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How ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Costume Designer Recreated Iconic Black Panther Party Uniforms

“Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of revolutionary Black activist Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his fateful betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). The biographical drama, directed by Shaka King, centers on the assassination of Hampton and brings the 1960s to life through recreations of style from the era — most evidently seen in the iconic Black Panther Party outfits.

When designing looks for the film, costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones had the challenge of capturing the essence of the characters, who were based on real people, while emulating outfits that were seen in real life.

“There’s tons of footage from that time,” Jones told FN. She scoured books, color images, old Ebony magazines and catalogs, as well as documentaries, such as “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” for references and inspiration. “It was about finding these images, determining what each person’s individual style was within those ’60s trends and expanding on it.”

Judas and the Black Messiah, Costumes, Black Panther Party,
(L-R): Caleb Eberhardt as Bob Lee, Darrell Britt-Gibson as Bobby Rush, Ashton Sanders as Jimmy Palmer, Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
CREDIT: Glen Wilson

For instance, there were key pieces that Jones tried to find and recreate for Bobby Rush that people may remember from photos of him and Hampton together, however, she took liberties. “We didn’t have a ton of prep time, so I couldn’t copy and recreate everything, but he was older than the rest of the group and had a mod sense of style so I got to play around with that and create looks that still had that feeling.”

For Illinois Black Panthers Chapter member and Hampton’s fiancée, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), Jones said there were not many photos of her during that time so she created her costumes based on how she was written in the script, which was as a sweet and warm young college girl.

“In the film, she’s wearing Keds, jumpers and turtlenecks, socks and loafers and amazing vintage knee-high boots from a deadstock warehouse,” said Jones.

Judas and the Black Messiah, Costumes, Black Panther Party,
Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred Hampton and Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
CREDIT: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Other popular footwear from the ’60s included Adidas Gazelles and square-toed platforms.

Meanwhile, the Black Panther Party uniform was the basis for the majority of costumes. “We would put the beret and jacket over what the person’s individual style was and just kind of darken their color palette. It was a uniform, but it was also a way to conceal people’s identity as well,” explained Jones. “The outfit was very purposeful and very intentional. People were working with what they had, so it’s still the pieces that they would have in their closets.”

For Hampton, his looks were simple and all about utility, said Jones. He wore Clarks shoes or military boots, the camo jacket and a simple moc-neck or button-down in darker colors. Whereas Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders) was more fashionable, wearing bell-bottomed pants with a print or a texture, paired with platform loafers and an open-collared shirt under his uniform.

But a Black Panther look wasn’t as easy as piecing together a black leather jacket and black beret.

“We didn’t want it to feel like a cosplay or a caricature of the Panthers,” explained Jones, who noted that even the buttonshey wear on the jackets were handmade and designed in-house with the film’s art department. “It was a very detailed process.”

Jones wanted to make a clear distinction between the Illinois Chapter and the Oakland headquarters, for example. In the film, you’ll see Oakland members in powder blue shirts, black leather jackets, black pants, black berets and black sunglasses as that was part of their signature look, historically. Whereas Illinois members wore more camo-colored jackets. It wasn’t until the chapter became more established that they started wearing more leather later on in the film.

Judas and the Black Messiah, Costumes, Black Panther Party,
Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
CREDIT: Glen Wilson

“The camo jacket directly correlated to them protesting the Vietnam War and also a just acknowledging that the government, and the FBI, and the Chicago police were at war with them,” Jones, who sourced from local Cleveland thrift shops and a dealer from Fresno, Calif., added. “[In real life], they would have found the jackets from somebody in their family who served in World War II, or they were from the Vietnam War and they would just take off to the U.S. Army labels.”

For the berets, the costumer sourced French and Green Beret styles from Rothco.

“LaKeith wore these vintage French berets that didn’t have leather, based off the historical imagery we found. He was different than everyone. Something about him is always kind of not correct.”

In the Black Panther Party, berets are used as a tool for symbolism and the buttons often pinned on them can represent many different meanings. Because of various implications, Jones didn’t use pins in the film. However, the Young Lords, a national human rights movement, are also depicted in the film and its founder José Cha Cha Jiménez granted approval and handed Jones the buttons on set one day.

The film will release in theaters and is available to stream on HBO Max on Friday, Feb. 12.

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