Published on: 02 March 2021 in Events

PODCAST + TRANSCRIPT: Judas and the Black Messiah – Shaka King in conversation with Barry Jenkins

Reading time: 41 minutes and 6 seconds

In this new episode of the Directors UK Podcast, we’re treated to a fascinating discussion between two outstanding filmmakers, Shaka King and Barry Jenkins, as they discuss Shaka’s latest film, Judas and the Black Messiah.

Together they discuss staying true to the story of Fred Hampton, directing the film’s many amazing performances, working long-distance on its brilliant score, and so much more.

Just a heads up, there’s some strong language in this episode. We hope you enjoy the show!

You can listen and subscribe to the Directors UK Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and other podcast platforms.

You can also read a full transcript of the podcast below. 

Barry Jenkins: Talk to me about the process of arriving at Judas and the Black Messiah and evolving your voice. 

Shaka King: In terms of where I started in my roots in comedy and dramedy, it was just my sensibility in a lot of ways. I’ve always been someone who laughed through difficulty and found humour in difficulty and challenges. And so I think when I started making films in college, I started making black and white shorts, I was really just expressing what was inside of me. If I look back and think about my childhood and how I got into movies, it was watching movies with my mom, and my mom liked crime movies. She was always a fan of gangster movies. The first time I saw Goodfellas was with her. The first I saw Casino was with her. And I was into those films, but I never thought of myself as ever making anything like that, I think until grad school when I discovered Sidney Lumet’s work. I think that was the first time I watched The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and the things I liked about comedy, which were really just small, naturalistic moments, I found in those films. I actually found those moments incredibly funny. And they just connected to something inside of me. I think part of it is also that a lot of those great ones are based in New York and, being from New York, being born when I was born, listening to the music I was listening to, they were sampling a lot of those movies. I think it just connected to me in a funny kind of way. 

And so, even after I made Newlyweeds, one of the first things I tried to make next was a TV show about a cousin of mine, who was a (inaudible) in the 1980s, as a teenager. I was trying to pivot from my comedic voice, because I knew that my favourite movies to watch were specifically crime genres, and of the 70s and early 80s really specifically. They really liked the deck that I put together, they liked what I wrote, but they just were like, ‘What makes you think that you can do this?’ 

And so I was directing television and was content doing so, until the Lucas Brothers, in 2016, came to me and said, ‘Hey, we have an idea for a movie. It’s about Fred Hampton and William O’Neal, and we see it as The Departed in the world of COINTELPRO.’ And so, for me, I immediately thought this was just a genius idea. I mean, I recognised it as the only way you can get a Fred Hampton movie made in Hollywood, and I also recognised that the only way you get a Fred Hampton movie made was if you made it with a studio, just because of the scale you’d need, the amount of money you’d need. There was no way to make that independently.

I talk about my stuff being funny, exploring satire in my past work, but my family, my mom, gave me the scoop. We sat by the door in 7th grade. They raise you with a certain politics, so all of my work has had that, since one of the first movies I made, in college, was a documentary about the effects of global capitalism on rap music and how I thought it was ruining it. And so it was like, ‘Wow, I get to talk about stuff that’s important to me in Judas, and also explore this tone and aesthetic that I love.’ I always felt confident that I could do it because, to me, film-making is film-making and my favourite film-makers are those whose tone is unclassifiable in a lot of ways and who can surprise you, like Sidney Lumet. He made this thing, and then he made this thing, and it’s like, ‘Wow, that was 2 things. How are they similarly related? The Wiz and Find Me Guilty? The same dude made that?’ So it just was the perfect thing for me. 

Barry Jenkins: Talk to me about maintaining your thrust and still telling this through Warner Bros. 

Shaka King: I had the benefit of ignorance and no desire to make a studio movie. Especially coming from TV, having to direct writers’ work and then being the final arbiter, in terms of what this thing was going to be, champing at the bit just to get another shot to have control of the story. The first notes meeting I had with MACRO and Proximity, Ryan Coogler’s company and Charles King’s company, I had those dudes on the phone with me for 12 hours because I was just fighting. I didn’t know. I love Ryan for a trillion reasons, but one thing that that dude did, just as a testament to his patience because he was so fucking patient with me. He let me do that for months. He let me just say ‘no’ and fight them for months, and drafts and drafts and drafts, until, we were on maybe the sixth draft, and he was like, ‘Hey man,’ and again he did it with such grace and patience,‘Look, you know, when we take it to the studios, it won’t get made if you move like this.’ He was like, ‘Think about the fact that you want this movie to get to as many people as possible.’ 

And he shared a story with me about his experience taking Fruitvale around the country, and basically only screening it for white people at festivals, and black people not discovering his work until Creed and not even going back and seeing Fruitvale. What inspired him to make studio films was the desire to have his work seen by his people, and this movie, in particular, I was making this movie for black people, first and foremost. I mean it was going to go wide, obviously, but my first audience was going to be black folks, and so that was one thing he said to me that made me reconsider my approach in terms of being so protective of the material. Another thing he said to me, that was again a testament to just his understanding of people, was ‘Look, man. You could look at this as an opportunity to try to satisfy other people’s desires and yourself, your own desire, and that’s an opportunity for growth. And I don’t know about you, but I like the challenge myself.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what you should say to me.’ It was like my kink. Yes, I do need to challenge myself. 

Barry Jenkins: We know how this film is going to end, or at least the core audience that you were considering know how this film was going to end.  So how do you approach telling the story? Just tell me how you wrestled with that conundrum, how you unpacked it. And then on stage, with Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield and all those folks, just keeping that life force going. 

Shaka King: In terms of the movie itself, there has to be a certain lightness to it, and I think that is something that we’re borrowing from Scorsese, who makes these dark movies that are so fun. And so the music had to play a certain role. It had be beautiful. It had to be pretty. There had to be a lot of colour in it, even though it was going to be dark. And you have the genre element to lean on for the entertainment value, and then you have a love story at the heart of the film. And you have great actors. Film sets become family, if it’s a good film set, a healthy film set — and this was that times a trillion. I think it helped that we were shooting in Cleveland, where there wasn’t really much to do outside of the work, but before everyone sat down and got to work, we had a dinner for the Panthers and started a text group and made sure that folks hung out throughout the process. Also it just helps when you have a guy like Daniel, who is a leader. In the very first conversation we had, we talked about leadership and about how, in some ways, he and I both, amongst people we know, there were people looked to us for advice, for guidance. So he took it upon himself to build that family in Cleveland, and he wasn’t the only one. I mean, I got to always shout out to Darrell Britt-Gibson, who plays Bobby Rush, ironically co-founder of the Illinois chapter. He didn’t have a ton of lines in the movies but he owned that role, and he brought it to his behaviour in terms of creating a family on set with his other actors. 

Barry Jenkins: How did you and Daniel decide, when he’s referring to his folks, that he’s got to do this, chest has got to be big — but at these other points he’s just another dude? 

Shaka King: It started, honestly, with the dialect. A year before we started shooting, we met for four days and just worked through the differences in tone and I compared it to that Busta Rhymes song, Touch It. I was like, ‘You know, Daniel, when you’re giving your speech here, “Turn it up, turn it up” and when you’re with Deborah, it’s like, “hadadadadadada”.’ And so we first came at this from a sonic level, and he laughed too. I was like, ‘But really, that’s the way to approach it, and not just when you’re talking to her, but when you’re with your comrades, and it’s just y’all.’ And we recognised, too, especially as the movie was just getting sliced down and sliced down, so that we could make it as taut as possible, there just wasn’t a lot of space for levity in the movie, and there wasn’t a lot of space for intimate connection, and so you had to make those moments really count.

We took the time to turn this icon into a man, and really make clear what he and his loved ones sacrificed in deciding that they were going to try to really do everything they possibly could to better this world. And so it was just being really intentional with those moments. I remember, when we shot that scene that appears at the end, when Fred talks about his mother babysitting on the till, I wanted to just get an improv with the two of them in bed, just so we had it. I was like, ‘I think we’re going to need something like that down the line,’ and we grabbed them improvising, and that’s the close up you see, between the rainbow coalition montage and Fred going to prison. And the funny thing is, they’re saying something completely different. We just stole that, and then I just studied their faces later and was like, ‘Okay, we’ll write this,’ and then they shot it, and it worked. 

But that scene, it’s so, so deeply important to show that these two people didn’t just sleep together, and then he went to prison, and she was pregnant, and he just stepped up. You needed that moment to make clear they’d been building towards something, they were making plans and their plans got interrupted by the US government, when they sent this man to prison. And there’s a longing there, even though you see mere glimpses of it, you see it in how she’s obviously carrying his baby and thinking about the fact that she’s alone with this secret. You see it in the moment when she is reading the letter. But really so much of it is happening off-screen, and it only works off-screen, because of that pillow talk there. So it just was being very, very intentional with that stuff. 

Barry Jenkins: I think Daniel’s performance, it is a very big boisterous performance when it’s appropriate. It’s also very small and in some places unsure, I think, when necessary as well. I’m thinking about the scene with Miss Winters after Jimmy has passed away. It’s the only time where Daniel says something to Phil, and I’m like, ‘Wait, what did he say?’ I think she says, ‘It don’t seem fair that that’s his legacy.’ And he says something in reply, ‘Yes, you gotta tell them.’ 

Shaka King: Yes, and he says, ‘Yes, yes.’ I know, I know. 

Barry Jenkins: I really loved the mix of ages across the cast. I know some people say, ‘Oh, we should have cast 21-year-olds to play 21-year-olds.’ Some of these folks are actually 21 years old. Dominique Thorne, who was in If Beale Street Could Talk, I love that this woman is in scenes with Daniel and Lakeith, and they all felt like they’re the same folk. Talk to me about building this ensemble. Also, when I look at Fred Hampton, I don’t see a 21-year-old man. That’s not fair to him, but that’s the life that he lived. And I was thinking, because I’m casting something right now, I’ve been casting non-stop for the last 5 years, I don’t know who I would have found. Daniel, he made the short Baby in 2010, he could have walked right out of the damn short right into this role. 

Shaka King:  So the one thing that’s interesting to me is, in some ways when you see that he’s 21 in the post-script, it hits different — because you’ve been watching a dude who was way older and yet it’s like, ‘Woah, what the fuck? That dude was 21?’ And that’s the way to play it, in my opinion. But, yes, in terms of the casting, I mean, when we set out to write this thing, myself and Will Berson, our first couple of drafts were Battle of Algiers, because in doing the research we found that there were just so many folks that we wanted to shine a light on, like Doc Stachel and Wanda Ross, and just people I’m saying names that you’re not familiar with, but they were as important to the Illinois chapter as you could argue Fred Hampton and Bobby Rush were. They were the ones who started the medical clinic, they were the ones who started the breakfast programme, and we were like, ‘We want to elevate these folk, just the same way we’re elevating chairman Fred Hampton.’ And then we obviously ran into estate issues, and so you had to reduce that — but I still wanted that feeling of, ‘This is an organisation, this is not a movie about a man, it’s a movie about an organisation.’ And when he goes to prison, it’s a great opportunity to show that. So, you’re always going to want to cast the best actors possible, but let’s also cast recognisable actors in those roles as well. 

It was very intentional to cast Jermaine Fowler as Mark Clark, because Mark Clark is the hero. When the paper’s talk about Mark Clark, they talk about Mark Clark like, ‘That’s a hero. He woke us up with that gunshot in the ceiling.’ Whether he let it off intentionally or not, he was on guard that night, and he lost his life. He was assassinated as well as Fred Hampton. And so it was like, thank God Jermaine is closer to the Lucas Brothers than I, and I was like, ‘I want to cast someone who’s recognisable.’ ‘Oh, that dude’s going to be in Coming to America 2, let’s make him Mark Clark.’ So yes, and I was fortunate to add folks like Ashton Sanders, who’s usually number 1 or 2 on the call sheet, and Algee Smith, the same deal.

Barry Jenkins: We’re going to leave it here for a second because we’ve got to get to the audience questions. I do have one last one before we move to the audience. It’s a studio film, and if Ryan is involved in this you can let me know, because he pulled it off in Black Panther as well, yet there’s still a line, ‘Kill a pig, satisfaction.’ And talking about Algee, Jake Winters still pulls that trigger. Talk to me about navigating, retaining that optimism. 

Shaka King: You’d be surprised when I say that it didn’t come up in conversations with the studio, but I think the reason it didn’t come up was that they knew how diligent we were in putting forth Fred’s words as unedited as possible. So, the fact is he did say that, and if you don’t put that in the movie, and it comes out, people are going to say, ‘You left this out of the movie, you’re lying, you completely sanitised this person’s image.’ And so it was like, ‘No, you have to put that in the movie, you have to acknowledge that he spoke those words.’ We had to figure out, how do we do that, so we can make it clear that that’s not why he was killed? Because he wasn’t killed for saying that. They wanted to kill him because he was feeding children. Jake Winters is not present at that speech. You see Jake Winters leave, storm out on his own, and then Fred gives that speech and Jake Winters is nowhere to be found. So we didn’t want to connect those two things, in terms of Fred saying something and Winters acting off of that. But at the same time, we did want to show that O’Neal could use that act by Jake Winters to try to manipulate the Panthers into doing something even larger, even worse. 

Barry Jenkins: I want to ask a follow-up on that. What I was going to ask was, was it structured that way that you knew, ‘Let me make sure I get Winters out before the speech because I don’t want to connect,’ or was that editorial? 

Shaka King: It was editorial. We shot it and there was editorial. It was because I watched it and I said, ‘Oh no, we can’t do that.’ 

Barry Jenkins: It’s so hard though because I find myself sometimes in the same place, because you don’t want to have to be considering all those things, because what if he was? 

Shaka King: But he wasn’t. I also knew for a fact talking to the Illinois chapter that that was not him acting as a Panther in that moment. The story I was told was that he was in an abandoned building that he hung out in, and Jake Winters’ family was a gun-loving family. He comes from a very militaristic background, and it’s familial. And so he was a guy who did carry a lot of guns on him, and he did have a place that he stashed guns, and apparently — I don’t know the specifics — there was an instance where he was in this building with his stash and there was a shoot out with him and the police, and it had nothing to do with the Panthers whatsoever. But because he was a Panther, and because he did kill some police officers, and was killed himself, the media was like, ‘Panther shoots cops,’ and it was just a way to legitimise the plan to assassinate Chairman Fred Hampton with this act that wasn’t connected to him or the party whatsoever. 

Barry Jenkins: I think you’ve done very well with managing the responsibility of knowing the power of juxtaposition. I was curious if it was on the page, or in lining up the scenes you realised the power of juxtaposition? 

Shaka King: In terms of Fred saying those words, for me it was like, ‘Never forget that this dude was 21 years old.’ You don’t even give them a chance to think that through and walk that back. The things that I was saying at 21 years old — and I got kidnapped by the police when I was 16 years old — that trauma, I was out of my mind in terms of the shit I was saying about cops when I was 21 years old. So you also have to remember this is a very, very young person in a very emotional state. 

Barry Jenkins: I’m going to get to audience questions real quick. It’s a follow-up on what you were saying before I cut you off. Adam says, ‘I was fascinated with Daniel’s performance.’ He shows a lot of respect to Daniel Kaluuya’s performance, ‘During the scene where Bill shows his stash of C4 and proposes his plan to set up the Panthers, Bill tells Fred that he’s just doing as Fred said during his speech. Daniel’s performance was so subtle, but his face shows this realisation that he has this influence on people that may take his words in the wrong context. Can Shaka talk about that? As well as how he managed to pick quite a balanced outlook to everyone’s point of view in the film, rather than falling into good versus evil tropes?’ I think the first question that was crucial, I noticed the same thing. It’s what we were just talking about, the chairman is power. 

Shaka King: Vulnerable, his whole arc is a weird one, because you’re crafting a person who goes from superhuman to human, and that is when he becomes the most powerful. He starts out being like, ‘I want to protect the people,’ and by the end, he is the people. And so from the time he’s in prison and finds out that the headquarters have been burned down, and maybe his comrades are dead, that’s the beginning of him just becoming more vulnerable, becoming just a guy. And so, in that moment, he’s just spoken to his dead comrade’s mum, he’s got that weighing on his mind, now he’s got another party member talking about committing an act even more dangerous, and he’s just like, ‘Is it my fault? Am I responsible?’ It’s a very, very small thing that Daniel did, but it’s everything. That was in the text, and we were clear on what that moment was supposed to be about. In terms of O’Neal, the last time you saw him, besides the dream he had where he shoots himself in the head, was at the ‘High Off the People’ speech where it’s the only instance that you’ve seen him even give glimmers of being politicised. It’s getting to him, so last time you saw him, Fred was getting to him — so when he’s talking about blowing up federal buildings, you’re supposed to believe, ‘Oh shit, this dude’s sincere. This guy’s worked up because his comrade was just killed.’ He’s been radicalised. 

Barry Jenkins: I’m moving onto the next question because I’m eating up a lot of time. ‘Could Shaka take us through his process for working with Sean Bobbitt on the cinematography and the references they used, and also how they came up with the decisions on the striking colour palette? And any coordination that has been done with Charlese Jones and the costumes on that front too?’ 

Shaka King: So glad you mentioned her, and I’ve also got to mention Sam Lisenco, our Production Designer because it was really a 3-headed approach in terms of the look of the movie. So actually I was thinking I might get asked about references, and so I brought up this list of movies that I told everyone we should watch, and I watched all of them. We watched a good number of them together, though we didn’t get through all of them. But it was ThiefEddie CoyleRockersWhen We Were KingsNashvilleA ProphetNo Country for Old MenDevil in a Blue Dress, SevenHeatKing of New YorkWe Own the NightMalcolm XPrince of the City80 Blocks from Tiffany’s and Warriors. Oh, and Battle of Algiers we watched as well. 

In terms of the colour palette, I had about 300 photographs of the west side of Chicago from 69 to 70 feet that my friend Akin McKenzie gave me, and that was the basis. I took those to Sean in our first meeting, and we looked at them, and we were like, ‘This is what we’re looking to recreate.’ Those movies I mentioned, we borrowed a little bit from all of those for different scenes. We were really blessed in finding Cleveland as a location because it’s stuck in time, so every scene but the apartment was shot on location. Sam got down there about a month and a half in advance and just did a bunch of scouting, and he stumbled upon what Sean and I started calling ‘Panther Green’, which is the green that you see in the headquarters. It’s the green that also comes back in a big way in the People’s church scene, and so when you kind of look at that as your canvas to play with, and then Charlese comes in, and she is just adding colour in the costumes, and the costumes did so much lifting in terms of even developing with Lakeith’s character. You really learn about him in a lot of ways in the way that his outfits progress throughout the film. By the end, if you notice, the Illinois Panthers didn’t wear a lot of leather. They wore more Army fatigues and stuff like that, and so O’Neal I think is the first Panther you see in a leather jacket besides Palmer. There’s a character in Warriors, who’s just the quintessential cool dude in the 70’s movie. And I remember thinking ‘We need one of those,’ because people’s idea of the Panthers is that they were all like that. I was like, ‘You don’t need all that, but you need one of those dudes. Ashton’s that dude.’ I literally went on Instagram and went, ‘That’s a 60’s motherfucker right there.’ 


Barry Jenkins: Anon says, ‘From one brother to two others, quick question about whether you bordered the shots, or found the blocking, etcetera, on set?’ 

Shaka King: Most of the blocking we found on set, we only bordered the stunts. 

Barry Jenkins: What about the opening Steadicam scene? 

Shaka King: We didn’t border that, we blocked that on set. 

Barry Jenkins: Is it a little bit different than the bluff cut I saw? 

Shaka King: No. That’s the same. 

Barry Jenkins: Because I remember it being all the way from outside to inside, all the way back outside, but there is one cut, when he’s hopping on the pool table, right? 

Shaka King: Yes, that’s the cut. That’s the cut. 

Barry Jenkins: I’ve seen it 3 times now, and that’s how subtle it is. This is what we do, and I just started watching it, now you watching it, and I’m like, where’s the cut. 

Shaka King: Right, right!

Barry Jenkins: I’ve got to get another real quick one, which was, ‘Hey Shaka, great film. Lots of food for thought. Why did you decide to start the film with the track by The Watts Prophets? Tell me the significance of that for you, including setting the tone of the movie’. 

Shaka King: So, I love that poem. It’s just an amazing poem. I remember the first time I heard it, I just grabbed it, and I was like, okay, let me just hold this, because it might get in the movie somehow. I was like, if I can start the movie like this, then it’s mine. Then it’s my movie. I know it’s my movie because I was like there’s no way I’m going to let you suck, a movie like this. And so for me, I come from a culture of loving MCing, and I love double and triple entendres, and so for me starting the movie with that poem is talking about the Panthers, but it’s also talking about us. You know what I’m saying? It was like, we’re letting you know this is ours. You’re going to think that because it’s a Fred Hampton movie coming out of Warner Bros. that we’re going to make Fred Hampton go liberal, etcetera. No. This is our film. 

The voice work in that poem is so good. It’s not just the words. The words are one thing, but the vocals on that poem are just so incredible. You’re like, no one sounds like this anymore. I think another thing I love about those old movies, those old crime films of the 70s, is the way the people talk in those films. Those voices don’t exist anymore. And on the end, when you listen to that poem, you’re just like, no one sounds like this in the world anymore. It sounds like that era. 

Barry Jenkins: Another question, from Vicky, ‘I really love the different pieces of music, especially the romantic scenes, and they reminded me of the tender moments in Rocky. How did you approach the score with the composer, and what was your inspiration?’ 

Shaka King: I wish we had more time to talk about music, because it really happened the way it did because of the pandemic. Mark Isham and Craig Harris were supposed to, basically, elevate us to the gallows. Get a bunch of jazz musicians in a room, improvise to the movie and then note-take the score. But the pandemic happened, and so I reached out to Zach Cowie, who is a music supervisor I met through Jesse Plemons, and he and I talked maybe a year earlier. 

We both had the same vision for the music, which surprised me, because when I played the music I wanted to put in the movie, he would be like, ‘Yes, okay. We’ll see’. But Zach, independently, gave me a mix tape and it sounded like there was four songs overlapping there. So he came onboard, and the music you’re thinking of in terms of those tender moments with Deb and Fred is actually Bill Evans. That’s not composition, but it was a mix of needle drops that Zach found, Craig and Mark really doing an incredible job of taking that 60s jazz, Bill Evans horns and just like contemporising a little bit. Making it cinematic in the sense of turning horns into strings. 

And then, I have to acknowledge the contributions of Quelle Chris and Chris Keys, who are just friends of mine that I had in the edit day with me, just watching cuts. One day, Quelle was like, I like this move silent, but I got something I think I hear. And he gave me this percussive piece that sounded nothing like any of the music in the movie, but it worked great for that shoot out at Panther Headquarters. And I stuck it in there, and I was like, lets see what the folks think. The producers really loved it. The studio really loved it. Mark hated it, and Mark is the veteran film composer on the team. He couldn’t stand it, but because he comes from a jazz background, he was playing ball. Then one day he was like, listen, let me just compose some stuff around this to make it more cinematic, and hit the beats in the scene that it’s missing. And he did that, and it was perfect. And then we were like, okay, now we have sound here, why don’t we look at other scenes that could require some tension and see if Quelle and Chris can come with some of those percussive elements, and Mark and Craig constructed some stuff around that, and that became the sort of action movie sound that you hear in the film. It’s surrounded largely by jazz, soul and film score, it’s a hybrid of a few different things that I really love. 

Barry Jenkins: You mentioned Jesse Plemons and people haven’t talked about him a lot. He’s the character in this film, that I’m like, I hate this dude, from the first frame. I’m like, I’m supposed to hate this dude, and even though I find myself still quite disliking this character and what he stands for, I think he is a human being and I think Jesse does a great job of not overplaying his hand. Talk to me about from the page to working with Jesse. You mentioned him by name, so it seems like you got along pretty well. 

Shaka King: Yes, me and Jesse get on great. We had too much of him in the early cuts, but it wasn’t so much that we were trying to humanise him as much as — for specifically our white audience and our white liberal audience — we wanted to show just how toxic being a white centrist can be. I didn’t get a lot of experiences to see the film with a lot of people. I got one before the pandemic hit, but in that screening was three white people and three black people and their read of that character was so different. 

The black folks couldn’t stand him from early in the movie, they didn’t trust him from the beginning, the moment that he could compared being a Panther to the klan, they were done with him, whereas the white people were like, ‘I don’t understand, he seemed like a good guy and then suddenly he makes this transition’. I found that so fascinating. And I was like, this is good, we’re on to something here — because I wanted to show a guy who thinks he’s doing the right thing and then he finds out he’s not doing the right thing, but still proceeds in doing the wrong thing because he doesn’t want to sacrifice the comforts of his life. It’s this idea of, I support black people but I don’t want to de-fund the police, it’s the same exact logic, where it’s like, you’re still scared of us, you know what I mean? You don’t want to admit it, you don’t want to acknowledge that you hold these beliefs that you know deep down are toxic, but at the same time you don’t want to change them either. 

Barry Jenkins: If there’s one thing you’d like the audience to take away from your movie, what is it? 

Shaka King: There’s not really one thing, but I want people to really take in what it was like to — at 21 years old and in your teens or early 20s — to really sacrifice your comforts and your safety to heal your community and try to better this planet. When you think about the fact that a lot of these folks lost their lives, some of these people are still in prison. Some of these people are still exiled, people who are alive. I think that you have to just acknowledge how heroic an act that is. So, that’s one thing that I think is valuable. 

Barry Jenkins: How do you know when you’re done and the film is ready? And are you ever truly satisfied with putting it out there? 

Shaka King: In this instance, I knew it was done when all these different parties who hadn’t been satisfied were all satisfied with one movie. And that was like, oh shit, I guess we’re done now. Because I was happy, my producers were happy, the studio was happy, and the family was happy. You know, as happy as everyone can be. You know what I mean. We didn’t get a C, we got a B, we got somewhere between a B and an A+. I’m happy with any of those, because we knew what was at stake with this film and we knew what it could be. 

Barry Jenkins: Even that dude who for 6 months was the immovable object, is that dude still happy with the film? 

Shaka King: No. I wish we had more time because this specific conversation is... I mean, so there’s a scene, there’s something missing now, after the assassination, when you’re on Deborah Johnson’s face. We used a cut from that to a title card that was similar to the title card that starts the film. I want you to know about this too because this changed my life, for real, and so it said Thirty Pieces of Silver on that cut and had the same music you hear over the title card as in this one, and it had a piece of graphic design that Terrence Nance, shout out to Terrance Nance, where the ‘o’ in ‘of’ was in the shape of the Emory Douglas leaping Black Panther, with that Public Enemy cross hair over it. 

It was a crazy piece of graphic design. It was striking. The music was just popping. It was an amazing cut and it was like, this moment you have to really hold onto. Especially in that old cut that had a lot of issues. And it was something I had been fighting for, because I wanted Thirty Pieces of Silver to be the title of the movie. And I had lost that battle, so this was my way of getting it still in the movie — and it works to transition between scenes and I still got tons of pushback. I got pushback from everybody about it and I fought them, fought them, fought them, and we’re a week out, and Ryan and I, we’re having the most tense conversation we’ve had during this process, because now it’s coming down to the final picture, and I’m immovable on some things. He and the studio aren’t moveable on other things, and we’re just not finding common ground no matter what happens. And he and I had four three-hour long conversations at night that changed my life, for real. And one thing he said to me was something that I’d known since grad school. He was like, you know I love your work, but sometimes your work is more cerebral than emotional, and I knew that since grad school. 

One of my heroes in my class was my friend Kyle Scott who was, to me, the guy who got the emotion, that part of filming and he just got that shit from day one. And I was always like, man I wish I could do that. And I thought with this film I had done it, and then hear Ryan say no, you haven’t done it, was like a knife in the gut. I said okay, let me go back and look at this film and let me really interrogate how I’m getting in my own way. I started thinking about life stuff. I started thinking about growing up in the 90s in New York. How the dudes in my childhood prioritised style. How so many New York film-makers are masters of style. Scorsese, master of style. Spike Lee, master of style. So I started to think maybe I’ve been getting in my own way with style. So I said, okay, especially in the back half of the movie, we’re taking out style. It’s gone. We’re slowing this movie down. This shit is going to be slow, regular-ass shit and it’s going to be quiet, and we’re just going to cut the style. And I took that title card out, and I hung on Deborah’s face like, way longer than we had. 

Barry Jenkins: The upshot is you get a hell of a lot more in that moment, you do, no question. The cut to the title was intellectual, but it was still stimulating as hell. But it wasn’t about him, and it wasn’t about her. It was placed where I could see the whole endeavour, but if I’m up here, then I’m away from him, I’m away from her, so I get it. 

Shaka King: And I was like, you’ve got to be with her. I realised it in that moment. 

Barry Jenkins: She crushes that shot. And even that, it’s style, but it’s style that services emotion, that really deep focus, her super shallow foreground. I mean, It’s dope. You did the right thing. You know what I’m saying.

Shaka King: It’s wise, man. It’s wise, cat. 

Barry Jenkins: This shit was dope. 

Shaka King: I loved it man. It took me like a year. 

Barry Jenkins: That shit is one of the hardest cuts I’ve ever seen. And the fact that you stepped off it, that you decided to do this thing, even though in a vacuum — I’ll say, because you can’t say it, it was fucking brilliant. I salute you on that. 

Shaka King: Thank you. Yo Barry, thank you, man. Thank you for everything.

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