When cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave”) was shooting Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah,” he looked at more than 300 photos from the period and watched documentaries of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton speaking to crowds to see how Hampton was framed.
“There were several references that Shaka had shown me, including a documentary with Fred speaking,” Bobbitt says. “It’s a shot from below the eye-line, and Shaka said, that’s where we need to end up.”
Bobbitt used Arri Alexa LF large format cameras and the mini LF, not just for the quality, but also the imagery. “The contrast ratio is brilliant,” he says. “It could hold the full gamut of all of the flesh tones that we were dealing with. And it was very important to us that we get accurate flesh tones and that no one was washed out.”
Bobbitt paired the Arri Alexas with DNA lenses, which had an anamorphic feel, giving the film its period look and the touch of softness he and King were seeking. Below, the DP breaks down two key scenes from the film and how color and closeups were key to the visual storytelling.
Hampton’s Rally at the Church
“Fred has triumphantly returned from prison and gives this speech which is pivotal to the whole film. We see his power as an orator. We see his success as a man capable of building this remarkable Rainbow Coalition. We also see the undercurrents that are going on behind it all. William O’Neal [Lakeith Stanfield] recognizes the conflict building within himself as being an FBI informant. He wants to be a Panther and has immense respect for Fred.
“At the same time, we’ve got Deborah [Dominique Fishback], and her growing horror and realization [of what’s to come]. As Fred starts talking about his commitment to the people and he’ll die for people, that course is set.
“We also had to look at how the scene opened and never let the audience get ahead of the story, so they have no idea what was coming next. We come up the steps behind him, and then reveal the scale of the church where Fred makes his comeback speech after the alliance had weakened while he had been in prison.
“We had that enormous scale, but also that incredible personal space – almost interior space, that we explored as he’s laying down his legacy and the commitment he’s making to his community.
The church, the Panther HQ and other locations were painted green, so we embraced that as we were going through the locations in Cleveland. It’s this powerful visual element that runs through the film and pulls it together. It had the odd period feel to it. I didn’t want to go against the realistic feeling of the lighting.”
The Assault on Hampton’s Apartment
“This is the culmination of the film. It’s a distressing misuse of power by the FBI. It was important to get the emotion of being asleep and suddenly, you’re being shot at.
“The crucial shot of that whole sequence is a high-angle shot of Fred and the other characters that goes from room to room to room. It’s edited, not one take, but it shows the numerous characters in the apartment. It was important to show that, since they were indiscriminately shooting through the walls, all in the knowledge that Fred was in that far room. Everyone else was simply collateral damage.
“The final shot was the close up on Deborah’s face. It was a very difficult shot to conceive of because it’s so important to pay respect to Fred and to pay respect to his family and everyone else is watching. Deborah is still alive, and she said she didn’t cry, so that was one direction.”