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Despite History-Making Noms, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’s’ All-Black Producing Team Find Oscar Success to Be “Bittersweet”

Charles King, Shaka King and Ryan Coogler acknowledge the importance of their Academy Award nominations but still wrestle with the meaning of an honor that has excluded so many: "Why did it take 93 years?”

The first time Ryan Coogler, Charles King and Shaka King collaborated, no one was planning to make movie history. Instead, they were trying to face a crisis.

It was the fall of 2014, and the fallout from the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were still reverberating in America. In response, a Black Hollywood brain trust emerged, meeting on Sundays, huddled over their laptops in the dining room of Charles’ Studio City home, convened by a shared sense of frustration and pain. Coogler, Charles and a handful of Black actors and filmmakers, some participating via phone, discussed ways to respond, perhaps by holding a retail boycott.

At the time of deep social turmoil, both Charles and Coogler were approaching pivotal professional moments. Charles was three months away from leaving his 20-year career as an agent at WME, where he had become the first African American partner at a Hollywood talent agency, and he was quietly planning the launch of a media company that would target creators from underrepresented groups, MACRO. Coogler was fresh off a warm reception for his debut film, Fruitvale Station, and was in preproduction on his first studio project, Warner Bros.’ Creed, a job that eventually would earn him the opportunity to direct Marvel’s Black Panther in 2018, the highest-grossing film ever from a Black director.

Jordan, Octavia Spencer and Coogler on the set of Fruitvale Station.

Coogler enlisted a Brooklyn filmmaker he had met at Sundance — Shaka King — to make a video to get the word out about the dining-table advocacy group, which was calling itself Blackout for Human Rights, and its planned Black Friday boycott. Shaka’s provocative video, which set images of police violence against audio of Andy Williams singing “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” went viral, and there was something fated about the collaboration. “It felt right,” Coogler says. “That piece Shaka made, it’s still like, ‘Yo, I’d love to work with this dude anyway, anyhow.’ “

Shaka King directed a viral video promoting a Black Friday retail boycott.

Six years later, Coogler and the Kings, who are not related, have become the first all-Black producing team nominated for best picture in the 93-year history of the Oscars, for Warners’ Judas and the Black Messiah. (Steve McQueen became the first Black producer to win best picture when 12 Years a Slave won the Oscars’ top prize in 2014.) The drama also has surpassed 1985’s The Color Purple to become the film with the highest number of Black Oscar nominees in history, 10, including Daniel Kaluuya for best supporting actor; LaKeith Stanfield, also for best supporting actor; Shaka King, Keith and Kenny Lucas for original screenplay; and H.E.R., Dernst Emile II and Tiara Thomas for best original song. It’s the first studio movie since Mario Van Peebles’ 1995 drama Panther to focus on the Black Panther political movement, with Kaluuya as Chicago Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton and Stanfield as an FBI informant embedded among the Panthers.

Daniel Kaluuya (left, with Shaka King) is nominated for best supporting actor for his role as Chicago Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton.

In some ways, Judas and the Black Messiah feels like the product of an overnight success: Shaka, the film’s writer-director, who directed the small 2013 stoner comedy Newlyweeds and some TV and shorts, is a new face. But the project is the culmination of a plan its producers have been pursuing for years: to marry their entertainment business acumen with activism. Earning the historic acknowledgment from the Academy provokes some complex reactions — a mix of gratitude for what it means to future Black filmmakers but also a reluctance to ascribe too much meaning to the newly admiring tastes of an industry that long has shut out Black movies.

Shaka King (left) and producer Michael Matthews on the Brooklyn set of Newlyweeds.

Shaka, 41, who was raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, likens the feeling to when his neighborhood began to gentrify and finally got decent grocers. “You could now get fresh produce walking distance from the crib, and I remember being happy about that,” he says. “But a part of me felt angry because that meant that for all those decades, when it was just Black people living there, our bodies weren’t worth sustaining with good food. I think about, ‘Why did it take 93 years for there to be three Black producers nominated for an Academy Award?’ Is it because there weren’t three Black people willing to produce movies? Probably not. Was it because we didn’t have the access to the kind of capital to make a big, sweeping studio feature? Maybe a little bit. Was it because we made that stuff and they didn’t recognize it? Maybe a little bit. But none of it feels good. So it’s bittersweet.”

Shaka King

Coogler, 34, declined the Academy’s invitation to membership when he was invited in 2016 and remains a nonmember. After playing college football, he says, applying competition to an art form like film feels strange. “I don’t buy into this versus that, or ‘this movie wasn’t good enough to make this list,’ ” Coogler says. “I love movies. … For me, that’s good enough. If I’m going to be a part of organizations, they’re going to be labor unions, where we’re figuring out how to take care of each other’s families and health insurance. But I know that these things bring exposure.”

Ryan  Coogler

In terms of values, the trio are aligned, but temperamentally they couldn’t be more different. Coogler talks with a quiet authority, his conversation full of pregnant pauses, his answers thoughtfully considered. Shaka is gregarious with a quick wit. When asked about the commercial viability of his movie’s sad ending, he says: “Leonardo DiCaprio got his head blown off at the end of Departed. Crime dramas aren’t known for happy endings.”

At 51, Charles is the elder statesman and most businesslike of the group, having spent much of his career in conference rooms full of white people, often advocating on behalf of clients of color. It was Charles who navigated Hollywood’s executive suites during the early aughts, an especially challenging period for getting Black-led dramas made after the bright spot of the ’90s. Born in Harlem and raised in the South, Charles attended Vanderbilt University, then law school at Howard University. A colleague, WME agent Craig Kestel, gave Charles Coogler’s Sundance lab script for Fruitvale Station, about the police killing of an unarmed Black man in an Oakland, California, train station. He doesn’t talk about it publicly, but the first time Charles met Coogler, in 2012, he confided in the filmmaker about a painful personal experience he had had with police. “I had never shared with anyone in our industry my reasons for wanting to blend my interest in entertainment and my activist side,” Charles says. “We just bonded … and I wanted to see Ryan’s vision fulfilled.”

Charles  King

As Coogler was launching his career, Charles was reinventing his. In working his way up from the mailroom at WME to representing such clients as Oprah Winfrey, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tyler Perry, Charles had identified a void in the marketplace in financing projects for talent of color. In 2010, he drafted a business plan to address it, eventually launching MACRO in January 2015 with his own money. Being able to finance projects himself was crucial to Charles’ vision. “There was no version of me leaving being a partner at WME to just run around town and hope that I could be a producer and get some projects going,” Charles says. “I knew the challenge of getting stories like Judas and the Black Messiah made for years and years. I wanted us to be at a place of empowerment and to show the artists that they should be recognizing their power and thinking entrepreneurially.”

Former WME partner Charles King (left), with Coogler on the set of Judas and the Black Messiah, wanted to show artists “they should be recognizing their power and thinking entrepreneurially.”

But raising the money for MACRO to become a significant film financier was “the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my entire life,” says Charles. “If the first Black partner in the history of Hollywood, who represented some of the biggest names in our industry, launches a company and still had challenges raising capital, that should tell you how challenging it is for access to capital for people who look like the three of us.” Still, within six months of launching MACRO, he had secured eight figures in private-equity financing from multiple sources, with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective as his lead investor. In 2017, he secured another $150 million in production financing from Emerson, as well as the Ford Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Libra Foundation and a credit line from Bank of America.

In its six years, MACRO has produced or co-financed 13 films, eight of which so far have been released, including Mudbound, Fences, Just Mercy and Sorry to Bother You, and made the TV shows Raising Dion and Gentefied for Netflix. The company signed a first-look film deal with Warners and expanded into management with its M88 banner, which represents actors, writers and directors, including Coogler, the only client Charles manages personally.

Shaka, a son of two teachers, who studied political science at Vassar and got his master’s in film at NYU, found Coogler among a sea of white faces at Sundance in 2013, when he was at the festival for Newlyweeds. They both ended up getting snowed in an extra night in Park City, sharing a meal and bonding over the pressures of the festival. “You feel excited to see somebody else that you’ve got that cultural element in common with,” says Coogler. “I remember running up to him and telling him how excited I was to see his movie.” They stayed in touch, particularly through their Blackout activism, working together on a screenplay reading of Do the Right Thing at Lincoln Center benefiting the social justice organization.

Michael B. Jordan, Charles King and Jay Ellis in 2014.

A few weeks after Black Panther exploded upon its 2018 release, earning $1.3 billion worldwide, Coogler called Charles from vacation at 11:30 at night, just as the producer was leaving an agency Oscar party. “He said, ‘Look, I know what I’m going to do now,’ ” Charles says. “I’m going to spend the next year or so building out my production company. And I know what I want our first project to be.’ He said he had this brilliant script about Fred Hampton.” The script, which became Judas and the Black Messiah, was based on the clever premise of setting The Departed inside the world of COINTELPRO, the FBI program that covertly surveilled the Black Panther Party. The Lucas brothers, twin stand-up comedians, had pitched the idea to Shaka, who honed the script with a writing partner, Will Berson, then shared it with Coogler and his wife, Zinzi, over dinner in Shaka’s backyard in Brooklyn in 2017. “Our jaws just kind of dropped,” Coogler says. “I felt, ‘That should exist.’ ”

Coogler and Shaka King when they met at Sundance in 2013.

For Coogler, the script was an ideal one to launch his production company, Proximity, and for Shaka, Coogler was the perfect producer to champion his project. “I knew that this was a challenging movie to get made in Hollywood,” Shaka says. “If you’re trying to kick down heavy doors, you need bodies to go up against that door. And I needed, like, big dudes. So I got a big dude who I trust, whose politics I know are like mine.” Coogler enlisted Charles and MACRO, which initially put up $10 million of Judas and the Black Messiah‘s budget, before eventually splitting the less-than-$40 million budget four ways with Warners, Bron Studios and Participant Media.

When they pitched studios, Shaka did most of the talking, bringing black-and-white images from the era by Chicago photographer Johnny Simmons and playing a recording of an ominous jazz song that eventually appeared in the opening of the film, “The Inflated Tear,” by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. “We were very intrigued by the fact that it was not a traditional biopic,” says Niija Kuykendall, vp production at Warners, who had been trying to find a way to make a movie about the Black Panthers for a decade and has known Shaka since their 20s. “They were doing this through the framework of a genre piece. It felt like it could be a real event.” Multiple studios were enthusiastic, Shaka says, but no one wanted to make it at the budget producers were proposing, which still was relatively inexpensive at less than $40 million. Charles’ willingness to put in MACRO’s money was a crucial part of “de-risking” the film for Warners, according to Warner Bros. Picture Group chairman Toby Emmerich. “It did feel risky,” Emmerich says. “There was a lot of marketing expense. It was a roll of the dice. A period movie about politics that doesn’t have a happy ending. Those things make studios nervous.”

One of the critiques of the film since its release has been its inclusion of an FBI informant as a main character, Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal, but that concept was key to getting a studio green light, according to Shaka King: “The only way you were going to get a movie about Fred Hampton made in Hollywood was by couching it in genre. He just didn’t have the name recognition among studio execs to justify them greenlighting a straightforward biopic. Centralizing O’Neal gives you greater insight into who Fred was and what he represented because he was the literal opposite of O’Neal. What better way to show who Fred was than to contrast him against who he wasn’t?”

The filmmakers consulted with Fred Hampton Jr. about his father’s portrayal. The real Fred Hampton, speaking at a rally in Chicago in 1969.

Along with the studio, the producers won over Hampton’s family, including fiancee Akua Njeri (formerly Deborah Johnson), played in the film by Dominique Fishback, and their son, Fred Hampton Jr. Njeri was pregnant with him when Hampton was killed. “We made a huge effort to make sure they were comfortable with the story we were telling and had real input,” says Kuykendall.

Shaka shot the movie over 41 days in Cleveland in late 2019 and did most of the postproduction remotely during the pandemic. In August, just as Shaka was finishing the film, Coogler suffered an enormous and unexpected loss when his friend and the star of Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman, died of colon cancer. Like many who knew the intensely private Boseman, Coogler was not aware of Boseman’s illness.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Coogler says. “I knew what he wanted me to know. I miss him in every way that you could miss somebody, as a friend, as a collaborator. And it sucks because I love watching movies, and I don’t get to watch the next thing he would have made. So it’s grief on a lot of levels, but then, it’s a deep sense of gratitude because I can close my eyes and hear his voice.”

Coogler was in the midst of writing the Black Panther sequel when Boseman died. “It’s difficult,” he says of proceeding with the film, which is slated to start production in July for a July 2022 release. “You’ve got to keep going when you lose loved ones. I know Chad wouldn’t have wanted us to stop. He was somebody who was so about the collective. Black Panther, that was his movie. He was hired to play that role before anybody else was even thought of, before I was hired, before any of the actresses were hired. On that set, he was all about everybody else. Even though he was going through what he was going through, he was checking in on them, making sure they were good. If we cut his coverage, he would stick around and read lines off camera [to help other actors with their performances]. So it would be harder for me to stop. Truthfully. I’d feel him yelling at me, like, ‘What are you doing?’ So you keep going.”

Coogler (left, with Chadwick Boseman) at the helm of Marvel’s 2018 Black Panther, the highest-grossing film ever from a Black director. Says Coogler of Boseman’s colon cancer diagnosis and death in August: “I didn’t know what was going on. I knew what he wanted me to know. I miss him in every way that you could miss somebody, as a friend, as a collaborator.”

Judas and the Black Messiah‘s release was heavily impacted by the pandemic. Before COVID-19, the producers had expected that their film might perform similarly to Straight Outta Compton, which earned $201.6 million worldwide, or Hidden Figures ($236.2 million). Instead it became part of Warners’ controversial experiment with its 2021 slate, wherein all films premiere simultaneously in theaters and on WarnerMedia’s streaming service HBO Max. Since its release Feb. 12, it has made $5.4 million at the box office.

In November, when COVID numbers were rising dramatically and Warners announced that Wonder Woman 1984 would receive such a hybrid release, Shaka surmised, accurately, that his much smaller film soon would follow suit. When WarnerMedia announced its slate plan a month later, “I was initially focused on ‘Are we going to break even? And are the most people going to get their eyes on the movie?’ ” Shaka says. He was particularly worried about Charles and MACRO recouping their investment. “Really look at the role that MACRO plays in shepherding movies like this,” Shaka says. “If that company was not meaningfully compensated, the effect could be fairly disastrous to our filmmaking community.”

As with other producers affected by the slate announcement, Charles was concerned by the financials of the new deal Warners was seeking. “The early indications of the deal were challenging,” Charles says. “We were concerned. We have investors. We have fiduciary responsibility.” After some negotiation, Charles says, “Ultimately, we’re not at a place where we lost our capital.”

There was skepticism about HBO Max, too. “Their streaming platform was nascent,” Charles says. “They’re not where Netflix and Disney+ are, where we would have had that wide worldwide audience. We’ve delivered a movie that the world will embrace. I wanted that for Shaka and for Ryan, and I wanted it for Chairman Fred Hampton and his family and his legacy. At the end of the day, we understood, businesswise, why they had to make the decision they made.”

The film has been widely embraced by critics and awards bodies, including earning Writers Guild and SAG nominations. “The fact that it’s been acknowledged with the nominations, hopefully it will make more people see the film, not only domestically but internationally,” Charles says. Shaka has been taking meetings on an array of projects, including science fiction films, comedies and biopics. He’s hoping to make an original script, a film he describes as tonally similar to the work of Parasite director Bong Joon Ho in its genre-spanning ambitions. He’s still processing the historic nature of his film’s Oscar legacy — and a bit dumbfounded by it. “I’ve never been the first Black person to do anything,” Shaka says. “For me, having the experiences I’ve had in this business, which are not dissimilar from the experiences my grandfather had as a Black janitor, or my dad had as a Black math teacher … I’ve learned to find satisfaction in ways where I don’t have to rely upon the co-sign of primarily white-led institutions. But a friend pointed out to me the power for those who are coming on the heels of us in seeing three Black men achieve something like this in our industry, and I couldn’t deny that.”

Coogler has signed a five-year TV deal with Disney, which includes a Wakanda-based Disney+ series, and he is tight-lipped about the Marvel projects. MACRO has four more films due to be released this year.

“In this business, you are what you make,” says Coogler. “To be able to make things where people watch them and say, ‘Hey, was this you?’ And you can say yes and feel good about it, and still sleep at night, that’s what’s important to us.”

***

MACRO’s Major Impact

In only six years, the production company founded by former WME agent Charles King has become a powerhouse for Black talent.

FENCES

Denzel Washington’s 2016 film earned an Oscar for Viola Davis and $64 million at the box office for Paramount.

Fences

MUDBOUND

After Netflix bought Dee Rees’ 2017 drama for $12.5 million, the film went on to collect four Oscar nominations.

MUDBOUND

JUST MERCY

The 2019 drama with Jamie Foxx became Warner Bros.’ first film made under a new inclusion policy.

JUST MERCY

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

The 2018 dark comedy with LaKeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson won director Boots Riley a Spirit Award.

Sorry to Bother You

RAISING DION

Ja’Siah Young plays a boy with superpowers in the drama series, which got a second-season pickup from Netflix.

Raising Dion

GENTEFIED

Netflix has renewed the comedy drama about three Mexican-American cousins chasing the American dream.

Gentefied

This story first appeared in the March 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.