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Inside director Shaka King’s radical approach to filmmaking

When Judas and the Black Messiah debuted in February, the film was poised to offend everyone. After months of civil unrest fueled by police violence against Black Americans, the true story of Fred Hampton, a young Black socialist leader assassinated by Chicago police at the direction of the FBI, ran the risk of alienating people who view the Black Panthers with suspicion and those who believe Hampton’s revolutionary ideology hasn’t received its proper due.

Incredibly, director Shaka King managed to isolate this important piece of American history, wrap it in the sheen of a ’70s crime thriller, and deliver a critically adored film that reportedly attracted more viewers in its first week on HBO Max than Zack Snyder’s Justice League and also won an Oscar for supporting actor Daniel Kaluuya. King’s work proves that historical Black stories need not be limited to art house fare or slave narratives to be both critical and commercial successes. Up next, King is working on an original movie about an American political insurrection.

As director, you had to satisfy Warner Bros., your cowriters, Fred Hampton’s surviving family, and also various audiences. How did you decide which direction to steer the film?

You kind of have to treat it like a game. It becomes a less anxiety-inducing experience than when you treat it like a mandate. It’s really just prioritizing what you want out of it while simultaneously accommodating these other entities. It’s navigating when to remain steadfast, and when to be like water.

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