Daniel Kaluuya, 'Judas' cast on how perception of Black Panthers has shifted post-George Floyd era

Since his breakout role as the unwitting victim in Jordan Peele’s zeitgeist horror film Get Out four years ago, Daniel Kaluuya has rapidly ascended in Hollywood — appearing in such notables films as Black Panther (2018), Widows (2018) and Queen & Slim (2019). This week’s stunning drama Judas and the Black Messiah, though, marks the first time the 31-year-old Brit has had a prominent role as a historical figure, and it’s a whopper: Kaluuya plays a real-life kind of Black Panther, revolutionary Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois BPP until he was killed in his bed by Chicago police during an FBI-sanctioned raid when he was just 21.

“I wouldn’t say it was intimidating, but it’s just the target’s smaller, there are boundaries there you’ve inherited, as opposed to that you’ve made,” Kaluuya tells Yahoo Entertainment about playing Hampton. “There was a weight of cultural responsibility. And meeting the family, there was an emotional responsibility, and getting to know them, and them being on set the majority of days.”

Judas and the Black Messiah traces the FBI’s investigation of the young Black Panther leader as he grew in prominence in the late-1960s through the eyes of William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a petty crook recruited to infiltrate Hampton’s inner circle. The film is directed by Shaka King (Newlyweeds, TV’s People of Earth), who co-wrote the project with Will Berson based on a story by the Lucas Brothers (Lucas Bros Moving Co).

“The first thing I really connected to were his words, and the power of them, the power of these ideas and the way that he phrased them,” King says of Hampton. “Not only did he have a way of making these types of lofty concepts incredibly accessible, but he also made them entertaining. He recognized an opportunity to make revolutionary politics entertaining.

“It was also important to get right and nail the fact that all the Black Panthers did was motivated out of a sense of love for their people, love for their comrades and this idea of what revolutionary love looks like. And to really make sure we imbued that throughout the movie, whether that be with Fred and [girlfriend Deborah Johnson, played by Dominique Fishback] or whether that be with Fred and his comrades in moments of levity.”

Daniel Kaluuya in 'Judas and the Black Messiah' (Warner Bros.)
Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Though Hampton’s legacy extends to founding the multicultural political organization The Rainbow Coalition, the Black Panthers — and the concept of Black Power in general — have long scared mainstream America. But with the racial reckoning that followed the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020 prompting a cultural awakening, that perception may have evolved. And with Judas tracing the story of Hampton — who fought for ideals akin to Black Lives Matter — the cast debated whether the film and its subject might be viewed differently, even though it was filmed in 2019.

“That’s an interesting question,” King says. “I think the truth of the matter is we didn’t make the movie post-George Floyd rebellion. The movie was in the can prior. We all felt like this is a movie people are going to connect to and that people’s eyes and ears are open and ready to take a dose of this medicine.

“We couldn’t have imagined, as Fred Hampton Jr. says, people’s political pores would be open quite to the degree that they are now. I always thought, especially with the decision we made to sort of couch this information and this politic in genre that it was going to go down easy. And it was going to go down easy whether it came out [the year we made it], or whether it came out two years later.”

Judas and the Black Messiah opens in theaters and on HBO Max Friday.

Watch the trailer:

— Video produced by Jon San and edited by John Santo

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