How 'Judas and the Black Messiah' Cinematographer Plunged Into the Turbulent Politics of the '60s

Behind the Screen-Black Messiah
Courtesy of Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Far left: Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton addresses Black Panther Party members. Above right: Kaluuya’s Hampton surrounded by followers. "The tale is based very much on the truth and the telling of the story from the people who lived it," says DP Sean Bobbitt. Bottom right: LaKeith Stanfield (left), as an FBI informant, meets with Jesse Plemons’ agent.

Describing his first pairing with director Shaka King, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt says the helmer wanted to bring a reality to Judas and the Black Messiah, the '60s-set film in which William O'Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield) becomes an FBI informant and betrays Fred Hampton (portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya), leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. "It's not a documentary. He was looking for a reality, a re-creation of that period, and a very intimate approach to the characters," the director of photography says of the Warner Bros. drama, which, after its Sundance premiere earlier this month, is now available on HBO Max.

King compiled hundreds of still photographs from the period, which informed the film's look. In their research, King and Bobbitt also watched such documentaries as the PBS series Eyes on the Prize, which includes an interview with O'Neal (clips from the interview appear in the movie).

Bobbitt, perhaps best known for shooting 12 Years a Slave and for his longtime collaboration with its director, Steve McQueen, read deeply about the period as well. "Although I am an American, I've spent almost all my life outside America, and in the '60s I was living as a child in Saudi Arabia and in England, and so really had no idea about this story," the DP admits. "In a way, I felt very guilty. This is the history of the country I was born in. And so that's what spurred me on to educate myself as to the background, the history of this story and the politics and the social conditions of America in the mid- to late '60s."

Black-and-white photography was briefly discussed, but King felt that would be "too on the nose. We were looking for a realistic representation of the period, but with life in color," says Bobbitt.

Judas was shot on location in Cleveland, with an ARRI Alexa LF (large-format) camera and ARRI DNA lenses in a 2:39 widescreen aspect ratio. "The lenses are cool and funky. They have an old look to them, which was as far as we felt we should go for period," Bobbitt says.

King and Bobbitt worked closely with department heads including production designer Sam Lisenco. "A lot of the color concepts had already been worked out, and then as we started looking at locations, there were further colors that came alive, which we embraced and incorporated into the look of the film," says Bobbitt, citing the use of color in the location used for the Black Panthers' headquarters. "The rooms and the hallways were painted this bright green. Initially, as we walked in, it was like, 'Oh God, this is too much,' but it hadn't been repainted much since probably the '60s, and that green started to become a recurring theme in various locations, so it's something that we wanted to embrace. It becomes almost a subtle linking factor between a lot of locations associated with the Black Panthers."

Bobbitt also aimed to keep the camera moving, often using a dolly and Steadicam. "We were looking for a liveliness. They were young people and they were quite active," he says of the members of the party, "so we were looking for a constant movement of the camera as a way of keeping the story literally moving forward, so that when the camera was stopped, it had a very strong subliminal effect. And I think it was very effective.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.