After seeing Judas and the Black Messiah, it's hard not to fixate on how short Fred Hampton's life was. The chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party was only 21 years old when he was killed by police, and his death was only one year after he helped found the party's Chicago headquarters. So, while a lot happens in Judas and the Black Messiah, it all happens within the span of about one year. And it tells the events of that one year with great accuracy.
Director Shaka King spoke to GQ about the research that went into making the film, including speaking to those who were involved in the Black Panther Party at the time. Hampton's partner, Akua Njeri (who went by Deborah Johnson at the time of the events in the movie) and their son, Fred Hampton Jr., served as consultants on the film.
"One of the stipulations was that Fred Hampton Jr. be on set every day — and he was, which was invaluable to everyone," King said. "And that's not to say that it wasn't incredibly challenging, for him and for us, but we were able to find those points of interest and the movie you see is a result of that."
Read on to see how accurate the film is when it comes to Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), FBI informant William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), and the Illinois Black Panther Party as a whole.
Fred Hampton: Early Life, Joining the Panthers, Prison Time, & Murder
Judas and the Black Messiah does not share Hampton's age until the end of the film, explaining that he was killed when he was only 21 years old. This highlights the fact that Hampton's rise within the Black Panther Party was incredibly fast.
Hampton became a leader in his community when he was still in high school in Maywood, Illinois. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Hampton led a boycott of homecoming because Black girls were not allowed to become homecoming queen, and pushed for Maywood to start a summer jobs program for Black teens and open an integrated pool and community centre.
After high school, he became active with the NAACP and in the fight for civil rights and was eventually recruited by Black Panther Bobby Rush to help open the chapter in Chicago. (Rush is now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.)
As shown in the movie, Hampton was in prison for a few months for a charge related to an ice cream truck being looted and the driver being beaten. Hampton denied any involvement in the incident.
In the early morning of December 4, 1969, only a year after joining the Illinois Black Panther Party, Hampton was killed during a police raid. He had been drugged the night before.
William O’Neal: FBI Deal, Black Panthers, & Death
Like Hampton, O'Neal was very young during the events shown in Judas and the Black Messiah. According to a 1990 Chicago Tribune article about his death, O'Neal first came into contact with FBI agent Roy Mitchell in 1966, at which time he would have only been 17 years old. Mitchell let O'Neal off on charges for stealing a car and driving it across state lines in exchange for him becoming an informant.
As reported in the Chicago Tribune story, O'Neal really did become the chief of security for the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers and provided the floor plan of the apartment in which Hampton and fellow Black Panther Mark Clark were killed.
O'Neal being an informant was not immediately known following the deaths. He went on to enter the Witness Protection Program and move to California, before later moving back to Chicago. In 1989, he opened up about his experience for the documentary series Eyes on the Prize. In the episode, O'Neal said he got along well with Hampton.
"I just began to realise that the information that I had supplied leading up to that moment had facilitated that raid. I knew that indirectly, I had contributed and I felt it, and I felt bad about it. And then I got mad," he said in the documentary. "And then I had to conceal those feelings, which made it worse. I couldn't say anything, I just had to continue to play the role."
King has a different take on this. In his GQ interview, he said that O'Neal was "such a fucking liar," and pointed out that he must have known the raid was going to occur since he was the one who drugged Hampton.
O'Neal died by suicide in January 1990, a month before the episode was going to air.
Roy Mitchell: A Lengthy FBI Career
Mitchell's 25-year career with the FBI extended beyond his involvement with O'Neal and the Black Panthers in Chicago. According to his Chicago Tribune obituary, he worked in New York City, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Mississippi. In Mississippi, he helped solve the murders of three civil rights activists. In Judas, he uses this story to convince O'Neal that he is not against all Black people. Mitchell worked under J. Edgar Hoover (played in the film by Martin Sheen), who served as FBI Director for 48 years.
A U.S. District Judge named Charles Kocoras told the Chicago Tribune that Mitchell was "the last person you might think would strike up a relationship with a black teenager in the 1960s." Then, speaking on O'Neal's behalf, he said, "But he became like a father to O'Neal and he trusted Roy at a time when not many people trusted anybody."
Mitchell died of cancer in 2000 at age 66.
The Illinois Black Panthers: Height of Power & Legacy
Judas and the Black Messiah shows the organising the Black Panthers did in Chicago, including giving out free meals to children and providing healthcare. This is all true to life. The Black Panther Party opened medical clinics around the country called Peoples' Free Medical Clinics. In addition to providing care for those who otherwise wouldn't have received it, the clinics were key in addressing sickle cell anaemia, which disproportionately affects Black people. According to Black Past, only one of the clinics is still around today. The clinic, which is in Seattle, was able to secure funding and continue to exist after the Black Panther Party's downfall.
The part of the film that shows Hampton organising with Latino and white groups is also accurate. The Panthers joined together with the Young Lords and the Young Patriots — and later more groups — to form the Rainbow Coalition. This way, they could all provide support for one another in their fights for equal housing and against poverty and police brutality.
The Black Panther Party became inactive in the early 1980s. Fred Hampton Jr. (above) is now head of the group The Black Panther Party Cubs.