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Daniel Kaluuya On His Role As Fred Hampton In 'Judas And The Black Messiah'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Of all the Black people who've died in encounters with police who've become symbols of the civil rights struggle in the U.S., Fred Hampton might not be a name most people know today. But his killing during a predawn police raid on an apartment in Chicago's West Side in 1969 was one of the most shocking examples of police violence that most people had seen at the time.

Hampton was the charismatic chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and the deputy chairman of the National Party. Other activists immediately labeled the attack an assassination. Years later, it was revealed that the FBI had planted an informant in the group who not only gave information about the layout of the apartment, but drugged Hampton so he couldn't resist if he'd wanted to.

The new film "Judas And The Black Messiah" is based on that story, the Judas being informant William O'Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield, who aided the FBI in its mission to take down Hampton, the so-called Black messiah, played by Daniel Kaluuya.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH")

DANIEL KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) I need everybody to repeat after me. I am...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) I am...

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) ...A revolutionary.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) ...A revolutionary.

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) I am...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) I am...

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) ...A revolutionary.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) ...A revolutionary.

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) I am...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) I am...

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) ...A revolutionary.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) ...A revolutionary.

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) I am...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) I am...

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) ...A revolutionary.

MARTIN: And Daniel Kaluuya is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations.

KALUUYA: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, you've had some incredible, meaty roles in films like "Get Out" and "Black Panther" - we're talking the Marvel Universe "Black Panther" here. I mean, even though these were fictional pieces, they explored some really powerful themes, you know, about race and about identity, about power. What attracted you to this role?

KALUUYA: Chairman Fred Hampton (laughter). You know, he's just a brilliant mind and a brilliant heart, you know, and really taking him in. And I realized that there's no - there's a lot of information about how he died, how he was murdered, not a lot of information how - about how incredibly and remarkably he lived.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because he is one of those names - I mean, some people know all about him. I mean, they can tell you exactly where they were when they learned of his death. But some people know nothing. And I was wondering, when you were growing up in England, had you heard of him? I mean, had you heard of the Black Panthers? Do you remember having a memory of them, what they were all about or hearing about them?

KALUUYA: Yeah, I remember it being mentioned at school in passing because we studied civil rights, American civil rights, at school. And then when I just was living my life being a young Black man, dealing with frustrations and that, I just naturally gravitated towards their perception and ideologies. And also, stuff arrived to me through friends, through documentaries, through just conversations. And with Chairman Fred, I remember seeing the date he was born and the date he was assassinated and going, whoa, whoa, whoa. That's not right. What happened? Woah. He was 21. Not only he was assassinated at 21, but he made it to become the chairman of the Black Panther Party in Illinois at 21. And so I was like, oh, I always knew that later on in life and when I had a bit of time, I was going to take a deep dive into that. And then, amazingly, this film came through.

MARTIN: I am struck, as you were, by remembering that he was only 21 when he was killed and thinking about the role he played in the community at that age. So how did you find your way into him and decide how to portray him?

KALUUYA: I had to let go of a lot of myself. I had to let go of concepts that I have been wedded to, even, like, the concepts of age. Like, I feel you're as old as the responsibilities you feel you have and how you show up in that responsibility. You know, and he felt a responsibility to awaken Black people, you know, awaken people and so they can actualize themselves for themselves, you know?

In terms of the process, I just - I knew that this wasn't a thing, well, I'm doing this. This is a performance. No, this is - I'm a vessel. You know, this is coming through me. And I needed to understand the mindsets and the concepts and ideas and the perspectives in order - before I could even attempt to play him and then occupy that space as chairman Fred. So I did read the Black Panther reading list, the majority of the books. In order to be a fully-fledged Panther, you need to go on six weeks of political education. But yeah, that's kind of my entry point in looking at this mountain of a man.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I do - I think the Panthers are kind of a Rorschach test for people because if you read the papers at the time, I mean, it's very clear that the authorities were terrified of them. I mean, they were not going to tolerate mistreatment. They presented themselves in a manner that was intended to project force. But, you know, for other people, they remember the breakfast programs and their community programs.

And I just want to play a scene from the movie that speaks to that. I mean, this was the night before Hampton was killed. And he decides that the Panthers will build a medical clinic on the West Side of Chicago. And I just want to play that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH")

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) Is the party about me, or is it about the people?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Chairman...

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) It's a five-year bet (ph). You know how many people we can save in five years with a medical clinic in the middle of the West Side? Far as I'm concerned, that's an easy decision.

MARTIN: I like that scene because it's quieter. I mean, the one we played at the beginning, you can feel the fire. But I like the quietness. And I was wondering how you understood what Chairman Fred thought about people and what he thought about how he expressed his kind of love for people.

KALUUYA: I mean, there's a bit in it when he speaks about Emmett Till.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH")

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) There's people in this world who want to do that to me, or my brother, or my sister? That's when I knew I had to protect them.

All he did - all the stuff came from deep love of himself and deep love for the people around him and just thinking that that's not right. What's happening is not right, you know? And if we stand still, we will be hurt. So protecting my own and protecting myself and protecting everyone around me is a way of loving me and loving them.

MARTIN: I understand that you met with the Hampton family. And without betraying any confidences or without betraying any private moments, I wondered if you could share what you may have learned from them, including Fred Hampton Jr., who - his mother was pregnant with him when his father was killed. In fact, she was there. Can you share anything of how those conversations shaped your perspective on this role?

KALUUYA: I think - it was, I think, before we sat down with the family - because it was a back and forth, and I went to Chicago to in order to meet them. And then I couldn't meet them on that trip, and then we finally got a sit-down. And I think before then, I really was intimate with the cultural stakes of what I was doing. And then - and now I understood the emotional stakes. Like, really being with a man's family, I understand what that means. And we had an eight-hour meeting, sit-down, which was really intense in the best way.

And I think you get it by osmosis. I don't feel like it's something that I'm, like, oh, I'm trying to - it's just that when you are coming to a group of people in your truth and say, yo, this is me when they're asking you questions - who are you? Like, literally, who are you? Why do you do this? You know, why are you doing this? When you speak from that, there is a connection, you know what I'm saying? It was just appreciating and understanding the emotional stakes for them.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, you know, I kind of hate to bring this up, but it was a part of the early conversation around the film, and that is the question of casting. There has been some - I don't know what the word is - is it sadness, is it anger, is it hurt feelings? - around the fact that a number of these iconic American figures have been played in recent years by Afro-British actors. But I was thinking about David Oyelowo played Martin Luther King. Cynthia Erivo played Harriet Tubman. Now you're playing Fred Hampton. I know you're aware of this. There's some social media pushback, and even some very well-known actors have spoken about that. And I just wondered - I mean, you don't have to defend yourself, but I was just wondering if you have thoughts about that.

KALUUYA: Yeah, I don't feel the want or need to defend myself because I don't feel it's a personal attack. I feel like it's rooted in years, decades, centuries of African American erasure, you know? And if people feel something and they want to be heard, I want to contribute to creating the space for African American people to be heard and felt. So I'm here, and I'm in this position, and what am I going to do with it? How am I going to honor it? How am I going to serve it - you know what I'm saying? - and just going, I gave all that I could give to this. And that's me communicating my position on it.

MARTIN: That was Daniel Kaluuya. He is an Oscar nominee for a previous role in "Get Out," and he is now playing Fred Hampton in the new film "Judas And The Black Messiah." It is in theaters and streaming now on HBO Max.

Daniel Kaluuya, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

KALUUYA: Thanks for having me. Peace and love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT FOR YOU (FROM THE ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE "JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH")")

HER: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.