Shaka King Goes to Hollywood
Shaka King felt depressed. It was his last scheduled day at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and the trip had not gone well. King’s directorial debut, a bittersweet comedy about the misfortunes of a marijuana addicted couple called “Newlyweeds,” had been turned down by seemingly every major Hollywood corporation. Newlyweeds cost King and his investors six figures, but it ended up being sold to a small Canadian distributor for only $ 25,000 – a result that still leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Even the weather appeared to be against King – a nasty snowstorm in Park City, Utah had grounded his flight home to New York and stranded him on the town for an extra night.
At his hotel that night, King happened upon another first-time filmmaker, Ryan Coogler, whose flight had also been canceled. Coogler’s experience at Sundance was practically the opposite of King’s – he had just won the grand prize for his Fruitvale Station feature. But the two men, among the few black directors at the festival, had noticed each other while rounding the round. They decided to meet for dinner.
“You make friends with Shaka quickly,” said Coogler, who later directed “Creed” and “Black Panther”. “He’s funny and smart and charismatic – you just want to be with him.”
Though his experience at Sundance had been a disappointment, that friendship would eventually lead to the sensational career breakthrough King had hoped for that few filmmakers – and even fewer color filmmakers – have ever seen.
His second film, Judas and the Black Messiah, which he and Coogler co-produced with Charles D. King, hits theaters and on HBO Max as one of the most anticipated films of the year on Friday. His stars – Daniel Kaluuya as Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton, and Lakeith Stanfield as misguided informant William O’Neal who helped the FBI orchestrate his killing – seem all but destined for Oscar nominations. And reviews have sung King’s praise, with AO Scott writing in the New York Times, “While King’s fast-paced direction doesn’t spare the tension, it also creates room for sadness, anger, and even a measure of amusement.”
But the more notable achievement could be that the film – a pointed fable about the historic embrace of violence of the white supremacists in the United States government, backed by the imprimatur and advertising power of a major studio – even exists. It heralds the arrival of an unconventional new voice and could serve as a test of a bold strategy to lead a racial justice revolution through Hollywood.
KING, 40, IS LARGE with an unruly coil of dreadlocks; a short, fluffy beard; and soft eyes behind gold, oversized aviator goggles. He speaks with a relaxed Brooklyn accent (he was born in Crown Heights and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant) and in long paragraphs that impulsively repeat itself from one interesting (or weird or disturbing) anecdote to another.
He took a winding road to filmmaking. As a teenager, he worked as a stage worker on a local play written and produced by his parents, full-time public school teachers, whom King described as “very Afrocentric”. He hated work at the time – his real passions were rap music and basketball – but discovered his own love for creative writing in a high school short play class.
“I was a low grade C-D student until I did well in this class,” King said in January on the curb of a cafe in Williamsburg. “I haven’t been good at anything in a long time. It helped me pull together. “
King turned his grades over and went to Vassar College. As a political scientist, he turned his wheels when his roommate Kristan Sprague King encouraged King to take a film production class. The two envisioned themselves following in the footsteps of their hometown movie heroes Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. They made a documentary called Stolen Moments about hip-hop and capitalism (directed by Sprague) while they were still in school and have collaborated frequently since then, including on Newlyweeds and Judas and the Black Messiah .
“He’d love to see movies that he believed weren’t a cookie cutter that would challenge audiences and yet be entertaining,” said Sprague. “We’d talk about things like ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and how a story can have surprising changes in direction and tone.”
After graduation, King worked for several years as a tutor and youth counselor in New York while writing scripts on the side. In 2007 he was accepted into the film program of New York University, where he studied the work of Sidney Lumet, Bong Joon Ho and Robert Altman.
“Newlyweeds”, his dissertation film, reflected his talent for combining moments of naturalistic intimacy with more stylized genre sequences. In one scene, a morally conflicted repo man close to substance withdrawal has a paranoid vision of how his girlfriend is overly comfortable with a coworker. King shot the vision like a horror film from the 1970s: The frame rate changes in slow motion while the camera zooms in and lingers on the characters’ eerie, half-lit, insanely laughing faces.
A SALES AGENT Anyone who refused to represent Newlyweeds at Sundance in 2013 gave King some feedback that confused him. “He said he couldn’t sell the film because there weren’t any famous black people in it,” King said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is Sundance – the festival that breaks talent. I don’t know who these whites are in these films. ‘”
This experience and the success of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017) convinced King that he had to be more tactical if he wanted to make challenging films about black people in Hollywood. The trick seemed to be to work, at least nominally, within a genre that had undeniable commercial potential.
In 2016 he had the idea of what “Judas” would be when he was with Keith and Kenny Lucas from the comedy duo Lucas Brothers. The brothers who had worked with King on a television pilot thought the story of Hampton, O’Neal, and the FBI would lead to a mighty detective story: “The Departed” is set in the world of Cointelpro.
“I thought it was the best idea I’ve ever heard,” King recalled. “I could see the whole movie right away.”
He began work on a script and teamed up with another writer, Will Berson, who had written his own draft of a story based on Hampton’s life. In 2017, King sent a script to Coogler, who agreed to produce the film under his Proximity Media banner, and hired Charles D. King, the black founder and chief executive of the Macro production company, to fund half of the budget.
Over several rounds of script development, King, Berson, and Coogler worked to maximize the entertaining value of the story, avoid traditional biopic formulas, and limit the plot to a few essential characters. They knew that the ideas that Hampton had embodied in his short life – in fiery speeches extolling the revolutionary potential of a socialist, cross-racial movement against capitalism and white supremacy – had been written from the books of mainstream history and again had to be taken up. But they wanted to position them to reach the broadest possible audience.
“Someone might not have a direct interest in a historical movie or the Panther Party, but they might be interested in a fire movie that airs this weekend,” Coogler said. “I felt if we could thread both of the needles – entertainment and politics – it would be very difficult for people to discard the content of this film.”
Before the filmmakers had a chance to test their theory on moviegoers, they had to find a studio to fund the film and bring it to the big screen. Even with the meaty script, the ties between the rising stars Kaluuya and Stanfield, and the involvement of Coogler – up until then fresh from the record success of “Black Panther” – the playing field was no slam dunk.
Many studios did what producers considered obvious lowball offerings. “It was confusing to me,” said King. “I’ve learned that you can’t apply logic to racism.” But they found a champion in Niija Kuykendall, the senior vice president of production at Warner Bros. and one of the few black female executives in the industry.
Studio filming is an intensely collaborative process in which the creative visions of artists on set must be plausibly reconciled with the interests of Wall Street shareholders. It took King some time to warm up.
Prior to filming, he fought for weeks with Warner Bros. executives and other producers over proposed changes to the script, including the addition of an early scene focusing on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).
Additional – and more personal – critical input came from a different type of stakeholder. King had initially told the story largely from O’Neal’s point of view, but after an early screening for other black directors including Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay, he made dramatic cuts that gave Hampton more screen time.
Class was welcome for King, who had knocked on Hollywood’s door for nearly a decade as an outsider.
“It took Ryan a few long conversations before I learned how to take ‘the note behind the note’,” he said. “To hear what people were asking for and figure out how to do it my own way. Once I learned how to do that, the movie got better, bigger, better to see, and resulted in something even bigger than I had imagined. “