Inspired by true events, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah explores the betrayal of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in late-1960s Chicago, at the hands of FBI informant William O’Neal.
The project originated with King and his writing partner, Will Berson, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Kenny Lucas & Keith Lucas, who co-wrote the story with Berson & King. King, who has a long relationship with filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), pitched the film to Coogler and Charles D. King (Just Mercy, Fences), who are producing the film with Shaka King.
Filmmakers were committed to avoiding the traditional biopic, opting instead to go with a man looking for his own version of the American Dream as their entry point into the compelling narrative.
Shaka King explains, “William O’Neal is complex. Intelligent, able to spot and exploit opportunities presented, he’d make a great captain of industry. But those possibilities aren’t afforded him as a young Black man in Chicago in 1968. And that doesn’t sit right with him. In the pursuit of more he finds himself at a crossroads: he can align himself with ‘people power,’ which is what Fred and the Panthers are selling, or the ‘power’ that we’ve come to understand as power in America, represented by the FBI. His decision entangles him in a web of his own deception.”
King refrains from viewing the character as a victim. In the eyes of the filmmaker, O’Neal is trying to capitalize on the few opportunities presented to him. He has the power of persuasion and is capable of manipulating others, just as he is manipulated to an ever-increasing degree by the FBI. There is a rush he gets from being in a position of power. His cons involve impersonating authority—a cop, an agent—and leveraging the trust of his marks to get what he’s after. Compared with Hampton’s beyond-his-years maturity, O’Neal’s mischievousness smacks of immaturity.
Although the film was to be inspired by true events, decisions were made to live within the reality of the subject matter with adaptations where necessary.
- Jameelah Nasheed unpacks the importance of balanced storytelling in historical films, like Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. Read more
Arrested for impersonating an FBI agent and driving a stolen car across state lines, William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is given an ultimatum by his FBI interrogator: face a possible seven years in jail, or betray the trust of his community by becoming a counterintelligence operative and infiltrating the Illinois Black Panther Party to keep tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). O’Neal—intelligent, good-looking—is a man on a mission to survive in a system that has rendered him powerless. Now, in a police station sitting across the table from FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), he is asked to make the first of many bad choices. Inside the Illinois Chapter of the BPP, Hampton’s political prowess has been growing just as he’s falling in love with fellow revolutionary Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback); the relationship profoundly affects them both, galvanizing Johnson’s activism and tempering Hampton’s polemics with humanism. O’Neal finds his situation growing more complex the deeper he goes and the closer he gets to Hampton. He is inexorably drawn to the lifestyle and influence Agent Mitchell possesses, while his thoughts have begun to align with the Panthers’ messaging, increasingly experiencing first-hand the societal inequalities they are butting against.
Growing up, filmmaker Shaka King was familiar with the horrific way Fred Hampton died, but he knew little about the way he lived and nothing about the man within Hampton’s circle whose selfish actions helped cut short his promising life—one defined by the very words that would long outlive him.
In fact, when King first read Hampton’s speeches, he was astounded at the wit, depth and vision of his words and ideas, and how relevant his message remains.
Shaka King says, “I think, for a lot of Black men, Fred Hampton is a real hero because of just how undaunted, unafraid and unstoppable he was, yet people always seem centered on the tragic way he died, not at all focused on the heroic way he lived. I wanted to change that.”
In the early gestation of the project, the filmmaking duo of brothers Kenny and Keith Lucas approached King and asked him to join as writer and director of a nascent project on Hampton. The trio, along with actor/producer/writer (and friend) Jermaine Fowler, had stayed in communication periodically to continue their collaboration, but things didn’t really gather momentum until 2016. King announced that that was the year their efforts would coalesce, and he began what he calls “a deep dive, educating myself about the story and the history,” resulting in an outline that gradually grew in length.
Amidst early progress, Fowler advised King that several Hampton projects were also in development, one with producer/writer Will Berson, whom Fowler also knew. Fowler asked if King would like to read Berson’s script? King’s curiosity got the better of him and, liking some of the elements in the screenplay that he read, he met with Berson, who came onboard, agreeing to the marriage of their two projects.
Throughout the development journey, King’s view on the project remained unchanged: “The initial spark for me wasn’t to tackle this as a straightforward biopic. The Lucas Bros had said, ‘Hey, make this movie about Fred Hampton and William O’Neal, inside the world of COINTELPRO.’ I thought this undercover thriller was a great concept for the movie, and I became incredibly drawn to the character of Hampton the deeper I went. We all gravitated to Fred so much because of his way with words. He was clever, he was witty, he was funny.”
In addition to highlighting Hampton’s verbal prowess, the group was also looking to frame the film in light of the activist’s even more resonant causes. Berson observes, “I think one of the things that is so obvious to me about Chairman Fred is the way he resembles Barack Obama a generation before Obama, but more left, more progressive, a revolutionary. He was a brilliant orator with an incredible mind. He studied pre-law and was a community organizer in Chicago. There’s this heart-wrenching ‘what if’ to his story.”
Keith Lucas recalls that he and brother Kenny “first heard about Fred Hampton when we were taking an African-American studies course together. Before that, we hadn’t known anything about him or his story—it’s not really taught where we’re from. We read his story and it just blew us away. And no one was really talking about what an injustice it was. It’s one of those stories that once you read about it…”
“You never forget it, it sticks with you,” Kenny Lucas picks up. “Once we got into the entertainment industry, like our second or third year, when we started to get a flow of how the industry works, we were like, ‘We gotta get this thing made.’ It was shocking to us that it had not been made since his death.”
“But not that shocking,” Keith adds, “because it’s a really tough story in light of the subject matter. Because of who he is and who he was and how controversial his death was. We realized it was going to be an uphill battle. But, we stayed passionate about trying to figure out a way to tell his story.”
Thankfully, King shared their passion, and felt he knew others who would as well.
King had met Ryan Coogler when both brought films to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Dinners and discussion there spawned a friendship that continued to develop over the years. Beyond Coogler’s sterling and record-setting track record, King valued a certain aspect of his skillset that would become invaluable as the project moved forward. King made the call.
King explains, “Among many other valuable things, Ryan was critical in assuring Fred Hampton, Jr. and Akua Njeri [formerly Deborah Johnson] trust the enterprise with Fred’s legacy. On the narrative side of things, he’s the man who made me write 13, 14 drafts—do you know how many times I cursed him in my mind?!” he laughs. “But really, he’s a magical person, for a million reasons. This movie had a slim chance of getting made without his involvement. Utilizing his expertise at crafting elevated large-scale movies to bring this powerful story to the masses felt like destiny.”
In fact, it was. Coogler’s aunts and uncles were members of the Black Panther Party. His grandmother’s house was on the block of the Panthers’ first documented community action: installing a stop sign at an intersection where Black children were frequently being run over in traffic.
At the time of King’s reaching out, Coogler and business partner/spouse Zinzi Coogler had been discussing expansion of their producing slate, specifically projects, he says, “that on the surface felt like genre pieces, commercial pieces, but underneath, had a little more to them. So that audiences might feel like they got something they might not experience otherwise while being involved with a compelling, entertaining story.”
Coogler continues, “Hampton had a unique talent for making complex ideas communicable in simple context. He seemed to have a tremendous talent for meeting people at their level, and being able to find common ground without sacrificing people’s individuality. He obviously had an impact on Black people, but also on people who were on the lower rungs of the social class and who were overlooked. He had the foresight to advocate for things and raise issues that are still incredibly relevant over a half of a century after his assassination: self-determination, health care, police violence, systemic racism, economic and social justice. And he was an incredible thinker, speaker and teacher. This project was just the kind of film we were looking to foster.”
Prior to the project, filmmaker Charles D. King had already worked with Shaka King and Ryan Coogler, helping to form Blackout for Human Rights—a collective of artists and activists throwing light on social injustice and police brutality in their communities. The opportunity to help tell the story of Fred Hampton, a revolutionary who worked to build the Rainbow Coalition and uplift his community in 1960s Chicago, deeply resonated with the King and aligned with the mission of his media company MACRO. King knew his participation was never in question.
The producer explains, “This project was an alliance of excellence, and we wanted to be involved on that basis. The other big factor was acknowledging the importance of the story, and the determination to tell it in the right way. There will be generations that will learn more about the Black Panther Party for the first time from this movie, although there have been other great movies that touched on the Black Panthers. But this includes a focus on Chairman Fred Hampton, and the impact he’s had on communities—we had to make sure we got it right to honor the legacy of the family.”
LaKeith Stanfield, who stars in the difficult role of the film’s “Judas,” states, “Fred’s journey has never stopped. I’m so grateful to the family for giving us the tools to be able to help bring this story to everybody on a global sense, and Shaka and everyone that put this together. As a result, we have the opportunity to work on this courageous project. I want to see more things like this—more pieces that can move people, projects and material that can help me, and others, grow.”
Ryan Coogler says, “I think this was the film Shaka was born to make, to be honest…and I don’t say that lightly because it’s not an obvious thing. I’m very familiar with Shaka’s work and he’s more known for being a comedic director—the guys who approached in the first place, the Lucas Bros, are also comedians. I think that’s relative. People who have a talent in that genre tend to have keen observation and razor-sharp insight into humanity and social systems. The film brings up things that are still bothering us, things that need to be addressed. Putting this in Shaka’s hands made sense in a way you couldn’t put your finger on—kismet. Even down to the fact that every actor Shaka wanted, we were able to get. No one passed, or wasn’t available, down the line. From the start, it was incredibly unique and special.”
“Chairman Fred Hampton had the power, the way with words and the integrity to stitch together different communities, in spite of whatever problems these groups had with each other,” says Daniel Kaluuya, who plays the titular Black Messiah. “Talking to people in Chicago, I heard that he had the gift to de-escalate gang warfare—to bring whites from Appalachia and Chicago, Latinx and Blacks together for a common community purpose. Think about that and how invaluable he would be today. To get to walk in his shoes…it’s just such an honor.”
Kaluuya adds, “When it comes to the Black Panthers, I think there is a disconnect between the perception and the truth. Chairman Fred Hampton was murdered before people could realize that he was the root of a lot of impact. There are a lot of strategies that have been applied, particularly with socialist organizations, because of Chairman Fred Hampton’s words, philosophies and ideas. By branding him and the Panthers as a militant terrorist group, you’re disassociating him from the good generated by their community programs, as well as misrepresenting and antagonizing what the Party actually stood for. People only remember those—they remember the images and rhetoric used by government agencies to terrify and bring about their demise.”
Stanfield sees a more philosophical bent to the Panthers’ targeting: “I think when something sits on a foundation/government that isn’t sturdy, people who question that foundation are seen as dangerous. I think that’s why Hampton and the Panthers were so feared. They knew they were on some f*&ked shit, and Chairman Fred told them to their faces, ‘No, we’re not gonna stand for this. We’re standing up for what we believe in.’ That’s real, and I got nothing but love and respect for it.”
“I see him as a man carrying a heavy load,” Kaluuya winds up, “who put his life on the line for his people. Channeling his perspective, outlook, idea and spirit was an ongoing source of inspiration that’s going to stay with me.”
Charles D. King asserts, “This kind of story is relatable to young kids today, the ones that were galvanized in the summer of 2020, the coalition of communities—Black, Brown, White—everybody together, standing up for race relations. This tells them that we’ve had greatness and excellence; we’ve had fighters and revolutionaries doing it long before us in intelligent and thoughtful ways. You, too, can have a voice and play a part in change.”
Ryan Coogler comments, “If people turn off a movie and hop on their computers or buy a book and think, then we win. We also win if people are able to stand a little bit taller after seeing a film. It was rare to see a Black person in a position of leadership in cinema. And when you did see them, it was very often in an enterprise based on a destructive product. But it’s powerful to see. And it’s better now. This story is not make-believe. Our people did this.”
Coogler concludes, “I was thinking about the reasons the Panthers were formed, what they were actively doing—trying to feed poor people, to build a medical center that could take care of people, to get the police off people’s backs—and watching everything that was going on during post-production on this film. I could not sleep. All that shit Chairman Fred was fighting for, that he was calling out…it’s still coming to a head and it’s still biting us in the ass. I just thought—if he were still alive, how would this country be different?”
Shaka King says, “It isn’t so much that these things are more relevant today, as much as they have never not been relevant, which I think is really the takeaway from 2020. I think the parallels are crazy in relation to the Panthers and their directive on educating people: in order to join the Panthers, you had to take six weeks of political education. This pandemic is claiming far more Black and Brown people than non-Black—the Panthers started free medical clinics around the country, a free ambulance service. You have the Panther’s focus on putting an end to state-sponsored brutality—you have the murder of George Floyd and the rebellions that followed.
“I truly believe,” King finishes, “there’s a reason why we don’t learn about Fred Hampton’s assassination in school. That would mean we as a country would have to start acknowledging what the government did to Hampton, along with its quelling of other voices of Civil Rights and revolution…then we would have to acknowledge the government’s part in instigating genocide and suffering, from the Native Americans to slavery. And the list goes on. Chairman Fred’s murder does not exist in a vacuum. To start with the truth of that would be a slippery slope for this country—a reckoning of its past wrongs. But I think, especially now, that that is the only way we start to move forward. The time is way overdue.”