LaKeith Stanfield on ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’: I should’ve done some meditation, and some therapy, to prepare for something like this’ – Yahoo…

Posted: February 13, 2021 at 10:54 pm


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Approaching any biopic, an actor prepares with a marriage of research and imagination, LaKeith Stanfield told me the other day.

Judas and the Black Messiah, now playing in some theaters and on HBO Max, tells a true Chicago story, and it doesnt take much viewer imagination to realize the dramatic possibilities. By late 1969, Illinois Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya) posed a significant threat in the eyes of J. Edgar Hoovers FBI. Now well-documented, the bureaus counterintelligence program targeted Hampton and the Panthers.

Working with FBI agent Roy M. Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), a teenager facing jail time, William ONeal (Stanfield), struck a soul-selling deal with the bureau. Working undercover, ONeal infiltrated the Chicago-based Panther organization and eventually became security captain. He then fed information about the Panthers activities to his FBI contact, providing a detailed sketch of the first-floor apartment of Hamptons two-flat at 2337 W. Monroe St.

Hampton shared the flat with, among others, his partner and fellow Panther Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). On orders from the FBI and Cook County States Attorney Edward Hanrahan, 14 plainclothes Chicago police officers conducted what the local press characterized as a raid for illegal firearms. The early December 1969 gun battle, as the Tribune called it at the time, was in fact a coordinated assassination, with a single bullet fired by one of the Panthers in retaliation.

Filmed in Cleveland in 2019, Judas demanded serious investigation on behalf of its excellent ensemble, in which even smaller roles, such as a Panther party member played by onetime DePaul University Theatre School student Ashton Sanders, spring fully to life.

I talked to four of the actors in separate Zoom interviews recently.

Stanfield (who plays ONeal): A lot of my characters operations were clandestine. The main thing I had to go on was ONeals interview for the documentary Eyes on the Prize. I got my hands on the unedited version, so I got to see what was going on in between some of the takes things he would do, how he would shift in his seat, a certain air of nervousness. At one point he says he felt bad about some of the things he did. And once I saw that conflict within him, and saw he had a deeper understanding of some of the things hed done, I wanted to take that to the forefront.

Story continues

Fishback (who plays Johnson): Near the beginning, my character mentions shes a poet and asks Fred if he likes poetry. That gave me an idea of her having a journal and a pen she carries around. Fishback, a writer as well as a performer, wrote some poems in character, as Johnson, and director King used them in the film. Now known as Akua Njeri, Johnson was pregnant at the time of Hamptons assassination. Njeri and Fred Hampton Jr., aka Chairman Fred Jr., advised the project and were frequent visitors to the set.

Prior to filming Kaluuya, Fishback and four others met with Njeri and Fred Hampton Jr. in Chicago for a seven-hour late-night summit.

We were all sitting around this table, Fishback says, and Chairman Fred says, I want to go around and hear why every single one of you wants to do this movie. It was a privilege to meet the family that way, and to tell our stories. Daniel said something about approaching the role as a vessel, and Mama Akua said, Well, what does that actually mean? Later, she asked me about (acting), and I said, Well, I like to allow a spirit to kind of flow through me when I take on a role and she said, Well, what if my spirit doesnt mesh with your spirit? Sizing me up, you know. She reminded me of my grandma in that way. At the end of the night I gave her a hug and I said, I hope you know my heart. And she said, I do. I just had to give you a hard time.

Sanders: Researching the slain Panther party member Jimmy Palmer, the only thing I was able to find, really, was his death certificate. So I had to find the world he lived in, working with with our director (Shaka King) and Ryan (Coogler, who produced). I compare Jimmy to a crocodile. Always has his guard up for himself, and for Fred. Hes a protector. An interesting character for sure.

Five years ago Sanders dropped out of DePaul to move back to Los Angeles after filming a key role in Barry Jenkinss Moonlight, which won the top Oscar that year. Its been a wild ride since then. To pursue it, and do it, its been a blessing to be a part of these important projects.

This one, he says, cant help but bring a lot of raw feelings to the surface. Although the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings happened after we made the film, it all feels relevant. The world then, the world now its very connected. And its really upsetting to think about. Were just trying to fight for our livelihood, and for our lives, as Black Americans.

Plemons: Four, five days into filming, LaKeith handed me a book that delved into Mitchell and ONeals relationship. It started to skew my perception of Mitchell in a way that seemed like it might not be helpful. I dont know if he was quite as conflicted as he is in the film. Shaka and I talked about that. For the function of the character in the movie, though, (Mitchell) needed to be someone whose primary goal was to do the right thing. And the script was written so well.

Most of Plemons scenes consisted of two-person encounters with ONeal. Im a huge fan of LaKeiths work. When I showed up in Cleveland, we shot all our scenes in the steakhouse. We didnt talk hardly at all when we werent rehearsing or actually filming. Then, finally, we went out one weekend and actually talked. It was such an interesting power struggle to play, back and forth.

Stanfield: It was tough making this one. Definitely the toughest Ive done. Having members of Hamptons family on set, he says, provided a safety net of authenticity, even if many things in the story changed as a result. Chairman Fred Jr. and Mama Akua would talk to the director, and all of a sudden wed find the structure of some scenes shifting. Many scenes, as is usual in moviemaking, didnt make the final cut, including one of ONeal, already having infiltrated the Panthers, encountering a group of police officers. In that scene, ONeal punched out one of the officers in an attempt to show his loyalty to Hampton.

A lot of people assume ONeal was super-close to Chairman Fred, and Fred Jr. said he wouldnt have gotten that close because Chairman Fred wouldnt have trusted him. He did have a position in the party, but he wasnt his personal bodyguard and therefore that display didnt seem to match up with what was likely the truth. Out it went.

ONeals tortured circumstance, with his guilt eating away at his conscience, was not an easy headspace to inhabit, Stanfield says. One thing I realized after doing Judas is that mental health is important. The way you prepare for a role like that is important. You want to do the best you can, so you go into it 110 percent. But you dont always take the proper steps to make sure your mind is in a good space. With that role, I definitely shouldve done some exercises some meditation, and some therapy in order to prepare. And now, moving forward, I will.

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Judas and the Black Messiah is now playing in theaters, where coronavirus restrictions allow. It premiered Friday simultaneously on HBO Max, where it will stream through March 14.

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LaKeith Stanfield on 'Judas and the Black Messiah': I should've done some meditation, and some therapy, to prepare for something like this' - Yahoo...

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February 13th, 2021 at 10:54 pm

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