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Petaluma man worked on Oscar-nominated ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Petaluma’s Dezi Gallegos was attending the University of Southern California Film School when he was given an assignment that would turn out to be prophetic.

Students were asked to write an essay focusing on a movie of their choice, dealing with some aspect of historical representation or personal memory.

“I could have picked any movie in the world to write about, and I picked ‘Fruitvale Station,’” said Gallegos, referencing director Ryan Coogler’s first feature, a powerful narrative about the 22-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by BART police. “I wrote my essay about what we owe to the truth of historical events ... what we owe to capturing the emotion and the significance of something that really happened.”

In the years that followed that choice of essay subject, Gallegos found himself ever more drawn to the kind of work that pays those debts, culminating a half decade later with his work on Coogler’s Academy Award-nominated “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

“Basically, Ryan Coogler makes the kinds of movies I aspire to make, and aspire to support the making of,” said Gallegos, clearly still somewhat amazed that — as circumstances have since unfolded — he is now working for Coogler (“Creed,” “Black Panther”).

When Gallegos saw “Fruitvale Station“ in 2013, he was a senior at Marin Academy, and the film had a profound effect on him, helping to shape his views of how movies can enhance people’s understanding of the world.

The story has led Gallegos beyond simply serving on the set of films such as the critically acclaimed “Judas and the Black Messiah,” produced by Coogler — and currently nominated for six Academy Awards — and the upcoming “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” featuring LeBron James. For Gallegos — who grew up in Petaluma, took acting classes at Cinnabar Theater and wrote a handful of plays before heading to film school in Southern California, graduating from USC in 2018 — the story has led him straight to his dream career. In January, Gallegos was named Creative Executive for Proximity Media, the multimedia production company Coogler co-founded in 2018 with his wife Zinzi Coogler, producer Peter Nicks, composer Ludwig Göransson, Archie Davis, and Sev Ohanian, the latter a producer and former USC adjunct professor, for whom Gallegos worked as a teacher’s aid in his senior year.

“In Sonoma County, I did theater right up until I came to L.A. to go to film school,” Gallegos explained. “For the first couple of years, I was probably playing catch-up a little bit with some of the kids who had been making movies their entire lives. But that wasn’t my background. I was always a theater person.”

Toward the second half of his time at USC, however, Gallegos began finding his own cinematic voice, starting to write, direct and produce several short films that he remains genuinely proud of.

“In my last semester at USC, that’s when I met Sev,” he said.

Ohanian, it turns out, had co-produced “Fruitvale Station,” after which he and Coogler’s careers diverged for a while as Coogler went on to direct his second movie (the “Rocky Balboa” sequel “Creed”) and Ohanian produced a series of independent films while also working as a part time adjunct professor at USC Film School.

“I met Sev because I sent out a general application to be a teaching assistant, and he saw my application,” Gallegos said. “My interview included everything from asking me to pitch him a film project on the spot — ‘You have 2 minutes! Go!’ — to having me pull up Google spreadsheets and share a document with him so he could see me problem-solve in real time.”

Gallegos got the job, right around the time Ohanian was getting ready to release a movie called ”Searching,“ which he co-wrote and co-produced with his wife Natalie Qasabian.

“It was a little movie that was made for under a million dollars, and went on to gross over 70 million,” Gallegos said. “So Sev’s career suddenly skyrocketed to this new level. And when he got his next movie set up with Lionsgate, which was ‘Run,’ he fought with Lionsgate so I was able to go to Winnipeg Canada and be his on-set assistant on that project.”

“Run,” a thriller about wheelchair-using woman attempting to escape her abusive mother, was directed by Aneesh Chaganty, and co-written by Chaganty and Ohanian, who also produced. Once Lionsgate agreed to Gallegos’ coming aboard as Ohanian’s assistant, he ended up living and working on the set in Winnipeg for three months.

“And all the while I was hearing these sort of whispers that Sev might be starting a production company with Ryan Coogler,” said Gallegos.

Then came “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Several years earlier, around the time that “Fruitvale Station” premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2013, Coogler had met director Shaka King, who had just unveiled his own independent film “Newlyweeds.” King eventually approached Coogler with the idea of making a film about Chairman Fred Hampton, a revolutionary activist, speaker and community leader who led the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers until his assassination at the hands of Chicago police in December of 1969. Providing the FBI with inside information about Hampton and the Panthers was paid informant William O’Neal, a car thief pressured into infiltrating the Panthers. It was O’Neal who reportedly provided a layout of Hampton’s home and drugged the Chairman on the night of the planned raid, though O’Neal later denied drugging Hampton.

A number of film projects about Chairman Fred Hampton had been circulating for years. Eventually, a script by Shaka King, Will Berson, Keith Lukas and Kenneth Lucas was developed, envisioned less as a standard biopic of Hampton and more as a gritty undercover thriller.

“Shaka eventually brought that pitch to Ryan, who was coming off of Marvel’s ‘Black Panther,’ and Ryan just fell in love with the idea,” said Gallegos. “Right after Sev finished making ‘Run’ in Winnipeg, we came back to Los Angeles. That’s when Proximity Media really began to crystallize and we officially started work on ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ and ‘Judas and the Black Messiah.’”

With King directing and Proximity producing along with Warner Bros, Macro, Participant Media and Bron Films, the movie was filmed, pre-COVID-19, in Cleveland, Ohio, where Gallegos once again worked alongside Ohanian as his assistant.

Among his various duties on set was to meet daily with Chairman Fred Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton Jr., who served as a consultant on the film, as did his mother Akua Njeri, another member of the Chicago Black Panthers, and Fred Hampton’s girlfriend at the time of his death. Hampton Jr. was born 25 days after his father was killed. During the filming, Gallegos would talk with Fred Hampton Jr. at the end of each day, taking notes and recording Hampton Jr.’s suggestions, and then would share them with the producers and director.

“I’m so proud of the work everyone did on ‘Judas,’” Gallegos said, adding that the opportunity to work with Akua Njeri and Fred Hampton Jr. is one of the things he’ll never forget. “It was life-changing. Chairman Fred Jr., I just have so much respect for him, for his generosity and his bravery in being a part of the process of making this movie...I mean, some of it is very traumatic material. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for him, especially during the filming of his father’s death, and I was standing right next to him for a lot of it.”

Asked about the number of Oscars that “Judas and the Black Messiah” (available on-demand via several streaming platforms) is nominated for, including nods for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (for Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as McNeal), Gallegos said the entire Proximity team is grateful for anything that might lead more people to see the film.

“I do believe that one of the great things that’s come out of this project is that many more people now know Chairman Fred’s story and his legacy,” he said. “This is an important part of American history, and I really believe that everyone should know about it."

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