‘Judas and the Black Messiah’: What to Know About the HBO Max Film
For the black Americans in the 1960s who were attacked and molested by the police, 21-year-old Fred Hampton was a strong personality.
To the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was a radical threat.
Hampton was killed by Chicago police officers in the early morning of December 4, 1969 in a robbery of his West Side apartment, one block south of the Black Panther Party headquarters in Chicago. The ambush and the months of FBI surveillance of Hampton and the Panthers that preceded it are dramatized in Shaka King’s film, Judas and the Black Messiah, which begins streaming on HBO Max on Friday.
At the time of Hampton’s death, Chicago was the scene of political protests and violent clashes with law enforcement. The infamous Chicago 7 trial, a legal battle involving seven Vietnam War protesters charged with conspiracy to riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention (a saga featured in Aaron Sorkin’s recent film, The Trial of the Chicago 7 ”), had been on the road for a little over two months.
King, who co-wrote the script with Will Berson, drew mostly on facts when he took viewers to the Black Panther Party in the months leading up to Hampton’s death, despite taking some dramatic liberties. For example, the star of the film, Daniel Kaluuya, is a decade older than 21-year-old Hampton when he was killed.
Here is a guide to the real people, groups, and events that appear in Judas and the Black Messiah. Be warned, there are spoilers if such a thing is possible when speaking of history.
Who were the Black Panthers?
The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, California in 1966 by two black college students, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, to crack down on police brutality and racism in the neighborhood. Known for their military-style black berets, leather jackets, and raised fist salute, the panthers believed in removing abusive officers from the communities by any means necessary, including armed resistance.
The FBI viewed the Panthers as a radical group capable of rousing a militant black nationalist movement. (Hoover, the bureau’s first director, described the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to the country’s internal security”). However, the Panthers also launched a number of social initiatives: members ran medical clinics, provided prisoners to family members for free, and started a free breakfast program that fed thousands of school children.
The charismatic community organizer saw a meteoric rise, taking him from campaigning for an integrated community pool and recreation center in his hometown of Maywood, Illinois, to preaching to thousands as chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party.
In 1969, a few months after helping found the party’s Illinois chapter, 20-year-old Hampton brokered an alliance he called the Rainbow Coalition, which included the Black Panthers, Young Patriots (southern white left), and Young Lords (a Puerto Rican civil and human rights organization) to fight poverty and racism in their Chicago communities.
Hampton’s rapid rise through the ranks of the Black Panther Party put him in the crosshairs of a secret FBI counterintelligence program known as Cointelpro that Hoover founded to “expose, disrupt, mislead, discredit, or otherwise kill the black nationalist’s activities neutralize, hate type organizations. “The goals included both Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the Ku Klux Klan. Hoover stated in an internal memo that he wanted to prevent the “rise of a” messiah “who could unite and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.”
Under Cointelpro, the FBI tried a number of tactics to sow discord within the Black Panther Party nationally and locally, including sending bogus letters to two of its leaders, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton, claiming everyone wanted to break out the other. Authorities also arrested Hampton and several other panthers in an attempt to publicly discredit the group. In the months leading up to the attack on Hampton’s apartment, the Panthers and the police faced each other in two gun fights: one in July 1969 at the party’s headquarters on the West Side, in which five police officers and three Panthers were injured, and one on the South Side, who fought against it In November two officers and a panther died.
Who Was William O’Neal?
At 17, O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) had a criminal record when FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) tracked him down after he stole a car in 1966. But O’Neal soon took on a new role: FBI informant. Given the choice between being charged with a crime or agreeing to infiltrate the Panthers, he opted for the latter: as the security captain of the Illinois Black Panther Party, he infiltrated Hampton’s inner circle.
In 1969, O’Neal designed a floor plan for Hampton’s West Side Apartment, which the FBI shared with the Chicago Police Department, the agency that carried out the fatal attack. But unlike the character in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the real O’Neal did not see his actions as betrayal of Hampton or the Panthers. “I wasn’t connected to the Panthers,” he recalled in an interview for the PBS documentaries “Eyes on the Prize,” which recorded the history of the civil rights movement in the United States.
What happened the morning Fred Hampton was killed?
Fourteen Chicago police officers arrived at Hampton’s apartment before dawn on December 4, 1969, acting on the orders of Edward V. Hanrahan, the Cook County attorney. More than 80 shots were fired in about 10 minutes. By the time the smoke cleared, Hampton, 21, and one other party leader, Mark Clark, 22, were dead, and four other Panthers and two police officers were wounded.
Police initially claimed they killed Hampton in self-defense after people in the apartment fired shotguns at them while trying to execute a search warrant for illegal weapons. However, ballistics experts determined that probably only one of the bullets was fired from a gun belonging to a resident of the apartment. An investigation by the federal grand jury also found that the “bullet holes” in the front door of the apartment that officers cited as evidence that the panthers shot them were in fact nail holes made by police.
Although the Chicago Police Department led the raid, the grand jury concluded that it had been coordinated by the FBI as part of Hoover’s mission to cripple the Black Panther Party – and an FBI memo later revealed that the bureau was making a bonus payment had approved at O ’Neal.
The first federal grand jury declined to indict individuals involved in the raid, and although a subsequent grand jury indicted Hanrahan and the police officers involved in the shootings, all charges were dismissed. In 1982, the federal government, the city of Chicago, and Cook County agreed to pay $ 1.85 million to the families of Hampton and Clark and survivors of the robbery without admitting any wrongdoing.
Clarence M. Kelley, who succeeded Hoover as head of the FBI in 1973, apologized publicly three years later for the office’s abuse of power in the “twilight” of Hoover’s career. “Some of these activities were clearly wrong and unjustifiable, ”said Kelley. “We must certainly never allow them to be repeated.”