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'It felt heavy': Daniel Kaluuya on portraying Fred Hampton in 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

Rasha Ali, USA TODAY
·5 min read
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At 31, Daniel Kaluuya has already outlived revolutionary Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by a decade – and he says taking on that role was "heavy."

In director Shaka King's "Judas and the Black Messiah" (in theaters and streaming Friday on HBO Max), Kaluuya plays Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. While trying to better and uplift his community, Hampton is targeted by the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who initiates a counterintelligence program to silence political dissent and prevent the rise of "a Black messiah." Hampton, 21, ends up betrayed by one of his own, Black Panther informant William O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), and is shot to death in a police raid.

"It felt heavy," Kaluuya says. "It's a lot of weight to carry. Awakening people that are asleep, you have to deeply understand why they're asleep and carry that and show compassion to that and move to them from their perspective and awaken them like that. So it's a lot of thoughts, a lot of things happening. There was a deep, deep, deep, deep weight on me, around me and in me."

The "Black Panther" star immersed himself in the activist's life in preparation. To speak like Hampton, he also had to think like Hampton, and it took a long time.

"I don't believe in shape shifting – your spirit is shifting, your shape follows," says Kaluuya, who religiously watched videos of Hampton's speeches and read about the people Hampton referenced in his talks to understand his mindset.

Celebration of Black Cinema: Daniel Kaluuya says Black stories are 'more vital than ever'

Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, center) is targeted by the FBI in the period thriller "Judas and the Black Messiah."
Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, center) is targeted by the FBI in the period thriller "Judas and the Black Messiah."

Kaluuya has been "relaxing and probably gained a bit of weight" since portraying Hampton, but embodying the "Black Messiah" and carrying his story is not a character the actor can simply shed.

"I just know some stuff and that's me now. You can't be unchanged by it. You can't say 'Oh, I want to be as light as I was in 2016,' no, you're not. You've seen something," Kaluuya says. "It's only a weight that's a detriment if you resist it. I just stopped resisting and just accept it. I go, 'Yeah, yeah, that happened.' I'm grateful for it, I'm blessed it happened and I move accordingly."

For Fred Hampton Jr., born less than a month after his dad's assassination, change is something he's been looking forward to. Though he hopes the conversation can carry on beyond Black History Month, he's inspired that his father's story is being shared widely, reaching people who otherwise wouldn't know of him.

"It hasn't completely sunk in yet," says Hampton Jr., who served as a consultant on the set, citing the "Dream Team" of talent involved (Kaluuya, Stanfield, King and producer Ryan Coogler). "I think it’s right on, it’s powerful that this conversation can be on the big screen to inside the homes to the barbershops to the pool halls."

Daniel Kaluuya (center) stars as Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton in "Judas and the Black Messiah."
Daniel Kaluuya (center) stars as Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton in "Judas and the Black Messiah."

That 50 years have passed since Hampton's story and Black people are still demanding racial equity both frustrates and angers Kaluuya, who sums up the situation with a string of expletives. But "we keep moving, we keep rising, despite it," he says.

"What's happening to us is not about us or from us, and let's stop internalizing it. It has nothing to do with us. We're just impacted by it, but it's steeped in white anxiety and white fear, so let's keep it there. Let them have it, let them deal with it," Kaluuya says of the racial inequalities Black people still fight against. "Let's stop rooting it within us and stop saying this is our identity. Blackness and racism are not synonyms."

Though Kaluuya is still meditating on what exactly reform means to him and how to go about it, he's sure of two things: We can't look to people who don't like us to help us, and there needs to be action.

"I'm wrestling with the word 'hope,'" he says. "It's not the time for that, it's the time for action. Let's get (expletive) done. I don't really sit in my thoughts and dream; I'm trying to make stuff happen."

Kaluuya, a British actor born to Ugandan parents, faced criticism on social media for portraying a Black American activist. It wasn't the first time his casting has been under scrutiny. In 2017, Samuel L. Jackson questioned Hollywood's decision to hire Black Brits to play Black Americans, like Kaluuya's character in "Get Out."

Kaluuya understands "people are feeling things" and wants to allow them the space to express that hurt, but says he's unbothered by those debates.

"I no longer give power to things outside of myself to define myself," he says. "How I feel about myself is how I feel about myself, that's it. If people feel that way, that's all that is, how they feel and I allow them to feel that, that's on them. The issue isn't their definition, the issue is that I'm looking to them to tell me who I am. I tell you who I am. ... If people want to say stuff, let them say stuff. I ain't sweating it."

Detractors may have a hard time finding something negative to say about Kaluuya's next project: producing a live-action "Barney" movie.

Kaluuya loved the purple dinosaur as a kid, and says children's films allow people to go "into such deep places and do it in such an accessible way and it's creative."

"He says 'I love you, you love me, won't you say you love me, too?' and people hate him," he says. "I find that fascinating that as a society we demonize and vilify someone that goes 'Yo, I want you to love me, too.' I find that as a concept, as a theory, it's amazing.

"To love someone and them not loving you back is universal."

Review: Daniel Kaluuya brings power, presence to 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fred Hampton: Daniel Kaluuya's role in 'Black Messiah' 'felt heavy'