Is Judas and the Black Messiah Based on a True Story?

Shaka King’s debut feature film, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ is a powerful, hard-hitting retelling of one of the most turbulent chapters in America’s history. ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ follows the Chicago-set story of William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a thief who impersonates an FBI agent to steal cars, and how he ultimately fits into the villainous role of the Biblical Judas. When O’Neal is caught by the police, real FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) tells him that he can avoid jail time by working for the Bureau.

In the late 1960s, O’Neal is asked to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, get close to its charismatic chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), and then pass on their secrets to the FBI so they can take down what they essentially see as a “terrorist organization.” The film depicts William O’Neal’s internal battle as he chooses to rat out the Black Panthers’ plans and other key information that leads the FBI to move against the iridescent young revolutionary, Fred Hampton, in an act of ultimate betrayal.

O’Neal well knows that what he’s doing is wrong, and he is wracked with guilt, but the thought-provoking film delves deep into his motivations behind the brutal betrayal. ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is an electrifying, moving, and profoundly relevant piece of art that holds up a mirror to society. The film refuses to pull punches and doesn’t sugarcoat the reality while exploring themes of rampant racism and bigotry. If you’re wondering just how rooted in reality ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s what we know.

Is Judas and the Black Messiah Based on a True Story?

Yes, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is based on a true story. The movie is a retelling of the real-life events that led to the 1969 shooting and killing of the 21-year-old African-American activist and Black Panther Party leader, Fred Hampton. Hampton is the Black Messiah of the title, while FBI informant William O’Neal is the Judas, whose deception cost Hampton his life. Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton Jr. (who was born just days after his father’s death), also worked on the film as a consultant, lending it authenticity.

Deborah Johnson, Fred’s fiance, with their son. Image Credit: ‘The Murder of Fred Hampton’ (1971)

In ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ Martin Sheen plays the role of J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial first director of the FBI, whose racism-fueled notions of eradicating political dissenters and activists led to the formation of COINTELPRO – a covert program that employed illegal “dirty tricks” to squash the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Allegedly, Hoover personally prevented the federal prosecutions of several members of the Ku Klux Klan who were responsible for numerous hate crimes. William O’Neal was recruited as an informant who provided crucial internal details about Hampton and his immediate circle, the leaders of the Black Panther Party. Hampton, who advocated non-violence, non-aggression, and peace, was identified as a radical threat by Hoover’s FBI and was, as such, targeted by them.

Image Credit: ‘The Murder of Fred Hampton’ (1971)

In his short but meteoric rise to prominence as an activist leader, Hampton endeavored to unite and mobilize not only the African-American youth but also people from other cultures who’d faced persecution. He brought many people together with his magnetic charisma and unbelievable oratorical skills, uniting them under a multicultural movement called the Rainbow Coalition. Hampton was also working to broker an alliance among major Chicago street gangs to help them end infighting and work together for social change.

In one of his speeches, Hampton said – “We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.”

Inside the bedroom where Fred Hampton was killed. Image Credit: ‘The Murder of Fred Hampton’ (1971)

But in an unfortunate turn of events, using the floor plans provided by William O’Neal, Fred Hampton was assassinated in his home by a tactical team of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, working in association with the Chicago Police Department and the FBI. The 21-year-old father-to-be was shot and killed in his bed during a predawn raid at his Chicago apartment in the wee hours of December 4, 1969.

20-year-old O’Neal, who had infiltrated the BPP as a counterintelligence operative for the FBI and had risen swiftly through the ranks to become the Director of Chapter Security and Hampton’s trusted bodyguard, had mixed a sedative called secobarbital into Hampton’s drink the night before so he would not wake up during the police raid.

The policemen who led the raid, giving their account of events during the investigation. Image Credit: ‘The Murder of Fred Hampton’ (1971)

The killing of Fred Hampton was legally ruled a “justifiable homicide” back in 1970, but most contemporary scholars now consider it a murder planned and executed by the feds and the police. William O’Neal lived to the age of 40 and died in a car accident when he ran into traffic. While O’Neal’s wife claimed it was accidental, his death was ruled to be a suicide. Many speculated that the man was overcome with guilt about the incident and chose to end his life. However, he had previously established his sentiments regarding the matter: “I had no allegiance to the Panthers.”

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