How costume designer Charlese Antoinette helped transform Daniel Kaluuya into Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton.
“There are a lot of people anticipating his story being told,” says “Judas and the Black Messiah” costume designer Charlese Antoinette, about the gravity and expectation involved in bringing the story of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton to the screen.
Starring Daniel Kaluuya as the charismatic 21-year-old community leader, the movie recounts the events leading up to Hampton’s assassination by the FBI, Chicago P.D. and Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office on Dec. 4, 1969 — and the ultimate betrayal by teenage informant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield).
Antoinette jumped right into the Shaka King-directed project (which was co-produced by Ryan Coogler). She and King have been friends and colleagues since his 2012 stoner comedy “Newlyweeds” (and the 2017 satirical short “LaZercism,” also starring Stanfield), and she had a head start on late-’60s civil rights movement research from designing the Spike Lee-produced sci-fi racial justice film, “See You Yesterday.” So, she eagerly dove straight into examining Hampton’s life, work and legacy.
Antoinette immediately found herself invigorated and inspired by her findings, which include photos of civil rights figures like Illinois BPP chapter co-founder and future Congress member Bobby Rush (played by Darrell Britt-Gibson in the film) organizing and protesting, as well as images of quotidian city life, especially those by photographer John H. White‘s of Chicago’s South Side. She also studied many documentaries like “FBI’s War on Black America” and “Death of a Black Panther: Fred Hampton,” which showed Hampton and comrades establishing the Illinois chapter, building a neighborhood clinic, running the Free Breakfast for Children Program and meeting with leaders of the city’s fellow oppressed groups.
The first time the electrifying Kaluuya hits the screen as Chairman Fred, he’s addressing and galvanizing a group of college activists, including his future partner Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). “It was really important that his looks are really grounded in and based off of the actual photographs we have with him,” says Antoinette.
She took inspiration from footage of Hampton — sitting at a table giving one of his rousing talks to a rapt audience — wearing a brown corduroy jacket and a camo bucket hat. To emulate the look and feel, Antoinette “searched high and low” for a similar “duck hunting” hat and found a rich cinnamon-brown vintage jacket with suede panels on the lapels. She allowed a bit of creative freedom for the sake of filmmaking, though: “It’s just a little bit more dynamic than the one the actual Chairman Fred wore — the lapels are bigger, the colors a little bit more vibrant,” she says.
Throughout her research, Antoinette also discovered that Hampton regularly relied on “key elements” to maintain his own “utilitarian” uniform, including Clarks boots and white T-shirts tucked into military-style trousers. “Especially as he was organizing and protesting, he wore a lot of these mock-neck turtlenecks,” she adds.
Reflecting Hampton in real life, King was “really adamant” that Kaluuya only wear the black beret in specific situations. “He only wore a beret when he was with his comrades and they were doing official business,” explains Antoinette.
The movie progresses further into 1969, with Hampton’s influence and community unification work on the rise, and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen)’s FBI even more intent on quashing the unifying “Black messiah,” as the Fed Director says. As he becomes more determined and world-weary, Chairman Fred’s wardrobe deepens and matures into the iconic long black leather jackets and dark shirts (above). “My PA and I actually sat on the floor and put photographs in chronological order, just based off of his facial hair and how he looked,” Antoinette remembers, who also consulted the rare date stamp. “We just figured out by deductive reasoning.”
In the meantime, petty criminal-turned-informant William “Bill” O’Neal is always in some form of costume. “Bill O’Neal doesn’t really know who he is,” says Antoinette.
As he attempts to steal a car from gang members in his introductory scenes, the 17-year-old disguises himself in what he thinks a Fed would wear: a face-obscuring wide-brim fedora and a floor-dusting trench. “We thought he borrowed it from his uncle or a male family member’s closet,” Antoinette notes.
She admits to slightly veering from period authenticity with his custom-designed trench, based off of a vintage coat. For the volume and movement, Antoinette extended the length, added a vent in the back and color-swatched a grayer tone to harmonize with Sean Bobbit’s cinematography. She then added a satin lining for extra effect.
“That moment when he runs across the car and the coat flies behind him…” she says. “It’s so worth it, even though it’s not period correct.”
After the FBI coerces Bill into informing in exchange for dropped charges, he offers a brief glimpse at his real self. Attending his first class led by Chairman Fred at Panther HQ, he sits nervously in worn-in, rolled up jeans, white athletic socks and “dirty Jack Purcells.” (Converse and Levi’s sent the production pieces, which Antoinette’s team aged and battered down.)
“We understood that he was a kid — and he’s a poor kid,” says Antoinette. Bill’s layering of ribbed mock-necks, knits and shackets not only reflected the fashion of the times, but also his financial situation: “Because he doesn’t have a real coat.”
As his informant money rolls in and he rises in the BPP ranks, Bill evolves his look into richer textures, darker colors and sleeker silhouettes — depending on who he’s with. To emulate and aspire to his Panther comrades, he starts wearing more fashion-forward, “radical” ’70s leaning looks, including green boots, which “signify capitalism, greed and money,” according to Antoinette.
But “he doesn’t know who he is, and who he wants to be,” she says. Bill dresses up in a suit to meet FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who plies the teen with premium cuts and cigars at a fancy steak house. For another informant rendezvous in an industrial warehouse, he dons a caramel-hued, wide-lapel leather jacket and a jaunty hunter green fedora (above) — which was hard-won for Antoinette.
“He’s full on flashy, like, hustler vibes,” she says. “[King] was like, ‘I think it’s too much’ and I was like, ‘No, that’s why we need to use it because it is too much.’ Like, it’s ridiculous.”
With his BPP promotion, Bill eases into the group’s signature uniforms, including the green military coat, which Antoinette discovered was unique to the Illinois Black Panther Party. She references a stunning 1969 photo, taken by Japanese photographer Hiroji Kubota: Standing in the snow, outside of Chicago City Hall, three leaders, in military jackets and berets, each raise a single Black power fist while facing the downtown skyline.
“Oh, my God, it was so cool. They had their own vibe,” Antoinette says. Experts at Western Costume pinpoint the origin of the military jackets to World War II, so, instead of custom-building the pieces to reflect the worn-in functional effect, the costume designer rented or sourced authentic coats from that period for the production. (The black leather jackets were also all thrifted, from sources in Cleveland, where the film shot, and a deadstock dealer in Fresno, California.)
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Leading the Illinois chapter, Hampton founded the Rainbow Coalition, a multicultural alliance of marginalized groups and leftist organizations fighting for racial equity and economic justice. Following the police murder of a Puerto Rican community member, Chairman Fred and his comrades peacefully protest, alongside the Young Patriots (poor white anti-fascists, who migrated from the South following WWII), the Young Lords (a Latinx revolutionary movement and civil rights organization) and the fictionalized Crowns, based off of a real gang (below). (The nationwide union also included the Brown Berets, a Latinx social justice organization, and the Asian-American San Francisco Chinatown-based Red Guard Party, modeled after the BPP. The research really is illuminating.)
Antoinette created distinctive color palettes for each group to then “marry together” for the wide shots, while staying within the overall movie’s “grounded in earth and jewel tones,” she says. The Young Patriots wear “Americana”-inspired red, white and blue across rugged plaids, denim, corduroy and cowboy boots, while the Crowns “look really cool and sleek” in monochrome black, a sprinkling of marigold and “money green” berets.
The movie acquired the legal rights to use the actual colors of the Young Lords, as seen in the deep plum berets. Antoinette’s team “stitched together” multiple vintage sweaters to replicate the group’s purple and gold cardigans. (Letterman jackets and preppy cardigans played an integral sartorial role in ’60s and ’70s Chicago street gang culture, as the costume designer discovered in her research.) The real Young Lords leader, Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez, (portrayed in the film by Nicholas Velez) also visited the set and gave his official approval, as well as a gift.
“He really loved everything and he said, ‘It looks just like that time,’ so that was really dope,” Antoinette remembers. “He personally handed me Young Lord pins to put on actors. It was beautiful.”
Her commitment and dedication to research not only helped bring authenticity to Hampton’s story — and continue his legacy — through costume, it also had an impact on Antoinette personally and professionally. She recently launched the Black Designer Database, which creates access and opportunity for Black brands to be featured on-screen. (She featured members’ designs during her promotion for the movie.)
“It was really cool,” says Antoinette. “As I was researching costumes, I’m learning about Chairman Fred’s ideology. It’s totally changed me, honestly, in a lot of ways and the way I think about social justice and activism in communities.”
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ premieres in theaters and streams HBO Max, for 31 days, on Friday, Feb. 12.