In the early hours of Dec. 4, 1969, Chicago police raided Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton’s home and shot him to death. He was 21.
More than 50 years after Chairman Hampton’s assassination, director Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” (in theaters and streaming on HBO Max now) is bringing Hampton’s story to the big screen with the help of Daniel Kaluuya (as Hampton)and Lakeith Stanfield (as FBI informant William O’Neal) under the guidance of Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton Jr.
Viewers get a timely history lesson on how Hampton and the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party influenced the community and posed a threat to the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who became obsessed with bringing down the man he believed could be a “Black messiah.”
Though King says it was hard to get things 100% factual, because of the FBI’s unreliable record-keeping, he and Hampton Jr. walk USA TODAY through the historical details.
‘It felt heavy’:Daniel Kaluuya on portraying Fred Hampton in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
Did Chicago police really torch the Black Panther Party’s headquarters?
In the summer of 1969, the police engaged in a shootout with Black Panther Party members which culminated in the arrest of several people and cops burning the building down.
The scene in “Judas and the Black Messiah” that shows everyone is silhouetted in a burned-out space “is based off a real photograph,” says King, who tried to capture the devastation. “The police were always trying to provoke the Panthers.”
King doesn’t know the specifics about how the shootout started, but says police claim there was a sniper on the roof.
“But as you know, they lied incessantly,” King says. “It’s very hard to make a movie about historical events when the history has been written by people who aren’t biding truthful history.”
Was Fred Hampton drugged before he was murdered?
Hampton’s autopsy revealed he had enough fentanyl in his system to knock a horse out, his son says, though it’s unclear whether O’Neal, the FBI informant who infiltrated the Black Panther Party, had drugged him, as the movie suggests.
King says he’s “convinced” it was O’Neal’s doing, adding that Hampton would have died from the fentanyl even if police hadn’t killed him.
“If he had been conscious then he could’ve defended himself,” King says. “People were incredibly afraid of this man because he was a mighty figure, so they went through every means to make sure they could render him as defenseless as possible during the assassination.”
Was Fred Hampton really arrested over ice cream?
In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Hampton is imprisoned after he’s accused of assaulting a Good Humor man and stealing $70 worth of ice cream.
King says this really happened. In 1968, Nelson Suitt testified in court that he was selling ice cream by a playground when a group of older teens demanded free ice cream.
Moments later, Suitt said, Hampton got out of a car, jumped into the ice cream truck and held him down while his crew unloaded ice cream from the vehicle. The Black Panther Party leader denied Suitt’s accusations and claimed he was denied a fair trial. Regardless, Hampton spent some time in prison.
Did William O’Neal try to leave the FBI?
Though O’Neal infiltrated the Black Panther Party on the FBI’s behalf, throughout the movie, he grows increasingly uncomfortable. At times, it appears as if he believes in the Panthers’ ideologies and even threatens FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) with quitting.
Very little has been written about O’Neal, King says, but as far as he’s aware, the informant never tried to part ways with the FBI. O’Neal’s 1990 obituary in the Chicago Tribute says he went into the Federal Witness Protection Program in 1973, four years after Hampton’s death.
Even the method by which O’Neal was recruited is still up for debate.
At the beginning of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” O’Neal walks into a bar and flashes a fake FBI badge before taking one of the patron’s cars. After he’s arrested, he agrees to become an FBI informant in exchange for immunity.
“I’ve heard multiple stories. That’s one of them,” King says. “I’ve heard multiple stories that corroborate the FBI badge story.”
Review:Daniel Kaluuya brings power, presence to ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’