A Matter of Balance
Kristan Sprague first heard of Shaka King when they were both in high school, long before either entered the film industry. Though they had friends in common, they only got to know each other when they attended Vassar College and started filmmaking in earnest. Since then, Sprague has edited most of King’s work, from his early shorts to his independent debut Newlyweeds, and now their first studio feature, Judas and the Black Messiah. The film follows the real-life story of car thief William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who was hired by the FBI to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and bring down chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a radical activist the U.S. government deemed a threat to the country. Though not a traditional biopic, Judas and the Black Messiah is the first time a major American studio has produced a film about the renowned and controversial revolutionary leader. The film waters down neither the details of his rhetoric and beliefs nor the grisly nature of his state-sanctioned assassination.
Previously, Sprague had mostly edited independent short films, so the step up in budget and resources offered him more support. “I had two assistant editors full time, an editing assistant and an intern,” says Sprague. “On a lot of other projects, I would have an assistant at the beginning and the end to help organize stuff, but during the actual process, you usually wouldn’t have [help]. They really allowed me to just concentrate on what I’m there to do, which is cut the story.”
To that end, Sprague had to find multiple balances between a variety of narrative elements, especially the arcs of the twinned protagonists. “We had some cuts where we pulled back on the Fred Hampton stuff and made it more of a thriller about this guy who’s conflicted and undercover,” Sprague says. “But you also can’t make a movie about Fred Hampton and not make a movie about Fred Hampton. First, we had to figure out that balance, then it was, ’OK, now we need the balance of the other characters.’ Within the O’Neal story, where’s the balance with O’Neal and [Roy] Mitchell [Jesse Plemons], his FBI contact? Then, within the Fred Hampton one, where’s the balance between Hampton doing Panthers stuff and Hampton as a person and his storyline with his partner Deborah [Dominique Fishback]? It just constantly changes.”
Another editorial balance Sprague and King had to strike was how much exposition needed to be conveyed about Hampton and the political context in which he emerged versus how much could just be gleaned merely from the depicted milieu: “There are certain things the audience needs to know, or the story is not going to make sense. They needed to know that the Panthers are a national organization—it wasn’t just Fred Hampton by himself. It wasn’t just this little ragtag group of random people. They were connected to a larger organization, and there had been other FBI and police actions against this organization. We wanted to put enough so you could get why they are doing certain things, but not too much that it becomes a documentary.”
King employs some archival footage to establish the basics, the most potent of which involves footage from a 1990 PBS interview with William O’Neal—both a doctored version featuring Stanfield-as-O’Neal and the real version that aired. “In the script, it was always scripted to end with the interview,” Sprague says. “When Shaka wrote the ending of the script, he had a transcript of the interview but hadn’t watched it yet, so he didn’t realize there was that rollout at the end right after the question and him looking, all that stuff we found when we actually looked at the interview. So, we knew we wanted to end with that, and we knew we were going to have our recreated version of that interview a couple times throughout.”
While the workflow and collaboration with King was similar to their previous projects, Sprague says that one of the biggest workplace adjustments for him was having to consider the opinions of multiple parties, as it was the first time he worked on something where the director didn’t have final cut. “At the end of the day, this is the studio’s movie, and that’s just how it works,” he notes. “If you want to do something that costs this much, someone has all that money on the line, and they’re going to put their two cents in. Honestly, I think it got better for that. There needs to be some sort of artistic tension. There are also more people involved in these discussions. I’m used to notes, but there was more note-balancing than usual. It’s not even an ’us vs. them’ thing because the people within the studio have a difference in opinion. One note is saying do it one way, and another is saying do it the other way. Clearly, there’s something that needs to be done about this scene if we’re getting two notes about it, even though they’re contradictory.”
“At one point, our producers brought on an additional editor just because they had some stuff they really wanted to try, but me and Shaka were trying other stuff, and I didn’t have time to do both. Jennifer Lame [Manchester by the Sea, Tenet] came in, took a pass and it was actually really helpful. I mean, I’m the editor, so previews and screenings don’t really mean as much to me because I know exactly what’s going to happen, because I did it. Whereas I would watch [that cut] and be like, ’Oh, that’s interesting.’ Some of it really worked! A couple of things, we were like, ’Let’s just work that into our cut.’ Others were like, ’I see how this can work.’ We reworked what she did, but she took the first steps. If it makes the movie better, it makes the movie better. We don’t care whose idea it was, you know?”