Judas and the Black Messiah, which premiered Friday, Feb. 12, tells the story of the 1969 assassination of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, a 21-year-old activist on the verge of doubling the size of the Black Panther Party through his community organizing. His death is a wound that still stings the American psyche. Drugged with barbiturates and killed next to his pregnant fiancé in a raid where Chicago police officers fired 82-99 shots into Hampton’s apartment, the brutality of the FBI operation marks one of the most nefarious periods of American counterintelligence history.
Judas and the Black Messiah’s cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, has won acclaim for his work with Steven McQueen in Hunger, and again with 12 Years a Slave. Hunger, which won a British Independent Film Award for Best Technical Achievement, was so effective as a drama because of the dreadful intimacy imbued by the cold tones and stark contrasts in each shot from Bobbitt. His lens turned the normal into the uncanny, and won him an Independent Spirit Award for 12 Years a Slave, which also won an Oscar for Best Picture.
Bobbitt was kind enough to answer some questions ahead of the film’s premiere.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have a knack for really intimate, well choreographed handheld tracking shots with natural lighting. Can you tell me a little about your vision and process going into this film and how it varied from your past works?
Well, one very interesting thing about this film is that there is almost no handheld [camera work]. We were attempting to give a period feel to the whole film, that period being the more classic '60s cinema, which tended to be rather traditional.
So what we were looking for was more of the tracking dolly, but also has very strong frames that the action happens within. So you know there’s not a lot of coverage. It’s slightly more considerate, a more auteur approach to cinema which was very popular at the time.
And of course there's a sort of element of the thriller of that era as well. There are a couple of occasions where you do have long constructed shots, but in this case they’re all tracking dollies, so there’s a stability where it feels more like a tracking dolly than the kinetic energy of a handheld shot.
Can you elaborate on the other techniques you guys used to invoke the feeling of the era?
When I first met with the director, Shaka King, he had several hundred photographs from Chicago in the 1960s, and looking at those we sort of started to get a sense of what the film should look like. Particularly the color photographs, which were kodachrome, ektachrome, so they had very high contrasts, dense blacks and very vibrant colors. All tended towards primaries.
So that was sort of a touchstone for the whole overall look, which was also embraced and utilized by Sam Lisenco, the designer. So you’d get an absolutely coherent look at the end of the day. And we sort of worked with that idea, and part of my process of working and developing the look of the film starts in the pre-production stage.
I spent a lot of time on the locations, and I take still photographs of the locations, and so on, and then take them and color grade them in a program called Lightroom. So when I’m having discussions with directors about specific scenes and locations I can start showing him angles that are of interest there, and also ways to approach the color. We’re able to sort of define loosely the look we’re going for, and utilize those still photographs as well as sort of a template for creating the brushes so everything has a coherent look through it. And then when we get to the final grade, we sort of use that as a template, but we’ve got so many powerful tools in the DI (Digital intermediate - a finishing process of digitizing a film) these days.
And also I’m very fortunate that I get to create with Tom Poole of Company 3, who I think is the best colorist in the world right now. He brings along his magic tricks, because we wanted a filmic look that was evocative of that era, and I think that’s what we walked away with in the end hopefully.
What would you say was the most fun aspect of filming? Is there a shot you’re most proud of?
The fun aspect, well, you know, just making a film is fun.
The thing that really struck me about working on this film was we were filming in Cleveland, which doesn’t really have an indigenous film industry. So we were bringing in people from all over America, and without exception, people were there to work on this film because they wanted to work on this film. They knew the story. They knew the importance of it, and for a lot of people it had a very personal importance as well.
So there was a camaraderie amongst the crew and the cast as well which was quite unique. Everyone was going that extra mile, and that makes for a really exciting process where everyone is that involved and that committed.
What would you say about working with the cast and crew on this film? How was working with Shaka King on his debut?
From the moment I met Shaka, I knew he was serious. He was a serious filmmaker. He knew the story and he knew how he wanted it to be told and was very clear.
But at the same time he was a fantastic collaborator, and not just with myself, but with all the other heads that supported him. So you know, just a lot of bouncing of ideas around, a lot of discussion. But always focused by Shaka, always brought back to the point that has translated to what I think is a really, really well made film and a really well directed film.
So on top of being incredibly talented and incredibly tall, he’s also just a genuinely nice person. A pleasure to work with, and I look forward to working with him again.
Are there any projects that you guys have already started discussing?
It’s way too early for that. You do a project with a director and then they quite often won’t get another project for another two years. The turnaround, well, quite often what happens is that by the time he has a project I’m already on to something else, so it’s difficult to maintain that continuity.
But you know, I really hope that I’ll get a chance to work with him again.
What about filming was most challenging for you?
Every film has its own challenges. We didn’t have an awful lot of time, we had a lot of locations. We had an ensemble cast, so we were always “under the gun,” tired from everyday shooting.
The biggest challenge of the film was the scene where the police assault the apartment and murder Mark Clark and Fred Hampton. And it was important to get that scene right from several points of view.
We tried to get that as accurate as we could with the actual specific order of events that happened, down to the point of constructing the apartment in a studio space so that we had the correct structural shape of the rooms and size of the rooms. And also it was important to show just how horrific and terrifying that would be, to be asleep in a dark room and suddenly there are people trying to kill you. Just the terror and the chaos of that. At the same time to be respectful of Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, whose lives were taken in that assault. It was very important that all of those things were taken into consideration.
But then also there were some technical challenges to show that the police knew what they were doing. They were shooting through the walls at Fred Hampton’s bed. They knew he was in the bed. They knew where the bed was. There was no attempt of investigating what happened. It was straight in, and there was that fusillade of between 80 and 100 shots fired in a couple minutes.
And to do that we have the overhead shot that starts off in the living room and over the two bedrooms, and ultimately to the kitchen, just so you could see the fact that the bullets were traveling through all the rooms and that they were all being aimed where they expected Fred Hampton to be.
And then to add another level to that, that overhead shot, because we couldn’t put squibs (fake bullets integrated with blood packet charges) in with close proximity to the actors, it had to be replicable so we could do it in several passes. So that was a very large motion control camera that had to be fitted into the stage and the set, so technically it was very challenging, but absolutely crucial that we get it all right.
On top of that, it’s night time. So you have to have it black enough to believe it’s night, but light enough to see what’s happening, and it’s that balance, which is so important to keeping the scene believable.
So you started out working in news, is there a kind of journalistic pride you have in telling this story in this moment?
Absolutely. We started filming this before the chaos of America, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, all of the horrors that were perpetrated, and basically with Black people who were being killed.
When we started talking about it, it felt timely and important, simply because it didn’t seem that anything had changed, and that timeliness and importance has only increased with the passage of time since we shot it.
Because of my news background and my documentary background, I’m drawn to stories that are based in reality, but stories that also have depth and meaning, a substance to them, that have something to say. And those are the sort of stories that interest me, and the sort of stories I like to be associated with.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the film that I’ve not thought to ask?
Well, there’s so much to talk about.
It’s interesting, because Fred Hampton, everyone in the cast and crew knew that story beforehand. And I didn’t know it. That was enough reason why I was initially fascinated in getting involved in it. And a lot of people I’ve spoken to have been saying "Well now, I’ve never heard about that story." But if you talked to most Black people in America, they’d likely know that story very well, and it is time that everyone in America was aware of this history.
It’s time now for people to start being taught and understanding what this history is from slavery to today, and how it needs to change.
As a cinematographer, talking politics and things like that is not that common. But I would hope that the work we’ve done, and that everyone has done on that film, certainly raises people’s consciousness. It’s not all entertainment. Hopefully, it will leave people asking questions and thinking about what they’ve seen, as opposed to just walking away and being indifferent to the story.
Judas and the Black Messiah is in theaters and available for streaming on HBO Max until March 14.