On December 4, 1969, police raided the apartment of Fred Hampton, then-chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and murdered him. He was 21 years old. The raid was made possible by William O’Neal—fellow Panther and FBI informant.
“Judas and the Black Messiah,” which available in select theaters and on HBO Max Feb. 12, features Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Hampton, Lakeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders and many more. It tells the true story of the lengths the US government went to stop a revolution in its tracks.
“[We took this movie] as an opportunity to explore the past and present voices of dissent” and show ways authority were “weaponizing the state to quell efforts by citizens to make changes, to achieve ideals,” said Shaka King, the film’s director.
The film juxtaposes the ways a person seeks to overcome an racist system: by obtaining more capital or by re-making the system.
The FBI considered Hampton a threat to American security, or in other words, on his way to starting an uprising. He was known for his wit and his ability to unite people across difference through his powerful speeches. He co-founded the Rainbow Coalition, a multicultural movement that united different ethnic organizations against capitalism and police in favor of community care.
William O’Neal, portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield, was a young petty car-thief who was posed with either getting seven years in jail, or gathering intel on the Panther party. Stanfield said that O’Neal did what most people would’ve likely done: He decided to save himself.
“That doesn’t make us bad, that’s just who we are,” he said. “O’Neal is human and chooses the path of self-interest, trying to protect himself. In the end, it becomes about him trying to survive”.
While Shaka King said that he wants to refrain from seeing O’Neal as a victim, casting Stanfield, who is 29 years old, detracted from the fact that O’Neal was actually a 17-year-old victim of police coercion.
Throughout the filmmaking process, Shaka King says he wanted to make sure that he had Hampton’s widow and activist Akua Njeri (formerly known as Deborah Johnson) and her son Fred Hampton Jr.’s blessing in telling Chairman Hampton’s story. Dominique Fishback, who played Deborah Johnson said that she, Kaluuya and King, met and talked with Njeri and Hampton Jr. for seven hours, about why they wanted to make this film and how they would embody the characters.
Fishback says she did not want to reduce her character to Hampton’s woman. King apportioned her creative control in developing the character and even used Fishback’s written poetry in the film. “The Panthers were really poetic people,” Fishback said. “I think we would have missed an opportunity if we didn’t hear [a poem].”
The film also shows essential though sometimes marginalized roles that Black women assumed within the work of the Party. The film depicts Judy Harmon, one of the other few femme Panthers, as a gun-wielding, badass, militant Panther. But that doesn’t eclipse the place that Black women’s love and tenderness had in the movement, which Fishback portrays through Johnson.
“Women create the [world]. Women create lives. And how revolutionary is it to create love and to create life and give it, surrender it to the world? That is extremely radical. And so on a basic level, women are, and always have been, revolutionary and radical,” Fishback said.
Many parallels from then can be drawn to today. From the protests that arose over the summer in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others, this film shows that a reckoning with systemic racism has been in the midst all along.
Algee Smith, who portrayed Jake Winters, another Panther, said that the way Chairman Hampton was murdered in his bed echoes the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed in the same manner. “We want tangible conversations, tangible change, something we can see, because for us to still be looking at the same thing 50 years later, everyone is tired,” Smith said.
Dominique Thorne, who played Judy Harmon, said she hopes that the film encourages young people.
“[The film] is for our generation, the younger generation, for Black and brown disenfranchised people of color who see and recognize the oppression that has been relentless,”Thorne said. “It’s a call to action, a reminder that your age is not an obstacle, or that it shouldn’t pose a barrier to your involvement or your activism.”