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LaKeith Stanfield's 'Most Challenging Role' Ever Earns Him An Oscar Nod

LaKeith Stanfield, right, in "Judas and the Black Messiah." (Warner Bros. Pictures)
LaKeith Stanfield, right, in "Judas and the Black Messiah." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Editor’s note: This segment was rebroadcast on March 22, 2021. The headline has been updated to reflect LaKeith Stanfield’s Oscar nomination.

The new film, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” tells the story of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Chicago Black Panthers in the late 1960s.

Hampton, who is played by actor Daniel Kaluuya, was killed in December 1969 in a police raid orchestrated by the FBI. This film lays out how that came to be by also telling the story of William O’Neal — a man recruited by the FBI to spy on the Panther organization. O’Neal provided the FBI with the floor plan to Hampton’s apartment prior to that raid.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” opens in theaters and on HBO Max Friday. LaKeith Stanfield portrays O’Neal and says he was drawn to the film when director Shaka King was writing the script. 

“I always wanted to do a movie that talked about these themes, especially the Black Panther Party, who I loved growing up, their tenacity and just courageousness in order to take on the largest, most powerful government in the world,” he says.

Watch on YouTube.

But when Stanfield found out he was playing O’Neal, he wasn’t all that thrilled — until he started to do some digging into O’Neal’s life. 

O’Neal was just a teenager when he was approached by the FBI. He was “young, scrappy” and “kind of into the street life,” Stanfield explains, so he would do pretty much anything for money and power. 

“I realized a lot of what motivated him was just his own fear with not being able to be free, not being able to live his life, which at age 17, which is when he came in contact with the FBI, is something that’s really big to you, your freedom,” he says. “And so when he was faced with an FBI agent that might offer this kind of power that he always thrived to have and money, goodness, that’s freedom, isn’t it?” 

O’Neal also represents that middle ground between people who were passionate about the Black Panthers and those who hated them, Stanfield says. But it’s this stance that puts O’Neal in a difficult position, and as the film goes on, “it just gets worse and worse for him.”

“I think there’s an interesting version of a Black person you get to see in some moments with O’Neal, where it’s not that he’s all the way sort of radicalized into the establishment status quo, and he’s not all the way into the rebellion either,” he says. “He’s like, ‘Look, I just want to make some money.’ ”

It’s tough to sympathize with O’Neal as a person, Stanfield says, since he was responsible for the death of the revered Hampton. But the U.S. government is also to blame for his death. 

“The government themselves, we have to put them up on the block of judgment, so to speak, to say, ‘Why were you guys doing this? Why did you choose the Black Panther Party to be the No.1 threat to America? While meanwhile, there are people that are members of the [Ku Klux Klan] still occupying slots in office,’ ” he says. 

Stanfield says he confronted a moral dilemma in playing O’Neal, which made it “the most challenging role” he’s ever had to play. 

“I really had to dive deep into my own moral standing and go against that in order to find something in the character that made the character playable to me or made it make sense to me in a way,” he says. “Being on set every day, there would be times where I questioned whether or not it was the right decision to even depict his character and how to balance that out. So it was tough, but I’m really glad I went through it.” 

More From The Interview 

On his social media persona and music 

“I have an imagination and I love having fun, and I don’t really take things too seriously, you know, and a lot of times my social media presence reflects that. I have fun with the thought, and I just love engaging with the audience and laughing with people, and so that’s a lot of what you’ll see. But yeah, I love acting, too. So you might see me show up as a different persona. You might see me show up as someone unrecognizable from the person that you know.

“Certain opportunities it’s used as something that can be a force for good as well, like my music, which is coming soon, which will also be featured heavily on my social media. Actually, if you want to see the realest side of me, you’ll see that in my music.”

On how his career trajectory represents a change in Hollywood 

“I don’t really look to Hollywood like that. I don’t got that much faith in Hollywood because to me, Hollywood’s a business, and it’s not really a spiritual movement type thing as people try to make it to be really sometimes. I think that because of the thing that we do, which is story tell, which is such a grand and, you know, very large scale, it seems like Hollywood is the bearer of the souls, but really the souls are the bearers of Hollywood. And the way that we live life and the things that we do and experience Hollywood tries to reflect. So if we don’t like what we’re seeing in Hollywood, it’s like the lives we live got to be different. The real important thing is us being able to break out from the inside out and be better versions of ourselves than we were yesterday, and then Hollywood will reflect that inevitably anyway because they are trying to keep up.”


Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.