• Golden Globe Awards

Nominee Profile 2021: Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”

A 1971 documentary film had a very factual title: The Murder of Fred Hampton. The title of a feature film exactly fifty years later describes the same subject in biblical terms: Judas and the Black Messiah. The documentary included original footage shot by members of the Black Panther Party (BPP) who survived a murderous police attack on December 4, 1969 in Chicago. The current feature film recreates the events leading to it.
The “Judas” of the title is the car thief William “Bill” O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) who was caught after impersonating a police officer and who avoided prison in exchange for going undercover and spying on the Black Panthers for the FBI. The “Black Messiah” is Frederick Allen “Fred” Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) who was the undisputed Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the BPP, an admired and respected leader.
It was J. Edgar Hoover who actually came up with the code name “Black Messiah”. Hoover (played by an almost unrecognizable Martin Sheen) was alarmed by the rise of a charismatic leader who could “unify and electrify the Black militant movement”. He ordered one of his agents to prevent just that. And he allegedly gave the ominous order: prison would only be a temporary solution. The police got the message and Hampton was killed while sleeping in bed next to his pregnant girlfriend.
Fred Hampton was on the cusp of becoming hugely influential nationally thanks to his charisma, his fearlessness, his organizing skills and most of all his powerful skills of oratory.
He had a very distinctive style of communicating. His Chicago patois was hard for non-locals to understand. In his speeches, he riled up listeners with Gospel-like call-and-response shouts. “I am a revolutionary,” he would shout and the crowd echoed this back to him.
Fred Hampton was a 21-year old son of Chicago’s mean streets when he died. Daniel Kaluuya who plays Hampton is 31 and British. In a conversation with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, he talked about this particular challenge in his portrayal of Fred Hampton and how he prepared for it.
“While listening to videos of Chairman Fred, I sort of heard two different cadences, when he speaks and when he does speeches,” he said. “That’s why I went to an opera coach because I’m not professionally trained. Whenever I do a play it’s quite taxing on my voice, so, I have to learn new skills in order to strengthen the muscles. And I knew this role would be even more intense because I’d be basically doing these speeches all day and that’s like doing springs all day, your muscles are going to be tired. Then you have to do it again the next day. So, I went to a kind of fine-tuned cadence and my preparations became very technical. I lead into it by singing Gospel songs, singing songs that felt that had Chairman Fred’s energy, singing a lot of James Brown.”
The months of preparation paid off. He received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture Drama. He attributes his remarkable success to the pioneering work others have done.
There was nothing in his upbringing to indicate that Daniel Kaluuya would become one of the most sought-after actors of his generation. His mother, Damalia Namusoke, traveled from her native Uganda to London to give birth to him on February 24, 1989. It was not an easy transition. The first two years his mom and his older sister stayed in hostels until they found a cramped space in Camden.
He attended Catholic school and it was underneath a church in his neighborhood where talent scouts from the BBC approached him. They wanted to cast a film with “kids who could play street”. He could. The film, Shoot the Messenger with David Oyelowo (2006) led to more small TV assignments. But he still was immersed in the hard reality of this neighborhood.
“I kind of just tried to do positive stuff in the community where I grew up. Say, my friends were getting stopped and searched by the police I would just stay there and watch the police and make sure they did their job in a correct way. Do you know what I’m saying? To make sure my people were safe. I think just little stuff like that, just doing everyday stuff, I would say that’s part of who I became.”
Another important element of his growth was his ambition to be a writer. His first baby steps into writing were inspired by his frequent roles in the teen drama Skins (2007-2013), where he played the role of Posh Kenneth, an important step upwards in his nascent career. His growing recognition through Skins led to many TV jobs in England, including guest spots on shows like Doctor Who, the thriller Silent Witness and the comedy show That Mitchell and Webb Look.
By 2010, he appeared somewhat regularly on TV, in addition, he started to earn acclaim for a number of stage performances. After a small part in the Rowan Atkinson comedy Johnny English Reborn (2011), Hollywood called. He started with the role of the evil Black Death in the comic book film Kick-Ass 2 (2013, followed by a role as an FBI agent in the dark crime drama Sicario (2015). At the end of 2016, it was announced he would play the role of W’Kabi in the Marvel film Black Panther (2018) that became one of the highest-grossing films of all time.
Kaluuya was doing a play called Blue/Orange at London’s Young Vic when director Jordan Peele called. Peele had seen Kuluuya in an episode of Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi series Black Mirror called Fifteen Million Merits, a British production later picked up internationally by Netflix. Peele discussed his project Get Out. “I laughed because I never thought such a film could ever be made!” he said.
But Jordan Peele was able to convince him by stressing his determination to make a serious film about American race relations – not preachy and not deadly serious. Get Out (2017) earned rave reviews, box office success and his first Golden Globe nomination. Daniel Kaluuya had arrived.
Does he see his role as Fred Hampton as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement?  “No, no. We started the project way before. Isn’t it amazing that so many films about this subject are coming out now?”
These days, as well as juggling the various demands as a hot award commodity, Kaluuya recently wrote and directed a short film and he plans to spend all his time writing, which will be his first feature.