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Daniel Kaluuya was just 9 years old when he wrote a play put on by Hampstead Theatre. It was the story of two guys working in McDonald’s, based on the goofy Nickelodeon sitcom Kenan & Kel. He wrote it in response to a teacher who told him he needed an outlet for his energy because his brain was "too busy".
Kaluuya was never sure if it was a compliment or a complaint, but that busy brain paid off: at 32, he has won best supporting actor at the Baftas, Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice and Academy awards for his portrayal of chairman Fred Hampton, the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther party, who was assassinated in 1969.
The film Judas and the Black Messiah has all the ingredients for a buzzy awards season run. It is a lushly told story of black liberation, protest and police brutality, the tension twisted by an FBI informant played by the ever-excellent Lakeith Stanfield. It’s a reverent history lesson that would feel necessary any time between 1969 and now, but one that’s especially on the nose for 2021. Hampton was seen as a radical threat by the FBI; he was instrumental in the party’s free breakfast programme, its free healthcare clinics. He formed the Rainbow Coalition with rival groups across Chicago. He was 21 when he was murdered. The film carries an enormous burden of responsibility to do him justice — one which, critics agree, Kaluuya serves.
"There’s so much on how chairman Fred died," Kaluuya said in an interview with the British Film Institute.
"I hope this film shows people how he lived."
Director Shaka King offered Kaluuya the part as he was still on set filming 2018’s Black Panther — the world’s first blockbuster African superhero movie — keen to see what this curious north Londoner could bring to the table.
"We’re here to give until we’re empty and I gave it everything," he said in his winner’s speech at the Golden Globes last month, quoting the late rapper Nipsey Hussle.
"Chairman Fred Hampton, I couldn’t give it to a more noble man. I hope generations after this can see how brilliantly he thought, how brilliantly he spoke and how brilliantly he loved. He taught me about myself, made me grow as a man."
It was a rare moment of earnest bombast from Kaluuya, who usually shies away from being anything but low-key and relatable. Watching him on chat show sofas next to A-list stars is a delight: he is disarmingly casual and naturally funny.
By his own account, Kaluuya was boisterous and easily distracted as a child. The son of Ugandan immigrants, he grew up in Camden Town, London, on a council estate with his mum and sister, and bounced around all the free and cheap arts clubs he could: there was Anna Scher, famous for nurturing working-class talent through her Islington theatre, Wac in Belsize Park, the Roundhouse outreach programmes, and the Sylvia Young Saturday school. "I was into acting, knew it was for me, but I was poor," he told the British Blacklist. "If I failed, what did I have to lose? I couldn’t have been any poorer — I was eating McDonald’s sauces."
At 18, Kaluuya was hired as a writer on the cult E4 drama Skins, and played the part of Posh Kenneth. He was "one of the youngest people ever to have written an hour of primetime television drama," declared The Independent in 2008. Teenage Kaluuya’s response was typically modest: "When work ends, I’d rather just be seen as Daniel — normal."
TV and film roles dripped through. In 2010 he gave a knockout performance in Roy Williams’ play Sucker Punch at the Royal Court theatre. "That changed everything," he said in 2016. "Everything I’ve got now is probably from Sucker Punch."
Kaluuya said he lost nearly 13kg and was trained up by former pro Errol Christie to play the role of Leon, a black boxer growing up in the ’80s. Kaluuya was magnetic, and won the Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard awards for Outstanding Newcomer that year.
But it was 2017’s Get Out that propelled him to major attention. The film was Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, a comedy-horror mash-up described as a cross between Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives. Peele had caught a 2011 episode of Black Mirror on Netflix — Fifteen Million Merits, in which Kaluuya spent much of the episode pedalling away on an exercise bike — and asked him to audition. Peele’s ambitions were to make a horror-thriller for black audiences that delivered a funny, knowing critique of systemic racism that would make viewers wince and gag.
The film was a critical and commercial sensation — made on a $US4.5million ($NZ6.2million) budget, grossing $US255million at the box office, and memed and referenced constantly in pop culture. Kaluuya played Chris, a photographer visiting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. "He is victim and avenger, a surrogate for the filmmaker and the audience," wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times, adding: "He can’t believe his eyes, and you can’t take yours off him."
Kaluuya’s huge, tear-spilling eyes imprinted themselves on the audience. Americans couldn’t believe a Londoner had nailed the role — Samuel L. Jackson caused a brief stir by questioning why a black Briton was hired — while Brits rushed to claim him as a homegrown star.
By the time he won best "newcomer" at the Baftas for Get Out in 2018, Kaluuya had been a professional actor for 10 years.
"I am a product of UK arts funding," he told the audience, before dedicating that award to his mum and old teachers. The experience was made even more jarring by the fact that he had also been nominated for best actor at the Academy Awards in the same season, lauded by the American press and immediately signed up to huge projects.
"There was clear racism in the industry in the UK," he told an interviewer in March, explaining that his recent career was a consequence of being forced to find work elsewhere and being offered opportunities he would never have in the UK. "I think that the centralisation of power within the UK industry is disintegrating ... there are genuine, incredible talents and you can’t stop it. You can’t stop John Boyega. You can put up obstacles, but you can’t stop it."
After Get Out, Kaluuya joined the set of the Marvel film Black Panther, the Marvel film which broke multiple records from its very first weekend of release. From there, he starred in Queen & Slim, the tale of a bad Tinder date between a couple who go on the run after shooting a cop. Steve McQueen hunted him down for a bone-chilling part in his film Widows. "I knew it was him," said McQueen. "He has that gift you don’t see often, a presence even in his stillness. You feel what he is feeling, you see what he is seeing."
Yet Kaluuya doesn’t see himself acting for much longer.
"In terms of directing, I can see that’s the road. I think I’m going in that direction, but I’m just not sweating it ... I don’t see myself acting for very long," he said last month.
"When I’m 36, I’ll have done it for 20 years. That’s a long time to be doing anything. You’ve got to challenge yourself, keep growing as a creative."
He has kept writing — his script for The Kitchen, a film about 2040’s London where "the city has become a billionaire’s playground and the working class live in lawless slums", has been in development for several years. In 2019 he announced a surprise partnership with Mattel to produce a live action film about Barney the Dinosaur, the children’s TV show character, promising to subvert audience expectations for "a ubiquitous figure in many of our childhoods, [who] disappeared into the shadows, left misunderstood".
He will be working on the film with producer and fellow Londoner Amandla Crichlow, daughter of the late activist Frank Crichlow, owner of the famous Mangrove restaurant. The couple are believed to be in a long-term relationship and partners in the production company 59%.
"I don’t know if I could have had this kind of career 10 years ago," said Kaluuya earlier this year. "It’s the fruit of incredible work of people that came before."
— Guardian News and Media