February 19, 2021 – Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party and founder of the Rainbow Coalition became forever linked to William O’Neal upon O’Neal’s appearance in the epic 1987 documentary miniseries “Eyes on the Prize.” These two men are front and center in the new historical drama, “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
While Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya of “Black Panther”) was a Marxist revolutionary leader on the rise, O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield of “The Photograph”) was a small time, 17-year-old crook facing serious jail time when they met. O’Neal was recruited as an FBI informant by agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons of “The Irishman”).
The FBI was very eager to get an informant into the Illinois Black Panther Party organization, led by Hampton. The legendary head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen of “The Departed”) feared that Hampton might lead a revolution against the government.
Hampton was not only a charismatic leader and a gifted orator, but he was also an extraordinary organizer, able to form potentially vast and powerful coalitions between minority organizations and even poor whites. The movie shows Hampton entering both a black Chicago gang headquarters (Hampton brokered a non-aggression pact among Chicago’s street gangs) and a meeting of a southern white group, the Young Patriots Organization.
Despite the FBI trying to engineer a split in the coalition, Hampton was able to establish his multi-racial Rainbow Coalition (no relation to the same-named organization later headed by Jesse Jackson). The Rainbow Coalition would later be joined by the Brown Berets and the American Indian Movement, among others.
The FBI was looking for a serious violation of the law so they could put Hampton away for years. O’Neal discovered, however, that Hampton was much more interested in the Black Panther’s free breakfast program for kids and establishing medical clinics in under served areas. Rather than the use of violence, Hampton was more interested in using his organizing skills to form a mass movement, what he called people power.
O’Neal came to admire Hampton, and the FBI was afraid that O’Neal had become radicalized. The movie makes it unclear just what O’Neal’s exact personal beliefs and motivations were. O’Neal is a complex character in this movie, and the real O’Neal was complicated as well.
Ultimately, the decision came down to kill Hampton, and O’Neal was tasked with spiking Hampton’s drink with a chemical to induce sleep, and providing a detailed floor plan of Hampton’s apartment. After Hampton’s death on December 4, 1969 (Hampton, wounded and helpless, was killed in bed by police who shot him twice in the head at close range) O’Neal is rewarded with the keys to his own business by agent Roy Mitchell in a 30-pieces-of-silver scene.
This movie makes the argument that O’Neal committed suicide in 1990 because of his guilt over his part in the assassination of Hampton years earlier. According to an article on the movie by Nick Pope in Esquire, O’Neal’s true feelings his part in Hampton’s death are unclear. O’Neal said he feels he did not betray Hampton and that he had no allegiance to him, or to the Black Panthers, according to the article, which is based, in part, on unaired interview footage originally shot for the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary.
While there is no way to know O’Neal’s true feelings about his role in Hampton’s death, this film certainly doesn't stray far from the established facts of the case, and it makes defensible suppositions about O’Neal’s and Hampton’s deaths.
Some of the facts surrounding Hampton’s death were established in a 1970 civil rights suit brought against the raiders and their employers by survivors of the raid, and the relatives of Hampton and Mark Clark (Clark also killed in the same raid). The suit was finally settled 12 years later for $1.85 million paid to the plaintiffs, including Hampton and Clark’s mothers. Reportedly, this was one of the largest ever settlements in a civil rights case of this kind.
Hampton’s death in a police shooting is reminiscent of the 2020 police shooting death of Breonna Taylor, who was also shot dead by police while she was in bed in her home. It is also reminiscent of the raids which led to three deaths at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and 86 deaths at the Waco, Texas Branch Davidian compound in 1993. These incidents lit the fuse of the white supremacist, anti-government retaliatory bombing at Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.
This law enforcement pattern of “shoot first and justify it later” has a long history in America, and it has led to many problems, so have armed groups that use violence to address political grievances, such as The Weather Underground Organization and Neo-Nazi groups like The Order. Right now, white supremacist violence is on the rise.
The events depicted in this movie happened over 50 years ago, but they are still relevant today. This film reminds us how many things are the still the same, even after 50 years. Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield and Dominique Fishback (who plays Deborah Johnson, Hampton's girlfriend and mother to Fred Hampton Jr.) all give powerful performances. Fred Hampton Jr. is now chairman of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee and the Black Panther Party Cubs. He was also a consultant on this film.
This is one of those movies where I needed subtitles for some of Hampton's fiery speeches because of the unfamiliar nomenclature and the accent, which I assume is meant to reflect Hampton's real life, emotional, staccato speaking style. Writer-Director Shaka King has given us a powerful film. This film rates a B.
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