb. 12.