The True Story Behind 'Judas And The Black Messiah'

Leah Marilla Thomas
·3-min read
Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

From ELLE

If you haven't been able to check out the trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah yet, here's the gist: The movie is based on the true story of how Black Panther Party chairman and activist Fred Hampton was betrayed by an FBI informant named William O'Neal in the 1960s. It stars Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Widows) as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry To Bother You, Knives Out) as O'Neal.

The film labels itself as 'inspired by true events,' so here's a breakdown of said events:

There are spoilers ahead for Judas and the Black Messiah. You've been warned.

The basics

The Black Panther Party rose to prominence in the 1960s to advocate and defend against police brutality in Black communities. The BPP was also a socialist organisation, which gave the infamous anti-Communist FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover extra reasons to vilify them and label them as a threat to the U.S. government.

Photo credit: Christopher Polk - Getty Images
Photo credit: Christopher Polk - Getty Images

Naturally, he created a counterintelligence organisation whose sole purpose was to harass prominent individuals in the Civil Rights Movement, like Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), who was a youth leader for the NAACP in addition to rising through the ranks of the BPP.

Where does William O'Neal come in?

O'Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield) started working for the FBI when he was only seventeen years old. According to the Chicago Tribute, O'Neal had a history of stealing cars. An FBI agent caught him, and offered him a deal as a confidential informant.

Photo credit: Emma McIntyre - Getty Images
Photo credit: Emma McIntyre - Getty Images

O'Neal befriended Hampton and infiltrated the party. He even became their head of security, which put him in a prime position to feed the FBI information, which included the layout Hampton's apartment. In December 1969, a then 20-year-old O'Neal drugged Hampton so he wouldn't be able to resist arrest or defend himself—and in the middle of the night, the building was raided by the FBI and Chicago police. Hampton was killed while asleep in his own bed. He was only 21 years old.

Years later, in 1990, O'Neal died when he was struck by a car. While the Cook County medical examiner's office ruled his death a suicide, his wife, at the time, said she believed it to be an accident. But O'Neal's uncle told the Chicago Reader he believed O'Neal had agreed to work with the FBI to lessen his own jail time for stealing the car, then got in over his head and could not live with the guilt. O'Neal only ever gave one televised interview, which Judas and the Black Messiah touches on.

The origins of the movie

It's totally possible that you had never heard this story before watching this movie. The writers of the film, Keith and Kenny Lucas, didn't hear the story until they were in college in an African-American studies course. 'There was a chapter on the Black Panthers, and in that chapter, there was a brief paragraph on Fred Hampton and how the FBI and the Chicago Police Department conspired to execute him,' Keith Lucas told Vulture. 'When we heard that story for the first time, we were taken aback. I couldn't believe something like this happened in this country and it wasn't more widely known.'

This is one of four movies to come out this year that deal with the FBI's involvement in the killing or threatening of Black activists. Films like Judas and the Black Messiah are imperative, as well One Night In Miami, MLK/FBI, and to a lesser extent The Trial of the Chicago 7 (which does mention Hampton's assassination and feature BPP co-founder Bobby Seale), to widen our perspective and give us a better understanding of this history, which is so often forgotten (especially in the whitewashed history classes you probably took in secondary school).

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