Shaka King and George C. Wolfe on Casting Actors and Being Black in Hollywood

The directors of "Judas and the Black Messiah" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" join this week's Awards Circuit podcast.

Damu Malik/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Voting continues for the Directors Guild of America Awards, and this year presents one of the most diverse options for members to choose from. Two of those contenders include Shaka King (Warner Bros’ “Judas and the Black Messiah”) and George C. Wolfe (Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). This week’s episode of the “Variety Awards Circuit” podcast features the filmmakers, who discuss their features, bringing the stories to the big screen and how they helmed their amazing casts.

Also in this episode, Awards Circuit Podcast roundtable discusses the Golden Globes, and the final predictions for the winners, before they’re announced on Sunday, Feb. 28. On the film side, there’s no agreement on who the evening’s big winners will be as the panel is split between “Mank,” “Nomadland,” “Promising Young Woman” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” In the comedy realm, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and “Hamilton” seem to have divided the house with an outside shot that “Palm Springs” could pull through. In television, we expect a big night for Apple TV Plus’ “Ted Lasso” and Netflix’s “The Crown” but remain open to the possibility to upset choices like Netflix’s “Ozark” or HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant” to jump out in front.

Listen below!

The story of how “Judas and the Black Messiah” found its way to the big screen is not unique to any narrative surrounding a prolific Black-figure in history such as Fred Hampton. Director and co-writer Shaka King had only helmed 2013’s “Newlyweeds” before getting to assemble arguably three of this generation’s finest actors (Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya and Dominique Fishback), and a powerhouse producing squad (Ryan Coogler and Charles D. King). Shaka King feels that accomplishment: “It wasn’t like the keys were handed to me. Myself, the Lucas Brothers and Will [Berson] had to meld the keys out of metal, and shape them ourselves.”

As the movie sits in the thick of the awards conversation, with nominations received for Kaluuya in best supporting actor by the Golden Globes, SAG and Critics Choice Awards, the film recently landed a nod from the Writers Guild of America Awards for best original screenplay. It’s incredibly important that the next generation of Black filmmakers, both realized and unrealized, see versions of themselves in entertainment.

King discusses watching a documentary on Black American artists with his father recently, while helping him cook, which truly summarizes his thoughts on an industry that has been exclusionary and trying to stay positive regarding the talk about awards snubs and getting the film accepted by the Hollywood machine.

You’re considered to be an “outsider” from Hollywood, both as a new filmmaker and as an artist of color, too often not seen as though you belong. How do you reconcile that perception versus who you really are as an artist?

Shaka King: I was helping my dad cook dinner. He was watching some program on HBO. I don’t remember the name, it was Black American artists. And there was a line that Aster Gates said about being a Black artist, in terms of welcoming him into the mainstream. As a Black artist, you have to be comfortable, basically creating in the dark. Not white people as individuals, but the industry which is white male-dominated, especially the executive greenlighting level. You have to be comfortable with them not giving you your flowers ever. Even though he’s talking about the fine art world, that’s probably the case for all artists. I went to high school in Bay Ridge. I got called n—–, I had the cops make monkey sounds to me in seventh grade, I got kidnapped. I’ve had crazy, racist shit happening in my life. Nothing compared to when I had a sales agent tell me that he couldn’t sell my movie because I had Black actors who weren’t well known.

For me, as someone who had set this plan in motion – I’m going to go to film school, make a feature, take it to Sundance and sell it, then sell it, then I’m on my way. That was the plan, and for me to execute it and succeed, but not succeed, not because of anything I did at all. It made me think about my grandfather, no one deserved more than him. It. It’s the old phrase, you have to work 20 times as hard for “this much” over the reward of a white person. This is the shit that my grandfather, dad, and all these people conveyed to me with words, that I felt growing up, but is different when you become an adult. It was different when I became a man and I felt it. I did all this work and no reward. The advice for young artists is about getting in touch with the reason you do this shit in the first place because that’s where your resilience lies. I don’t need flowers. I don’t need anything. I wasn’t chomping at the bit to make a studio feature. I was comfortable making money directing TV, making my shorts, and getting what I had to say out there, and funding it myself. The only reason that I made this movie [“Judas and the Black Messiah”] was that I saw the utility in this movie. It became something I had to do artistically.

It’s going to sound crazy, but I don’t need anything from Hollywood. Now that this movie is out, and people are talking “awards talk,” it starts to chip away at the protection of layers that you’ve built for yourself. When I’m in bed asleep, and my agent calls me upset that we didn’t get this nomination or that nomination. I’m like, bro, I made peace with that a long time ago. Why are you trying to make me care about this stuff? Because I’m better off when I don’t care about it. They’re not going to give me shit anyway. I know it. You know it. You will have to have me on for two hours for me to tell you, the fucking slights that I’ve experienced in the last seven years.

I’ve had to get past all of that and find what matters to me. I think that’s it’s a great place to be. I’m very wary of sacrificing that power. As a Black artist, you have to really be careful about giving your power away.


For “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” director George C. Wolfe, he had the task of taking on the words of playwright August Wilson in the Netflix feature. He sits down with the Awards Circuit Podcast’s Jenelle Riley to discuss how Academy Award winner Viola Davis (“Fences”) at first turned down the project, multiple times, even recommending various actresses for the titular role. In addition, he talks about the reasons for casting the late Chadwick Boseman in the role of Levee.

“I thought he was a very good actor and a very charismatic actor,” he says. “The role required both, and I wanted a Levee who could charm and seduce us at the very beginning, and then be able to reveal to us the deep scars that he’s wearing. There are a lot of people who have the charisma thing, but don’t have the depth thing. He [Boseman] has both, in abundance.”

Boseman and Davis have both been nominated for Golden Globes and SAG Awards for their performances. The cast, which includes Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Taylour Paige, has also been nominated for best cast ensemble.

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, hosted by Clayton Davis, Jenelle Riley, Jazz Tangcay and Michael Schneider (who produces), is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.