The story of Fred Hampton is a great one and very well known. So many people also know of the man named William O’Neal, history’s villain in the story. O’Neal was an FBI informant in 1969 and his information did indeed lead to a raid led by the Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan. Before the raid in which Hampton was murdered, O’Neal was the one who gave Hanrahan a map to the leader’s bed. O’Neal has been the bad guy since then.
That narrative is wrong.
What Judas and the Black Messiah brings to this story is a closer look at William O’Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield, from the moment he got set up with the FBI to the night of the murder. The film humanizes the man while offering us the truth. We learn the truth about Hampton’s death and also the torment O’Neal suffered knowing that he was informing on such a great man.
Humanizing the Default “Villain”
History records O’Neal as the default villain because it was easier to blame him than the FBI, Cook County State’s Attorney, and the Chicago Police. All of the people had a hand in entrapping O’Neal and murdering Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya. Humanizing O’Neal removes the villain label from the man and places it squarely on the shoulders of these law enforcement officials where it belongs. Judas and the Black Messiah is thus vital and appropriately premiering the first week of Black History Month.
Telling the Real Story of Hampton’s Assassination
Director Shaka King wrote the story with Will Benson, taking a lot of care in layering all the many complex relationships that O’Neal carried into the film. Most people do not realize that O’Neal was only 20 in 1969 when the assassination occurred. Stanfield’s slight frame works on a few levels to portray this immaturity in the character. When he was arrested and approached by the FBI, he was only 17 and an experienced hand at petty crimes–crimes that were not violent or felony-level offenses. However, the FBI needed a young Black face to infiltrate Hampton’s circle. So, they rolled all those petty offenses into major ones that would mean a lifetime in prison for O’Neal.
Another layer was the poverty which drove O’Neal to the petty offenses in the first place. Stanfield’s depiction is not a cold-calculating criminal. He was a poor black boy from a broke community that had nothing to offer him, in a city that preferred if he stayed silent, broke, and out of the white folk’s way. In this film, we see what is probably the truest depiction, a bumbling teen doing what he could to survive while having a little fun along the way. Just one of those arrests changed the boy’s like and haunted him forever.
FBI agent Roy Martin Mitchell snapped O’Neal up one day and rolled all of his petty offenses into major felonies. The man was looking at prison time for the rest of his life. Then the offer, inform on the Black Party Panther’s rising start Hampton and the FBI would reduce his sentence. There was a bonus as well–large sums of cash that a broke Black teen would not turn down. At 17, there was not an option. After years of studying the prison system, we now understand that this is not a decision that could even be called such. O’Neal was forced into the position of FBI snitch.
King’s version of this story also lays out the way that the white FBI agents and white CPD officers fabricated the basis for their cases against Hampton and the Panther. This was done to not only get warrants and make arrests but to also incite the white suburbanites who already grew tense when a Black person lingered too long on Main street. Black viewers may feel a bit of that ancestral rage as they watch the lies to Hoover about how Black Panthers were rioting in the streets and looting in the suburbs. That said over images of the people getting into their cars and driving home.
The Fear and Scene-Stealing
Judas and the Black Messiah shows us how the CPD and law enforcement all the way up through the FBI feared Black people getting enough power to overturn the tables of equality. They feared Hampton because of his ability to bring all people together–Black folks from the community, gangs, and even white workers. these people were powerful when they were together, so much so that they really could have forced change if Hampton lived.
It should be noted that fear was not the thing that hampered Kaluuya’s depiction of Hampton. In fact, the man becomes almost godlike and unreal. He steals the screen so completely that some people will forget that the story is not about Hampton. This is O’Neal’s narrative. Kaluuya overpowers Stanfield so much that even I had to readjust my perceptions during my screening. Otherwise, Judas and the Black Messiah is a great way to get the basics of the true story. Just enough to carry you until a little research can fill in the holes.
I also want to mention the romantic side story between Hampton and the mother of his only child Deborah Johnson, played by Dominique Fishback. I loved the flashes of chemistry that we get between the two actors and I would have loved to watch more. (Dear Shaka King, can we see Southside with You version of the Hampton-Johnson story. Must star Kaluuya and Fishback. Please and thanks!)
It’s O’Neal’s Story to Tell
The point of view and centering of a man that American history has depicted as a traitor for decades makes this film a fresh take on the history of the Panthers. The film takes time to explain how O’Neal was a teenager placed in an impossible situation. He came to love and care for the family–eventually becoming head of their security. He was only trying to stay alive like everyone else in his community. The deal he made was not a deal or decision. The film shows us how he was a trapped and tortured soul for the entire three years he worked as a double agent for the FBI and the Panthers.
I feel that, after all this time, we finally get the real story. I just found myself wishing that Kaluuya could have shined without losing Stanfield momentarily. This was only a minor detail that did not tarnish my view of the film. Judas and the Black Messiah is the film we need, especially after 2020, the year when white America woke up to police brutality. This film will continue that awakening–into the Black community’s history with law enforcement.
Stream Judas and the Black Messiah on HBO Max and in theaters on February 12.
Check out the trailer.
The post ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Centers the Real Villains in the Fred Hampton’s Assassination appeared first on The Black Cape Magazine.