“I searched for the spirit of Chairman Fred”: Daniel Kaluuya on playing Black Panther leader Fred Hampton

The British actor, who stars as the murdered Illinois Black Panther chairman in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, talks preparation, production and motivation.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

▶︎ Judas and the Black Messiah is available to rent online from 11 March 2021.

Writer-director Shaka King’s new film Judas and the Black Messiah stars Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and deputy chairman of the national BPP who was shot dead by police at the age of 21 in 1969. As Daniel Kaluuya’s magnetic portrayal of Hampton in King’s film captures so well, the real-life figure was an inspiring orator and intensely charismatic young man who worked tirelessly to advocate for the socialist, community-oriented values of the Black Panthers. Nicholas Russell spoke to Kaluuya about his preparation for the role.

How did you go about preparing to play Fred Hampton? You’re playing a real person, but you don’t at all slip into impersonation.

Early on you have to make a decision: is this an impression or an interpretation? And whatever lane you’re going down, you gotta commit to it unapologetically. I felt I would be a more conducive vessel for the story if it was an interpretation. Searching for the essence of Chairman Fred and his spirit; understanding what that is, and trying to translate that.

Daniel Kaluuya and Shaka King shooting Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

I’m curious how long it takes for you to get into a character like this, and how collaborative a process it is.

I found out about the project through Ryan Coogler and his wife [the producer Zinzi Evans]. They approached me on the set of the Black Panther reshoots. And then I read a treatment, sat down with Shaka [King]. LaKeith [Stanfield] was already attached. It was quite a long time before we shot.

There was so much more stuff I had to take in, so I appreciated the length of time. But when it gets real, when the film finally got greenlit, you just go into ‘go’ mode, you know. You’ve got a a couple of months, if that, to lock in and get into character. But here I enjoyed the privilege of having some time beforehand. Me and Shaka, a year before the shoot, had a four- or five-day session where we played around with Chairman Fred’s voice, and his actual speeches. That was invaluable.

I read the majority of the Black Panther reading list that you need to read in order to be a fully fledged member of the Party. I can’t really say like, “Oh, I need this amount of time or that amount of time.” You figure it out and make decisions to keep it moving.

Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton Jr, was involved in the production. Did you have meetings with him?

Yeah, we had an eight-hour conversation at the family home. He contributed a lot to the script, to the ideas. It was just amazing. I remember one time he took the cast aside and gave a bit of a political education during lunch, spoke about views and shared his knowledge. Mama Akua, his mother, was there as well. And Chairman Fred Jr’s lady. You felt a responsibility in the best possible way.

Shaka King and Daniel Kaluuya on the set of Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

It’s not often talked about in regard to your career, but you have a background as a writer. For example, you wrote for the British TV series Skins. Does that editorial part of your mind go to work when reading scripts?

A lot of things that might seem progressive, are in fact structurally conservative, and I’m drawn to structurally radical scripts. I think because of my writing background, I can see the message and the nuts and bolts of a script. If someone’s got something to say and is using the language of cinema to say it. One of my friends said to me, “You only make a film if you’ve got something to scream about.” So I go, “What do they want to scream? Do I feel like screaming that too? Do they understand how to hide the exposition? How well did they pivot from beat to beat?” If a script allows me to forget that I’m reading a script and I get lost in the story, then I’m in a good position.

Judas and the Black Messiah’s structure is one that expresses how the Black Panthers’ story is one of a collective, rather than a deified individual. Was that something you had to remind yourself?

Yeah. Hampton was about the people, about the collective. It was about awakening awareness within his own kind and feeding the children in his community, healing the people within his community. He was not about the self and it wouldn’t align with who he was as a human being, as a spirit, if we made it about him in that way. That would go against his philosophy and his views. It just naturally reflected who he was. He did love his people, man.

As you’ve gotten more recognition, has your motivation for taking a role changed?

I think there’s been an evolution. I’ve done a lot of dark things. So you go, “OK, cool, what does that mean for me?” If you’ve done something, then you’ve done it and then you let that go. But if you did it again in the next two years, it would look like you’re doing a thing, you’re doing a trick. And I just don’t want to be that. I want to handle my career creatively. So we’ll see what is coming through me and what wants to be told.

Further reading

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