Game Changers: Shaka King on navigating Hollywood's 'incredibly hostile' attitude toward Black-led films before making 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

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Game Changers is a Yahoo Entertainment video interview series highlighting the diverse creators disrupting Hollywood — and the pioneers who paved the way.

On paper, Shaka King’s trajectory from aspiring filmmaker to Oscar-nominated writer-director-producer of Judas and the Black Messiah looks like it was mapped out in textbook font.

He went to film school at NYU where he studied under Spike Lee, made a bundle of short films, directed an independent film (the stoner comedy Newlyweeds) that took him to the Sundance Film Festival, made some even buzzier shorts, did some television work (High Maintenance, People of Earth), and then with Judas directed his first major studio motion picture.

But it’s never that simple. “It didn’t quite work out that way,” King tells Yahoo Entertainment in our latest episode of Game Changers (watch above). The filmmaker imagined Newlyweeds, which premiered to acclaim at Sundance, would launch him into the stratosphere. It didn’t happen, which is why he made more shorts (like his viral meta ethnic stereotype comedy Mulignans) and pivoted into TV.

“I didn’t even think of doing another movie after Newlyweeds,” he says, “because I found the film marketplace, specifically, was incredibly hostile to any movies directed by [Black people] and starring Black actors. Our work was deemed without value, financial value, specifically. It was just hostile, incredibly hostile.”

In 2016, King teamed with twin screenwriting team Keith and Kenneth Lucas on Judas and the Black Messiah. The acclaimed dramatic thriller follows the U.S. government’s targeting and eventual assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), which was executed with the help of an African American informant (LaKeith Stanfield).

Daniel Kaluuya and Shaka King on the set of 'Judas and the Black Messiah' (Warner Bros.)
Daniel Kaluuya and Shaka King on the set of Judas and the Black Messiah. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

As its five-year journey to screens indicates, the film faced an uphill battle to production before Warner Bros. greenlit the project in 2019. “The hesitance really stemmed from a belief that the movie wouldn’t be as financially successful as we thought,” King says. “Studios didn’t pass because they were like, ‘This work is too radical.’ Or, ‘We don’t think the script is good.’ They passed because they were like, ‘For the money that you said you need to make this movie, we don’t think we can get that money back with a theatrical release.’ They were like, ‘If you make the movie for half the budget, then we’re in.’”

Judas has been a major success for Warner Bros. and its HBO Max streaming service, netting six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for both Kaluuya and Stanfield. It’s also become a cultural touchpoint. Is This the Most Radical Film Ever Produced by Hollywood?, a recent New York Times headline pondered.

With its Best Picture nomination, Judas became the first contender in the lead category in the award show’s 93-year history to have an all-Black producing team (Shaka King, Charles D. King and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler).

“[It’s] bittersweet,” King says. “It’s nice to be recognized for the work and it’s really exciting that this movie is gonna get to a greater audience. A friend of mine said to me the other day, ‘You have to really think about the people coming behind you who look at that moment and are inspired by that and are reminded they have a shot at making movies and not being white.’”

Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by John Santo

Judas and the Black Messiah is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

Watch the cast discuss the film:

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