But steeping it inside a crime drama and really making it an undercover movie and bringing out all of the elements of the genre — just making it a popcorn movie — was brilliant. And also a great way to get your message to people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in seeing it, wouldn’t show up at the theater. They [pitched it as] “The Departed” in the world of COINTELPRO [the FBI’s covert, often illegal domestic counterintelligence program targeting groups it deemed threats]. And that was it. I was, like, Oh, yeah. We can make that.
How did your earlier experiences with Hollywood shape how you approached the project?
I was incredibly mistrustful of Hollywood throughout the process, up until the very end. Just because I had heard so many horror stories. And because of my preconceived notions of making movies with these big studios, I was protective — sometimes overly so. But I think it wasn’t a bad thing, necessarily. After people watch it, the reaction I get that pleases me the most is, How the hell did you get this made in a studio? The fact that we were able to make certain statements, make certain aesthetic choices, make certain pacing decisions. We were fortunate, you know, that Warner Bros. has a reputation — and, after going through the process of developing with them, I think, deservedly so — of being director-friendly. Look, I don’t think I would have necessarily come out of every studio with a movie that feels like me. This movie feels like me, even though it’s a big studio movie.
And do you think the studio got the movie they thought they were getting?
Oh, they do. Because the movie that I had on the page was even more, I think, challenging from a commercial perspective, than what they got. They got the most commercial version of the movie that I wanted to make.
Did you feel like you had to sacrifice? Or do you feel like you were good with the trade-off because that got it done?
I was good with the trade-off. I actually think that the decisions we made to make the movie more playable for audiences makes the movie better as a movie and more watchable and are the reasons that people connect to it in a lot of ways.
Does that mean better by your standards? Or better in that it appeals to more people?
I think better in that it’s a more enjoyable watch. Which, you know, it’s a movie that tries to be an enjoyable watch even though it’s a tragedy. That’s hard to pull off. And I think the studio played a big role in helping me find that.
So, if there were no concern about approval or budget or buy-in, what might you have done differently?
Oh, it would have been a different movie. You know what it’d be like? You ever see Steven Soderberg’s “Che”? “Che,” part one and two? Which is a really great movie. And a movie that very few people have seen. And very few people want to sit through, especially the second one, which is one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen.
It’s probably more faithful to the truth than our film was. And the thing is, I was also making a movie based on a true story that impacts people who are still alive in a real big way. And what we did mattered to them more than it did to anyone, including myself.
The film depicts the assassination of Hampton by the FBI and local law enforcement. What parallels do you see between the relationship of law enforcement and the Black community and other communities of color back in the ’60s, when this took place, and today?
No different. No difference whatsoever. I mean, there are more non-White cops on the force. But the interaction between the community at large is exactly the same. And those individuals often engage in the same oppressive behaviors as White policemen did in that era.
Do you hope, with the movie, that you can help contribute to the dialogue, raise awareness?
I think, inevitably, that’s the goal of the movie, and that’s the role of art in society, whether it’s intentional or not. You know, I remember watching “True Detective” and seeing Matthew McConaughey beat the s--- out of this guy who he was questioning. It took, like, the fourth watch for me to be, like, Whoa. That’s a very powerful image there that just made its way into my psyche. Where, like, I think: That’s what heroes do. And then you’re, like, Well, why do you think people never convict — don’t even grand jury — cops? Don’t even indict cops for murder some of the times. Because they’re, like, Well, I mean, that’s what they have to do. It’s a real hard job. The stories have told us that, traditionally.
What would turn the tide? If there were a number of films like yours, at what point do you think that they would seep into people’s psyches?
I mean, I don’t think a movie has that kind of power. Or even a wave of movies. You know, there’s people who lost their entire — not just one family member — multiple family members to the coronavirus that won’t wear a mask. I mean, a piece of art can’t shift your consciousness if the death of a loved one can’t. It’s got to happen in concert with a number of other things.
I think there’s always people trying to steer things in that direction. Chairman Hampton always said, “You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.” As long as there are people alive, people are going to resist. But I mean, for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. And as people who want to see change persist, the people who want things to remain the same and even get worse resist. You know? And they’ve been winning for a while. It’s kind of hard to beat them.
What do you hope people will take from the film?
I think that there’s a number of things that you can kind of walk away from the movie thinking about. Among them just the role that state institutions have played in crushing voices of dissent in this country. For those people who had heard of the Black Panther Party and had heard a lot of mistruths spread about them, this is a corrective to that information and that portrayal. And I think the movie is, in some ways, about the dangers of being apolitical.
Did you have a particular audience in mind?
Me. When I make stuff, I’m always like, What do I want to see? Always. And then you broaden it out — and your producer and your studio will help you do that, ideally, without sacrificing the thing that you like. But ultimately, you have to satisfy one person. I have to be, like: I like this movie, I want to watch this movie. Those are the movies I sign up to make: the ones that don’t exist that I want to watch.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.