‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Filmmakers Discuss the Fred Hampton Biopic

Warner Bros Pictures recently hosted a virtual media preview of the Judas and the Black Messiah trailer along with a discussion with director/co-writer Shaka King, producers Ryan Coogler and Charles D. King, and Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. about the dramatic film based on true events.

Incredibly relevant and timely, Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Chairman Fred Hampton who in 1968 was the Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) plays Chairman Fred and LaKeith Stanfield (Atlanta) co-stars as William O’Neal, an FBI informant who worked from within to betray the Black Panther Party and Chairman Fred.

Filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Black Panther) explained he became involved with the project after meeting Shaka King years ago at the Sundance Film Festival. Shaka King was there with his feature directorial debut, Newlyweeds, while Coogler was there with Fruitvale Station.

“We were a couple of the few Black people there with our films in the program. So, we met and became fast friends. I loved the movie, got to know Shaka really well, loved him, and the first time he told me about the project I was actually with my wife Zinzi – who’s a producer on this film as well – and we were visiting Shaka. We were in New York and spending time with him and his parents in their backyard. Obviously, work came up while we were eating good food. I was like, ‘What are you working on right now?’ and he was like, ‘I’m actually working on this really amazing project about Chairman Fred Hampton and this guy William O’Neal,’ who I didn’t know. I didn’t know who William O’Neal was or his story.

When he pitched the project to me, I was just kind of blown away. Chairman Fred Hampton is somebody who’s life work and the story of his assassination has been relevant since the day it happened. It only continues to become more relevant with context. But I also think that Shaka’s point of view and how he wanted to tell the story was also something that’s extremely relevant as well. It was a project that Zinzi and I couldn’t really get out of our heads.

Right around the time we finished with Black Panther, Shaka gave us a call and said he wanted to go. He offered us the opportunity to become producers on it. The first person that I called was Charles King [founder of MACRO Films] because I thought that he would be the right home for it before we found a studio partner, which we eventually found in Warner Bros. That was kind of how I came to it in a really natural way.”

Chairman Fred Hampton Jr, son of Fred Hampton and Deborah Johnson, said he engaged in a lengthy process to make sure his father’s story was in the right hands. It was important to get his father’s legacy in front of more people but in the right way. “We tried to look for innovative ways to be able to get this legacy out but make sure we crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s while still [committing to] realness and recognizing we’ve got to use different arenas while not compromising the legacy,” explained Hampton Jr.

Judas and the Black Messiah
LaKEITH STANFIELD as William O’Neal and DANIEL KALUUYA as Chairman Fred Hampton in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH” (Photo: Glen Wilson © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc)

Director/co-writer Shaka King addressed the responsibility he felt in bringing Chairman Fred Hampton’s life to the screen. “It’s been an endless balancing act from day one. For me it started with the intention of what we’re trying to convey in sort of choosing to tell this movie not just from the perspective of Chairman Fred but also to include William O’Neal as a major character in the movie. […]Because to me the movie’s in a lot of ways about the capitalist in William O’Neal and socialist in Fred Hampton, a coward in William O’Neal and a revolutionary in Fred Hampton. I think we kind of can attach judgment to both of those ideologies, but I think most people actually fall somewhere between those two.”

“To me, it was like you want to make a movie where the audience watches it and comes away questioning which ancestor am I?” said King. “Making the film I found myself questioning myself where do I fall?”

“I think it was always the intention and I think it was real important to have Chairman Fred Jr. present on set every day, even when it was difficult,” explained King, revealing he would rewrite specific scenes on the fly if they were in any way unintentionally disrespectful or untrue to the real events and people. “It was a constant balancing act. I have to really praise Chairman Fred Jr. for just going on that journey with us because it was stressful for him, I know.”

“In terms of the casting, a lot of it was just incredibly intuitive,” said Shaka King. “Daniel I just kind of knew and I remember kind of going to Ryan and saying, ‘Hey, I think Daniel should play Fred,’ and obviously he worked with him on Black Panther so he put us in touch. And then when I sat down with him it was just really confirmed for me just because he kind of had a gravitas to him that you just really don’t see in people that age. That was something that in my research came up all the time with Fred, that he had a lot of gravitas. He was also hilarious. […]In his speeches and the way he spoke he was also intelligent, witty, and young, so he had that combination of youthful spirit and old soul. Daniel had those qualities to him, not to mention the political viewpoints that he holds outside of being an artist.”

“LaKeith was someone who Ryan had introduced me to in 2013. We’ve become friends and had expressed a desire to work together. And in O’Neal I saw a character who needed to be a real sort of complex villain, quite frankly,” said King. “The things that he did and the things that he chose to do are just like dastardly. The movie is also an exploration of what kind of person makes those kinds of decisions.”

Warner Bros Pictures has not set a release date for Judas and the Black Messiah.

The Plot, Courtesy of Warner Bros:

Chairman Fred Hampton was 21 years old when he was assassinated by the FBI, who coerced a petty criminal named William O’Neal to help them silence him and the Black Panther Party. But they could not kill Fred Hampton’s legacy and, 50 years later, his words still echo…louder than ever.

I am a revolutionary!

In 1968, a young, charismatic activist named Fred Hampton became Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who were fighting for freedom, the power to determine the destiny of the Black community, and an end to police brutality and the slaughter of Black people.

Chairman Fred was inspiring a generation to rise up and not back down to oppression, which put him directly in the line of fire of the government, the FBI and the Chicago Police. But to destroy the revolution, they had to do it from both the outside…and the inside. Facing prison, William O’Neal is offered a deal by the FBI: if he will infiltrate the Black Panthers and provide intel on Hampton, he will walk free. O’Neal takes the deal.

Now a comrade in arms in the Black Panther Party, O’Neal lives in fear that his treachery will be discovered even as he rises in the ranks. But as Hampton’s fiery message draws him in, O’Neal cannot escape the deadly trajectory of his ultimate betrayal.

Though his life was cut short, Fred Hampton’s impact has continued to reverberate. The government saw the Black Panthers as a militant threat to the status quo and sold that lie to a frightened public in a time of growing civil unrest. But the perception of the Panthers was not reality. In inner cities across America, they were providing free breakfasts for children, legal services, medical clinics and research into sickle cell anemia, and political education. And it was Chairman Fred in Chicago, who, recognizing the power of multicultural unity for a common cause, created the Rainbow Coalition—joining forces with other oppressed peoples in the city to fight for equality and political empowerment.