Game Changers: Shaka King on his journey to directing 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

Shaka King talks to Yahoo Entertainment about his journey to directing the Oscar nominated film, Judas and the Black Messiah.

Video Transcript

SHAKA KING: --Black writers, directors, producers, content creators in the film industry in terms of getting folks to understand that it's good business to make movies filmed by and starring us.

[CLACK]

- I need everybody to repeat after me. I am--

- I am--

- --a revolutionary.

- --a revolutionary.

- I am--

- I am--

- --a revolutionary.

- --a revolutionary.

- I am--

KEVIN POLOWY: When you went to film school, you made some really buzzy shorts. You directed an independent film that took you all the way to Sundance. You did some television work. And then with "Judas," you make your first major studio debut. How would you characterize your journey so far in this industry.

SHAKA KING: I think the arc that I set forth was get into film school, make a decent feature film, take it to Sundance, sell it at Sundance, career takes off into the stratosphere. That was the expectation that I created for myself. And it didn't quite work out that way.

KEVIN POLOWY: Your directorial debut, "Newlyweeds," could not be further I think totally from "Judas and the Black Messiah." It's a stoner comedy, or at least a stoner love triangle between a man, a woman, and weed. How would you say that experience, making your first feature film, ultimately prepared you for "Judas"?

SHAKA KING: By the time I made "Newlyweeds," I'd made about 10 shorts up until that point. I felt like, OK, I know how to do this. But I didn't know if I had the stamina to pull off a feature length film. I gathered quite a bit from that first experience that carried over to "Judas." But I think more formative than "Newlyweeds" has been the shorts and the TV that I did between "Newlyweeds" and "Judas."

KEVIN POLOWY: I first discovered your work from a short that just all my friends were sort of passing along to each other.

SHAKA KING: "Mulignans," "Mulignans," yeah.

KEVIN POLOWY: It essentially turned the tables on an Italian slur for Black people, by having Blacks on this Brooklyn stoop playing Italian men. I know it went to Sundance. You said that sort of moved the needle for you even more so than "Newlyweeds"?

SHAKA KING: A friend of mine, Chris Goodwin, saw it at Sundance. He was working at Adult Swim on a TV show. And he saw it and said, hey, I like this. I'm gonna share this around. And he shared it with someone who had a Killer Mike pilot presentation that they were looking to have shot. And that got me my first paid job.

There was a time I thought about making it into a feature length film. I think that it'd be tough to make that movie now and not receive a lot of backlash. I think audiences are incredibly sensitive now. When I think about making that into a feature, for me, the only reason again to make something like that is to push it further. You know? And I just don't know that an audience could really handle that.

KEVIN POLOWY: We've hardly reached parity. But when it comes to Black filmmakers and filmmakers of color directing major studio films, the statistics were much worse when you came into the business. I mean, it was hardly even a conversation then too. Did it ever feel like the odds were stacked against you in that regard? Is that something that you had to confront early on?

SHAKA KING: Yeah. I mean, that's why I didn't even think about doing a movie after "Newlyweeds" and pivoted to TV immediately, just 'cause I found that the film marketplace specifically was incredibly hostile to any movies directed by and starring Black actors. Our worked was deemed without value, financial value specifically. It was just hostile, incredibly hostile.

- Imagine the Panthers are storming the grounds-- man, disciples fighting under one revolutionary arm.

- Them pigs ain't ready for that.

KEVIN POLOWY: "Judas and the Black Messiah," it was a pretty long slog for you from what I've read. When did you first come on board that?

SHAKA KING: I came on board in 2016. The Lucas brothers brought the idea to me. [AUDIO OUT] I was immediately.

KEVIN POLOWY: And that was a battle to get made, right? I mean, from what I read, budgeting was an issue for you guys.

SHAKA KING: The hesitance really stemmed from, again, a belief in that the movie wouldn't be as financially successful as we thought it would be. So the studios didn't pass 'cause they didn't like this work, it's too radical, or you don't think your script is good. They passed because they were like, for the money that you say you need to make this movie, we don't think we can get that money back with a theatrical release.

They were like, if you make the movie for half the budget, then we're in. But that was impossible. Those are not the same conversations that, for example, Aaron Sorkin was having when he wasmaking "The Trial of the Chicago 7." I do recognize that there's a long uphill battle that we're still engaged in as Black writers, directors, producers, content creators in the film industry in terms of getting folks to understand that it's good business making movies filmed by and starring us.

KEVIN POLOWY: It's a very tough movie to watch at times, especially as we sort of have to reconcile with just how the government targeted Hampton. I mean, what the toughest moments on set for you guys?

SHAKA KING: For me, I was fine. The part is I have to be. But really the people who struggled the most were my cast members. And LaKeith I remember specifically. One day, the day that he had to poison Chairman Fred-- when O'Neal poisons Chairman Fred, it was an awful day for him.

That's probably the hardest day to shoot was the 50th anniversary of the assassination. It was a heavy day for all of us. Daniel was starting to realize that his time here was coming to an end. So there was a lot of grief and mourning on the part of him and Dominique, knowing that their love was coming to an end.

And then for LaKeith having to poison not just Chairman friend, but his friend Daniel-- having to go through that and experience that, he tapped into some personal trauma that I only found out about after the fact. He was torn up all day. He was crying all day. I mean, it was really, really terrible for him. And it made for a great scene.

KEVIN POLOWY: Well, the "New York Times" posed this question in their coverage, is "Judas and the Black Messiah" the most radical film ever produced by Hollywood?

SHAKA KING: That definitely was a shock, even though they were writing an article about anything about the movie, and then to read that headline was nuts. I mean, that was the goal, that was the intention certainly. When I say, I'm excited about things to see if I can pull them off, it was was like, can we do this? Like, can we make a movie about a-- that was interesting to me. That was a challenge to me.

KEVIN POLOWY: With its Best Picture nomination, "Judas" became the first Best Picture nominee with all Black producers. It only took 93 previous installments of the Oscars. What does that kind of milestone mean to you breaking that kind of ground?

SHAKA KING: Bittersweet. Like, it's nice to be recognized for the work. And it's real exciting that this film is gonna get to a greater audience. A friend of mine said to me the other day, he was like, you have to really think about the people coming behind you who look at that moment and are inspired by that-- and are reminded that they have a shot at making movies and not being white and making movies that they want to make.