From front to back: LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Image/Warner Bros. Pictures/TNS
by Zachary C. Young, Editor-in-Chief
Published Feb. 20, 2021
Released Feb. 12, 2021, “Judas and the Black Messiah” centers around William O’Neal’s involvement in the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. The film is directed by Shaka King and co-produced by Ryan Coogler, best known for directing Marvel’s Black Panther.
This film’s release is a timely one. Not only due to the fact that it is Black History Month, but because of the present social climate with race relations and police overreach currently being discussed in the United States.
The Black Panther Party was a political organization with the goal of achieving self-determination for Black America. The party was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seales in Oakland, California.
Newton and Seales’ ideals were simple and are laid out in what they titled “The Ten-Point Program.” Some of the points listed called for freedom, employment and housing for Black Americans, as well as the release of all Black Americans who were incarcerated.
The history of The Black Panthers and their leaders is often overlooked unless you major in African American Studies, or some other discipline of American history. “Judas and the Black Messiah” showcases a crucial part of the story that is the Black Panthers.
The opening scene of the movie begins with a Chicago man named William O’Neal (portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield) being arrested for grand theft auto and impersonating a federal officer. O’Neal is offered a deal by the FBI; infiltrate the Black Panther Party and become an informant. O’Neal obliges out of fear of serving time in prison.
The Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party is a young man named Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Hampton eventually holds the title of Deputy Chairman of the National Black Panther Party.
The film shows Hampton organizing with local street gangs and various ethnic groups in the community. The mission: “form a rainbow coalition of oppressed brothers and sisters of every color.”
Here comes the spoilers.
J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), the first Director of the FBI, labels the Black Panther Party as communists and according to declassified FBI documents, “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” The FBI aims to imprison Hampton in order to diminish the presence and influence of the Black Panthers.
“We must prevent the rise of a Black messiah,” said Hoover during a briefing with FBI agents.
O’Neal eventually proves his “allegiance” to the Panthers and becomes somewhat of a chauffeur for Hampton and other ranking members of the Panthers. The vehicle O’Neal drives was given to him by the FBI in hopes that he would gain more access to Hampton.
Fred Hampton, left, Chairman of the Black Panthers, speaks during a press conference with the Young Lords. Image/Dave Nystrom/Chicago Tribune
Not by O’Neal’s doing, Fred Hampton is arrested for allegedly stealing $70 worth of ice cream. While Hampton is in prison, the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panthers seem to unravel, losing some of the discipline that had been instilled in them.
During Hampton’s stint in prison, O’Neal is promoted to head of security for the Chicago Black Panther Party and the FBI begins to utilize O’Neal more given his rise in the ranks of the organization. The FBI eventually raids the Panther’s headquarters in Chicago, taking the group’s financial records and firearms.
After being released from prison, Hampton begins making public speeches again, spreading his message of proletarian unity. Posing a threat to the FBI, they request a map of Hampton’s apartment from O’Neal. Knowing what would come next, he grants their request.
Cut to the night of Dec. 3, 1969, the film shows the Panthers gathered in Hampton’s apartment and O’Neal gives Hampton a beverage laced with a substance to induce sleep. In the early hours of Dec. 4, authorities raided the apartment, firing off 99 rounds.
During the gunfire multiple individuals were shot, with Hampton and his roommate Mark Clark being killed. In the movie Hampton is shown being assassinated while he sleeps. Fred Hampton was only 21 years old.
O’Neal’s true involvement in the Panthers was made public in 1973 and the FBI placed him in the Witness Protection Program.
O’Neal was interviewed for a PBS special titled Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985 which aired in January of 1990.
O’Neal died that same month, struck by a car when he ran onto the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago.