Shaka King On Filmmaking, Truth In Storytelling, And The Ritual of Writing Stoned

Critically acclaimed filmmaker Shaka King talks to High Times about directing, writing, and the raw power of historical dramas.
Shaka King On Filmmaking, Truth In Storytelling, And The Ritual of Writing Stoned
Photo credit: Glen Wilson/2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Shaka King started his feature filmmaking career with a stoner comedy all stoners should see: Newlyweeds. Calling it a stoner comedy, however, is reductive. It’s about the highs and lows of a relationship similar to the rollercoaster of an intense high. It’s a debut film with an authentic indie spirit. 

Eight years later, we’re now seeing King’s second feature film, Judas and the Black Messiah, which is about activist Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), FBI informant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), and the Black Panthers. It’s an intimate, yet epic, true story and such a tangible vision from King.

The filmmaker co-wrote the Ryan Coogler-produced drama with Will Berson. Between Newlyweeds and Judas and the Black Messiah (now available on HBO Max), King shot episodes of People From Earth and HBO’s High Maintenance. King—an artist who smokes when he writes—has a voice of his own audiences will follow closely long after experiencing Judas and the Black Messiah.

The Battle of Algiers was an influence, right? I could see that in the movie.

You do? That’s really wonderful to hear.

Just that level of dread and intensity maintained throughout.

It’s really wonderful to hear. We owe to that film and some others probably. With our first drafts of the script, we’d done so much research and learned so much about these individuals we’d never heard of. Folks like Doc Satchel, Rhonda Ross, Shay Brooks, and Rufus “Chaka” Walls. We wanted to highlight their efforts and accomplishments along with Fred’s because when you study the politics of the party, you realize that he wasn’t a messiah to them. He was one of them. The title comes from J. Edgar Hoover’s designation of him more so than their designation of him. Everyone played a role.

We envisioned it initially as a much greater ensemble piece, but I think it still has an ensemble quality to it. You really feel it when Fred goes to prison and you open up the world a little bit and get a little bit into Jimmy Palmer and Jake Winter. I don’t think it’s as good a version of this movie. It’s probably more aligned with a limited series where you could really explore the chapter in full. But our initial desire was to do that. That’s why The Battle of Algiers was such a touchstone. That, and just the raw truth that Battle of Algiers puts forth, you know what I’m saying?

So matter of fact.

It doesn’t sugar coat anything. It’s so matter of fact. You watch that movie and it feels like a documentary. How did they shoot that? How did you do this? How is this not really happening in front of the camera? How are these really actors? We wanted to give this movie that feel, recognizing that we were also making a studio film, so we couldn’t quite take it in that direction. A movie for me that does that that’s not a studio movie, but that has that quality, did you see Capernaum?

I haven’t seen that, no.

You should watch that movie. City of God is another one. That is one of those movies where it’s just full of style. You know these are actors and it’s so stylized, but it’s so real. So, it was trying to ride that line in a lot of ways.

Which movie got you into filmmaking in the first place? 

Goodfellas. That’s my favorite movie. I watched the movie so many times, it’s not even funny. It’s so natural and so funny. It’s just a perfect film. It is, to me, the most watchable movie of all time. It’s such a fun ride, man. You feel like you’re in the room with those dudes. It’s that immersive. You really feel you’re in their clique, and you befriend them and they’re terrible, terrible people, but they’re so charismatic. 

I didn’t see Goodfellas in the movies, I was too young, but to me, it’s still a fun moviegoing experience. The two movies for me that I can think of as fun moviegoing experiences, Goodfellas and Get Out. I’ve only seen Get Out in the movies because it was such a high. I saw it in Compton opening night. You can’t get a more perfect audience for that movie. No one knew anything and everyone was Black. 

So when the ending comes and you think that he’s going to get killed by police, there was a collective sense of dread in the audience. We were talking to one another, holding one another, people were laughing uncomfortably. The guy next to me was like, “It’s not funny.” He was getting upset. Then when Rel got out of the car, I think we all jumped out of our seats. And then, ended on the joke. 

We’ve definitely got off topic, but just that’s the thing that you sometimes do miss about the movies. It’s moments like that. 

Absolutely. It’s definitely a double-edged sword Judas and the Black Messiah is available on HBO Max, but it’s great to watch it from home during these times.

I’m very happy about the way that this movie is being released because way more people are going to see it, and you don’t jump out of your seat at the end of this movie and go, “Yes.” You know what I’m saying? It’s a very different feeling. But it would have been nice to feel the collective pull that the audience feels at the end of a film like this. I’m going to still go to Jersey or Connecticut and watch a socially distanced screening.

What do you think will be missed by not experiencing it in a theater?

I mean, it’s beautiful. Obviously, I feel comfortable saying that because it isn’t just me. It’s so beautiful. Sean Bobbitt, our cinematographer, Sam Lisenco, our production designer, and Charlese Antoinette Jones, our customer designer, the work that they did, just the painting they did, it’s astonishing to look at it. 

Not to mention I really am really so happy with the music in the film and the score in the movie and the sound design. When you see it, you see all those elements come together, it does make it so immersive. So the scale of just the viewing experience, I think contributes to the immersion of the film, but I think you can still get that at home to some degree.

Fred Hampton’s speeches are still very rousing from home, too. How did you and Daniel want to stay true to his power as a speechmaker? 

Well, I’m glad you asked that because one thing I noticed early on was watching Fred speak. So, there’s a story of him going to this bar. It happens in the movie, except in real life he went up to the DJ and was like, “Yo, cut the music off.” And the guy did. Fred started talking and people didn’t get upset. They listened to him. These people are drunk and they’re listening. That’s how captivating a speaker he was. 

And then you see the footage of him speaking, you see this guy is like an MC. So Daniel and I would talk about, if Fred is an MC, what MC is he like? Who we borrow from? You’ll laugh, but I played Busta Rhymes’ “Touch It.” I was like, “Yo, when you’re doing that speech, when you’re doing the ‘high off the people’ speech, it’s like, ‘I’m here with it.’” 

One of the movies that Sean and I borrowed from was When We Were Kings, and there’s this close-up that’s employed in that movie that it stays in my mind of Miriam Makeba. There’s a scene where they’re really, really tight on the face, and I was like, “Yeah. That. We need that.” It’s one of my favorite shots in the movie where Daniel’s like, “I’m a god for the people because I live for the people. I live for the people. I love the people.” And we’re so tight on him. There’s not a lot of room for him. It’s a very tough shot to pull off. He’s in the frame of that, and then, he’s out of the frame. It’s just a powerful moment. So, we looked at Fred’s speeches like is a MC who’s rapping, so let’s shoot it like that.

Gotta say, I very much enjoyed how much they say “pigs” in this movie, plus there’s not that terrible cliche of the one “good” white cop. 

Oh yeah, no, no, no. I wouldn’t want that. The one white guy who’s like, “What are we really doing here guys?! Come on!” [Laughs]  Because they’re like, “Hey, we got to show there’s one decent white cop in the bunch.” It’s propaganda. I’m not putting that shit out here.

The people in power, there’s an overwhelming sense of gluttony there. They always seem to be eating, drinking, and smoking, like pigs. 

I didn’t even consider that. They were referred to as the pigs by Panthers because that’s literally the only way they referred to them. They did not refer to them any other way. To this day, only refer to them as pigs. So if you make a movie about them, you have to address them as such when the Panthers address them. In terms of the eating and the drinking, that was all to really contrast the kind of material wealth and gluttony that exists amongst that ruling class, and to show that that’s what Bill O’Neal wanted. We don’t show that environment with anyone with Bill O’Neal not present. 

You got Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover. He is very good at playing horrible right-wing figures of power, like in The Dead Zone, Dead Presidents, and now this. Did you want to help keep that tradition alive? 

I never thought of that. I thought of it as, “Oh, we’re casting the dude from The West Wing as J. Edgar Hoover. That’s a nice counterbalance.” I didn’t even think about him in Dead Presidents, and you’re right, he was the judge at the end of Dead Presidents

It was never a thought that we could possibly get Martin Sheen. I remember we went up to a few other actors. I think a few passed, because the money wasn’t right. And then there was one that was interested that I was really against casting, but I was getting a lot of pressure because we were running up against time. I was just like, “Yo, we can’t cast this guy. I really do not think he’s right.”

I just put my foot down and they’re like, “Okay, fine. Who? Just throw some names out.” We started throwing out every name, whether you could get them or not get them. I just said, “What about Martin Sheen?” I knew about his politics. And I was like, “I don’t know. I feel maybe we have a shot.” And then he expressed interest. I said, “Watch, he’s going to do it.” Like I said, he was such a reach. We didn’t even consider it. It was not even something we considered until at the last moment, and we’re like, “Well screw it. Now we’re just throwing out names, might as well swing for the fences.” We were fortunate to get him.

Your movie somehow made me despise Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar even more. The portrayal of Hoover in this country is often baffling, especially in that movie. 

Totally. I mean, look, the dude has a building named after him. They’ll be like, “Yeah, his politics were wrong…” But you still have a building named after you. You still haven’t changed the name of that building. For me, that’s the beginning and end of it. It’s the same way that I remember when Ava DuVernay made Selma, and historians tried to talk about her representation of LBJ and how they felt she had been hard on him historically. LBJ is taped calling Martin Luther King Jr. a nigger, what are you talking about? What are you talking about?

And he tried to ruin Eartha Kitt. 

Yeah, man. It’s nuts, the way that this country has rewritten history and weaponized that story against the world and its citizens. This country’s propensity for weaponizing truth… First of all, creating massive mistruths and then using them to just brainwash society at large. Movies have obviously played a tremendous role in that. We’re taught incorrect history. 

We as filmmakers, a lot of times we’re putting forth stories that are completely inaccurate, not necessarily because we’re choosing to traffic in this kind of propaganda intentionally. Sometimes it’s just because that’s what we heard. That’s what’s been written. And if you just go by that and you don’t step outside of yourself and do a deeper dive, you have the potential to put stuff out there that’s totally false.

Shaka King On Filmmaking, Truth In Storytelling, And The Ritual of Writing Stoned
Photo credit: Glen Wilson/2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

You made your debut with Newlyweeds, which all our readers should see. What’d you learn from that film that you kept in mind on Judas and the Black Messiah?

Wow. I mean, it’s been so many years. I’ve done so many things in between then that informed this even more. I learned really on that film just how collaborative the medium of filmmaking is, and how, as my old film school teacher used to say, script is a coin of the realm to some degree, but casting is really, really 90% of your job. Casting not just your cast, but casting your crew.

What did you learn from High Maintenance?

That show was incredibly ambitious. They didn’t make it like other shows. Remember, it started it as a web series, and they did it completely on their own terms. HBO just owned it. Those creators had their own way of doing things. What I learned is, they’re very good with the monitor. They both direct, too, so just watching how they see performances on the monitor and trying to get their actors, not off-balance, but never letting them get too comfortable. I have a different way of directing behind the monitor, but I did admire it. It was useful to see.

Like you said, you made Newlyweeds many years ago now. After people see Judas and the Black Messiah, they may discover your debut for the first time. How do you look back on, both as a filmmaker and a person, the guy behind that movie?

That’s a good question. That movie was very personal for me because I really felt a real kinship with both of those characters, with the main characters. I was kind of both of them in a lot of ways. At the time, I really questioned my relationship to weed because I had been hardcore sober for over a decade by then. 

I think I’m just a bit more… I’m not asking the same questions. I’m probing, I think, different questions. This film was personal for a lot of different reasons. I feel like I have pretty strong principles and always have. But, when you work on a story about Fred Hampton, it’s another level.

When you’re telling a story like this, you do find yourself just being crafty and questioning where you fall sort of along that binary. Those weren’t questions that I was even considering when I made Newlyweeds. The stakes were lower. The things I was asking of myself were… I can’t say they were low because that was what was important to me then. I think in some ways, the things that are important may have changed. And I think just telling you how I’ve grown as a filmmaker and a person, I’ve lived multiple lives since then and had multiple experiences. 

I read after your Newlyweeds experience and with Judas and the Black Messiah, you started to care less about what others think. What led to that change? 

Yeah, I think the same process in making this film. Certainly, making a movie and not getting such a welcomed response on the critical side of things, and then hearing from other people that they didn’t feel the same. They sort of recognize the disconnect a lot of times between the film criticism world and viewers, in general. I think recognizing the inherent bias, quite frankly, I think particularly with white critics, especially then, 2013. 

I remember having a conversation with Ava DuVernay who mentioned this after the fact that she actually thought about buying the movie. But, if she bought it, she said, “I would have renamed it because Newlyweeds feels like such a jokey title. It’s such a slapstick title.” I understood what she was saying. I also understood there was a subtext inherent in that. 

If that movie had Seth Rogan and Emma Stone, it would have been seen as a drama. It would have garnered a different level of respect. But, even if it is a name of a non-famous white actor, it would have sold. It would have sold for way more money than it did. It would have garnered a different level of respect. I had critics write that movie off, the industry write that movie off without even watching it. I know that for a fact.

Even critics and sites that pride themselves on championing indies did not support that movie.

They didn’t even really watch it and didn’t take it seriously. That was a rude awakening for me just recognizing that certain events, my art was disposable because it starred mostly Black people, and a Black person made it. That just made it worth less. So, coming to that conclusion pushed me to measure my success by different metrics. Now, it is just like, “Oh, okay. Fuck y’all.”

Everything I’ll do ever after that, that’s how I feel about it. Like I said, I don’t need validation from the press. I don’t need validation from the Black intelligentsia, either. I don’t need validation from anybody other than ultimately the people I choose, the people I work with.

That’s a good place to be.

Yes, yes.

I always appreciate an anti-capitalist movie made at a big studio that probably doesn’t share those values. Was there any joy in making a studio movie about a socialist? 

It’s a part of the fun. There’s that phrase, “Using the master’s tool to burn down the master’s house.” I don’t think we quite burn down the master’s house, but we definitely spraypaint a dick on the master’s house [Laughs].

[Laughs] You should say that in a speech.

[Laughs] There’s value in defacing false American superiority and capitalism. Everyone knows that shit is bullshit. Way more people know that’s all bullshit than they have in a long time, you know what I’m saying? Way more people. What I loved was hearing doubters say, “Oh, they’re going to waterdown Fred’s politics.” Like, you all don’t even fucking know me. You really do not fucking know me. I would never. Also, you don’t know [producer] Ryan [Coogler] even. That’s not even close to Ryan. It’s… crazy. 

Knowing you a little bit and being from High Times, I have to ask, you wrote a lot of Judas and the Black Messiah high, right? 

Oh yeah. The whole thing. I haven’t written not stoned in a long time. I don’t direct stoned. The thing is, it’s not so much a relaxation thing, but a step a world away thing, you know? It’s setting the table with different rituals. Every writer has their ritual. It can be coffee or the coffee cup they need. For me, I got a combo, right? It’s music and marijuana. It’s my ritual. It’s that simple. I’ve written shit not stoned many times, but I like writing stoned [Laughs]. 

I just enjoy it. It makes it not a chore. I find that I can just go in a different direction than I was going, you know? I’ll have a cup of coffee, write, and then peeter out. Then, I come back and spark up, something will happen. I’ll just have a different perspective. You know, the same thing happens on set when I’m not stoned at all. I don’t need it. 

I’ll write for as long as I can while stoned.

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