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Road to Oscars. The Cinematography of "Judas and the Black Messiah"

Aggiornamento: 5 apr 2021

Let's begin our series while we wait for the magical Night of the Academy Awards.

Today we're talking about Judas and the Black Messiah.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a 2021 biographical drama depicting the betrayal perpetrated by William O'Neal (a Black Panther/FBI informant) of Black Panther Illinois Chapter's Chairman Fred Hampton.

Director Shaka King and Cinematographer Sean Bobbit were both very touched by Fred Hampton's story and decided it was about time for someone to tell it. But how to?

In order to prepare himself, Director of Photography Sean Bobbit studied over 300 photographs from the period and watched a lot of documentaries about Black Panthers and Fred Hampton. Not only that, he also analysed a wide number of movies both of period and contemporary.

This led to the choice of what to replicate and what not.

King and Bobbit preferred to reference that period visuals instead of recreate them.

The played with a bunch of features to achieve the period look, such as:

- a high contrast

- long takes

- primary colours saturation

- vignetting

- softness.

Sean Bobbit
Sean Bobbit

The colour palette was another important topic. In fact, it changes depending on the main character of a certain sequence. In addition to this, colours also change whether Black Panthers or FBI are portrayed.

The first ones are associated with a dark warm green and the latter is depicted with brown earth tones plus a pinch of coldness.

Since there are many scenes shot at night, it was utterly important to light up everything the right way. Hide something, reveal something else. Not that easy, night shots are always quite challenging.

The equipment used by Bobbit included Arri Alexa LF Large Format cameras which are on point when it comes to ators' flesh tones.

He didn't want them to be washed out, in fact.

About locations, Bobbit preferred to use real ones, instead of recreating them from scratch. This, to give an authenticity vibe to the whole film.

As a result, the crew came across several green-painted locations. So, what to do? Simply embrace them. And so they did. They mixed green tones with brown, yellow and blue in order to create a heavier contrast with darker flesh tones and more colour depth.

Spoiler Alert! If you're not acquainted with Hampton's life, please do not continue to read any further.

The most crucial scene, of course, is Hampton's murder by shooting. Such a powerful sequence.

DoP Bobbit surely didn't want viewers to look away from screen and also wanted to pay maximum respect to Chairman's life.

He really wanted the audience to feel the emotions depicted and them being so sudden. You are deeply asleep and the next second you're being shot at. Terrible, isn't it?

As I was just saying, Bobbit wanted the sequence to be as faithful as possible to the actual facts.

For this reason, Hampton's apartment was the only built set. It had to be as accurate as possible, with very slight modifications to let the actors be free to move and, you know, act without equipment and lighting getting in their way.

They tried to replicate the exact movements of that night's happenings and in real-time, too.

Not an easy task, indeed, but they certainly managed to reach the goal.

The confined and small spaces also contributed to augment the claustrophobic vibe which well suits the cruelty of Hampton's murder.

Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are Fred Hampton and William O'Neal
Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are Fred Hampton and William O'Neal

On top of all this, the whole set was pre-lit and no equipment was put on the floor. The actors were much more confortable and, as they walked in, they already had the mood set. The atmosphere was incredible: everybody was working so quiet and so focused. The result?

A very powerful scene.

Well, that's it for today. Stay tuned for the next movie: Mank.

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