Released in theaters and on HBO Max today, Judas and the Black Messiah has already received major buzz in the media, celebrating the film itself as well as performances from our best young actors, Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. The drama shares a piece of American history that is criminally undiscussed in our history books. This story is so crazy, it has people asking, ‘how did I not know about this,’ but hey, that’s America for you.
Beware of spoilers ahead, history doesn’t respect those.
The story follows William O’Neal (Stanfield), a reformed career criminal working to stay on the straight and narrow, who becomes an FBI informant set to infiltrate the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the BPP, was a revolutionary socialist and one of the movement’s youngest leaders. While leading the BPP and pushing for social change, the FBI marked him as a radical threat, working to subvert his activities in the Chicago area. The FBI enlisted their informant O’Neal to take down Hampton and the Chicago sect of the Black Panther Party. O’Neal rose through the ranks, earning a leadership position and being enlisted as Hampton’s personal bodyguard, which is painfully ironic. FBI reports of Hampton’s community reflected that the Chicago sect of the BPP was “primarily feeding breakfast to children,” only inciting good in the community. President Hoover responded with a reiteration that the Black Panther Party was “a violence-prone organization seeking to overthrow the Government by revolutionary means,” and from there, chaos ensues. This piece of history ultimately ends with the death of Hampton at the young age of 21 by the hands of the FBI. In an act of both betrayal and self-preservation, O’Neal alerted the FBI that much of the BPP’s weaponry was stored in Hampton’s home, drawing them a map of the apartment he shared with his pregnant wife. A heavily armed mini-militia of police officers raided Hampton’s home in the middle of the night, shooting a sleeping Hampton, a story that feels far too familiar in light of Breonna Taylor’s murder. Hampton was shot in the head twice, and the BPP members inside the house were shot, beaten, and ultimately charged with aggravated assault and attempted murder of police officers.
Following the violence of the night, the police held a press conference announcing that they had been attacked by a “violent” and “extremely vicious” group of Panthers, and praised their team for their “remarkable restraint” and “professional discipline.”
Following the murder, William O’Neal entered the Federal Witness Protection program and lived out the following years in hiding, before running into traffic at the age of 40. His death is widely considered to be a suicide, especially given his earlier attempt that same night to jump from a second story window. Guilt ate O’Neal from the inside out, receiving no support or assistance from the FBI, who tossed him aside the moment they were finished with him.
In recent years, conversations have shifted as scholars began to title Hampton’s death as an assassination. Hampton was an NAACP leader, organizing young black people in the face of oppression. His funeral was attended by 5,000 people, and his wife birth to their son just four weeks after his murder.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a modern portrayal of this dark slice of American history, but the true pain comes in the way that this story doesn’t feel out of reach. Ultimately, can we say we’ve come very far from this moment? Can we with confidence say that this would never happen today?
Judas and the Black Messiah is available to stream on HBO Max, as well as in theaters. The film is directed by Shaka King, and originally premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.