On Friday, Feb. 12, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah hits theaters and HBO Max. The film—which finds Daniel Kaluuya portraying legendary Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield, star of 2020’s The Photograph and Donald Glover’s hit FX series Atlanta, playing the man who snitched on Hampton to the FBI—is rich in the creativity of Young Black Hollywood. One of the rising Black actors in this period piece is Algee Smith, star of HBO’s Euphoria and Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit.
The 26-year-old plays Spurgeon “Jake” Winters, a member of the Illinois chapter Black Panther Party who, at 19, was shot and killed by the police. The Spurgeon Jake Winters Free People’s Medical Care Center, a free medical clinic for poor Black people living in Chicago, was run by the Black Panther Party, honoring what Winters meant to their movement. It’s a huge undertaking, even if Winters’ story isn’t that well-known, but with Smith wanting to work in a wide variety of films, he’s been honing his craft, waiting to sink his teeth into a role like this. “I want to do everything,” Smith shared. “I want to now play roles that edify us and that uplift us and that make us feel good and I can look and say, ‘Yo, if he did that, I can do that,’ or ‘That one film made me feel like I can do that.’ I want to do those types of roles.”
Complex caught up with Smith during this year’s Sundance Festival, where Judas was selected to be shown ahead of its release date. Smith, excited, hopped on Zoom to chat about the importance of the Black history featured in Judas, his desire to explore more of Chris McKay’s story on Euphoria, the multitude of things he got into during quarantine, and some insight on his next few moves, both in the studio and on screen.
This conversation is a part of Complex’s Judas Week, a series of interviews featuring the cast and crew of Warner Bros.’ Judas and the Black Messiah, discussing one of 2021’s most anticipated films.
Before we get into the film and everything else you got going on, I wanted to know, what was your 2020 like? How were you dealing with the quarantine?
[It] was very insightful, to be honest, man. I learned a lot about myself. I feel like I grew mentally. I was talking to my dad about this the other day. We really took the importance of family time. We understood what that really meant because a lot of times we were just on the move, just running and running and doing things. We really got to sit down and spend time with family, understand how important that really is, and cherish those moments.
Other than that, I just locked in. It actually brought the hustler out of me. I feel like 2020 made me get creative and made me start thinking of other things I could do instead of being out all the time. So it was good.
I recently talked to Darrell [Britt-Gibson, a Judas co-star], and he mentioned the same thing. At first, he was kind of like, “Well, I don’t want to say that I got to work on myself and be real introspective,” but I think that’s the thing. You had nothing but time to sit and really think about what’s right about your life, what’s wrong about your life, and how to fix it.
And I feel like if you really paid attention to that, then you learned a lesson.
We spoke a couple of years ago, for Euphoria, and before we were done speaking you were talking about getting into your music. Were you in the studio during quarantine?
Yeah, yeah. Studio, I got a clothing line as well, so I was just getting that merch out to the fans. But [I was in] the studio heavy. I’ve just been writing a lot for myself and also writing for other people, just trying to sharpen in my craft. Just kind of staying in it. That’s the best way to just become greater, and I’m just trying to become greater at it.
That’s what’s up. No reading scripts?
Yes, yes. A lot of reading scripts. What? A lot. That was the great thing as well because I started writing some scripts, too. And speaking of Darrell, [we're] working on something right now. I want to do a film or a series or something about this guy named Garrett Morgan. He invented the stoplight. He also invented the gas mask. His story is really interesting.
It’s dope to hear you have been working with Darrell. Dominique [Fishback] has mentioned that everybody in the cast was really, really supportive. Talk about the cast really building into a family while working on the film.
That was the important part. The important part was for us to build outside of the set. If we did that, everything that happened on set was going to make sense. We made sure that we always went out to eat. It was like we created that familial bond. We all used to go roller skating all the time. We went to the movies. We all just stay connected. We knew that, if we did that on the outside, then when we got to set we wouldn’t have a problem really tapping into what we needed to tap into.
How much of Fred’s story did you know, especially in regards to the whole William O’Neal angle to the story, before you signed on?
Growing up and being Black, I knew about the Black Panthers. I knew about Fred Hampton. I didn’t know how Fred Hampton got assassinated. I didn’t know the life that Fred Hampton lived. I [knew about his death], but I didn’t know the life that he lived. I didn’t know about The Rainbow Coalition in depth. I didn’t know about the free breakfast programs. I didn’t know about that stuff. I didn’t know about their newspapers. When I got involved in the film, it was a whole world that I got introduced to and I had to sit down and really educate myself on everything that these people were doing. And he was only 21 years old.
He was only in that position for about a year, which is insane.
It just shows you the commitment. You know what I’m saying? The sacrifice that he even knew. He had rules that are like morals set up. Certain things that are just good for your spirit and health for growth. He just wanted to unify everyone around him and go against who their oppressor was and say, “We’re all being oppressed. This is who we’re being oppressed by. This is what we need to fight.”
The reviews are coming. It has a great Rotten Tomatoes score right now.
No surprise. I’ll have to give it up to our director, Shaka King, and I have to give it up to Charlese [Antoinette] who handled the costume [design]. Everybody came with their A game, bro. Everybody came with it and we all made that sacrifice. We all put our bodies and our minds on the line. We were doing our part for the cause, and we all felt that, so I’m not surprised. It’s weird giving it to the world, but it feels good as well because we know we get to share with everyone and we get to all talk about it together.
In terms of 2020 being a taxing year, with COVID-19, but also the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd sparked more protests as well. I don’t want to say we’ve not progressed, but it’s crazy to me to think that these issues that were being fought against during the late 1960s are still here. From your perspective, as a young man coming up in America, talk about the importance of this story for what’s going on right now and going forward.
You just hit on it. There’s so many similarities. We see Fred Hampton’s death the same way we seen Breonna Taylor’s death, the same exact way. She was sleeping in her own home. He was sleeping in his home. This is the thing that they do to people who are trying to unify for justice, unify for justice and equality. You know what I’m saying? These are basic human things. This film is showing that nothing has changed in the system, as far as these things are concerned.
What are we going to do about it as a people? Fred says multiple times: There’s power where there’s people. There’s power where there’s people. If we can all keep getting that in our head, we can all make the change as the people against the system.
Jake Winters is an interesting role, especially because of the historical importance. There were things that were actually built in this man’s honor. Was there a lot of research you were doing on him? Did you get involved with anybody that knew Jake personally?
I didn’t have a lot of research I could have done, man. There wasn’t a lot about Jake.
He was so young.
He was 19 years old. What we did have about him was these certain key things that he was a master of… Any gun that he had in his hand, he knew how to work his way around it. His father, his whole family were masters at that. I can’t give away the film, but you see that in a couple of scenes where it just kind of shows that he knows what he’s doing with that. So I had to kind of go off of just a character arc.
What I can tell you is that we’ll see Jake go from really bright-eyed and really wanting to learn about everything that’s going on—he can be giving out newspapers at 5 o’clock in the morning and he’s happy, freezing cold; he can be feeding the babies and the free breakfast program, wee hours of the morning, he’s got a smile on his face. But then we see that smile start to turn dark as time progresses and as he realizes the things that are going on around him and as he really sees for himself, this is crazy. This brutality is crazy. The way they treat us is crazy. And now it started affecting him and we see that change happen in the movie.
This is a different role than what we normally see you doing. What else are you looking to do as an actor?
I want to do everything. I want to do everything that I feel like challenges me, that is fun. I want to do action films. I want to be a superhero. I want to do everything, man. I want to play a doctor in a film. I want to start highlighting Black and beautiful things. I want to now play roles that edify us and that uplift us and that make us feel good and I can look and say, “Yo, if he did that, I can do that,” or, “That one film made me feel like I can do that.” I want to do those types of roles. I want to do everything, man. Put me in everything.
I was told that Euphoria Season 2 was getting started around the time quarantine really hit. Do you have any insight on when you guys might be able to start working again?
I don’t know for sure yet. We’re trying to wait and figure out this whole COVID thing. As soon as we get the green light, I feel like we can go back in full effect with everybody, which I’m so ready for because I’m trying to read these scripts and see where this next season is going to go. But as soon as we get that, then I feel like we’ll be back.
Do you have any idea of where your character of Chris is going?
No, that’s the thing. I have no idea. There are so many things to explore, though. There’s his relationship with Nate to explore, because it’s like, “Yo, I never knew that. I’m your best friend. We never had these conversations about how you feel.” There’s his relationship with Cassie that he has to explore with them and the baby, so what’s going to happen with that?
What else have you been working on?
I just got done filming this movie called Mother/Android, and that comes out this year. It stars myself and Chloë Grace Moretz. We played lovers; robots have taken over the world, and we’re on this journey to try to have our baby because she’s nine months pregnant. We’re [trying] to have our baby in safety while trying to get through all these robots. I’ve got that coming up, obviously Euphoria. I’m working on another film called Young. Wild. Free right now, which I can’t give too much information on, but that’s going to be really dope. And then just music, more music to go along with these films, music to put in the films, music to have outside the films.
What else are you getting into? Do you have any plans for non-movie, non-TV, non-music stuff for 2021?
Right now I’m always in the gym. I’m just staying at the gym. I feel like that sharpens my mental for everything else and keeps me disciplined. I have a clothing line called Favor Peace & Blessings. That’s going really well with me and my fan base and just exposing to new people as well. I’m starting a water called Algee Water that’ll be out real soon. And I’m starting a juicing truck as well. I’m really big into juicing. I feel like just taking different things that I love and just building off of that, man, just going with it.