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“Judas and the Black Messiah” Director Shaka King on Fred Hampton, the Black Panthers & COINTELPRO

StoryFebruary 01, 2021
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Image Credit: Warner Bros.

A highly anticipated new feature film, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” tells the story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and William O’Neal, the FBI informant who infiltrated the Illinois Black Panther Party to collect information that ultimately led to Hampton’s killing in 1969 by law enforcement officers. The film is premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and stars Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton, LaKeith Stanfield as O’Neal and Martin Sheen as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Shaka King, the film’s director and co-writer, says focusing on Hampton and O’Neal was a way “to make 'The Departed' inside the world of COINTELPRO,” referring to the decades-long illegal FBI program to undermine Black and radical political organizations. “I just thought that that was a very clever vessel and intelligent way to Trojan-horse a Fred Hampton biopic.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We end today’s show with a long-awaited feature new film that tells the story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and William O’Neal, the FBI informant who infiltrated the Illinois Black Panther Party to collect information that ultimately led to the execution of Fred Hampton in 1969 by law enforcement officers. The film is called Judas and the Black Messiah. It stars Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton, LaKeith Stanfield as William O'Neal, and Martin Sheen as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. It premieres tonight at the Sundance Film Festival. This is the trailer.

DEBORAH JOHNSON: [played by Dominique Fishback] I want to share something with you. Like the masses, I was in awe when I first laid eyes on all the things you are. I heard that speech. I knew we’d make noise. I just thought it’d be in the streets.

J. EDGAR HOOVER: [played by Martin Sheen] The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security. Our Counterintelligence Program must prevent the rise of a Black messiah.

ROY MITCHELL: [played by Jesse Plemons] You’re looking at 18 months for the stolen car, five years for impersonating a federal officer, or you can go home.

WILLIAM O’NEAL: [played by LaKeith Stanfield] What do you want?

ROY MITCHELL: Get close to Hampton.

FRED HAMPTON: [played by Daniel Kaluuya] The Black Panthers are forming a Rainbow Coalition of oppressed brothers and sisters of every color.

J. EDGAR HOOVER: Neutralize him by any means necessary.

FRED HAMPTON: America is on fire right now. And until that fire is extinguished, nothing else mean a damn thing. Imagine what we could accomplish together. We can heal this whole city.

WILLIAM O’NEAL: You ain’t tell me it was going to be like this. These ain’t no terrorists.

BLACK PANTHER: We got a rat, man.

WILLIAM O’NEAL: Does anybody else know about me?

ROY MITCHELL: No one knows your identity.

WILLIAM O’NEAL: Are you sure?

DEBORAH JOHNSON: We educate, we nurture, we feed, and we lobby. Perhaps we’re here for more than just war with these bodies. We scream, and we shout, and we live by this anthem. But is “power to the people” really worth that ransom?

FRED HAMPTON: When I dedicated my life to people, I dedicated my life.

DEBORAH JOHNSON: You get to go out there and talk about dying a revolutionary death, because you don’t have another person growing inside your body.

FRED HAMPTON: Anywhere there’s people, there’s power.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah. The film has its virtual premiere tonight at the Sundance Film Festival, will be in theaters, streaming on HBO Max starting February 12th. It’s directed by Shaka King, who co-wrote the script, joining us now from Brooklyn.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Shaka. This is an opus. It is a masterpiece. Congratulations. Talk about why you chose Fred Hampton and William O’Neal, the informant, as the subject of this film.

SHAKA KING: Well, you know, the — and, first of all, thanks for having me, and thank you for the kind words.

You know, the idea actually was brought to me by two friends of mine, the Lucas brothers. And they reached out to me and basically said, “We have this idea to make The Departed inside the world of COINTELPRO.” And I just thought that that was a very clever vessel and kind of intelligent way to sort of Trojan-horse a Fred Hampton biopic and introduce the world, you know, a great segment of the world who is unaware of who he was, and is highly unaware of the Panthers’ politics and ideology. And, you know, obviously, as people know about, there’s just been so much negative propaganda put forth about them, the Panthers as an organization, that I just thought it was an opportunity to kind of correct the record and put it — couch it in sort of this genre movie that would go wide to the masses, as opposed to just focusing on people who already were aware of it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your decision, actually, to try to humanize William O’Neal, the undercover agent, showing the conflicts within him, as well, it reminds me very much of another undercover agent in New York City, Eugene Roberts, who was on the security detail when Malcolm X was killed, and who was a key figure in the Panther 21 trial, because he infiltrated not only Malcolm X’s organization, but the Panther Party, as well, also an individual torn in terms of his role. Could you talk about your decision to make William O’Neal such a key figure of the film?

SHAKA KING: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, for me, it wasn’t hard to humanize him, because at the end of the day, it’s human beings who make these decisions. And, you know, as opposed to sort of panning him as just this villainous character that everyone can kind of easily dismiss, I think making him a more complex individual, it gives an audience an opportunity to sort of put themselves in that position and kind of ultimately interrogate the choices that you make, because, to me, one of the upsides of making the movie about William O’Neal and Fred Hampton is that you’re talking about two people who kind of exist on the polar ends of humanity. You know what I mean?

You’re talking about, like, they’re opposites, literally. Like, you have a deep-seated capitalist ideology in William O’Neal, and you have a deep-seated socialist ideology in Fred Hampton. You have one of the most brave human beings of all time, and you have a person who demonstrated incredible cowardice. So, you have an individualist; you have a person who is a master at building coalitions. And you have two people who have two very different definitions of power and freedom.

And so, it was just an opportunity to kind of explore these two, like I said, polar opposite ideologies and then put the viewer in a place where, at the end of the movie, they kind of have to — or, ideally — they don’t have to, but ideally — you find yourself questioning, like: Where do I fall in between these two ancestors, essentially?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You also spend a considerable time in the film exploring how Fred Hampton sought to make alliances with groups other than African Americans in terms of building a Rainbow Coalition, really, which — the predecessor to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition. Could you talk about that, as well?

SHAKA KING: Sure, sure. I mean, you know, I think that that was obviously one of the things that made Fred Hampton, and, I think, the Panthers overall, was their willingness to just coalition build, not just with other Black-led organizations, but also with poor whites, with Latin Americans. I mean, we kind of — the focus of the movie isn’t that, but it would have been — I mean, it wouldn’t have made sense historically to exclude that. But it also, I think, kind of shows, in the movie — not to spoil it — but, you know, it’s when Fred Hampton starts to really build coalitions with those white and Latino groups that he really, really becomes a true threat to the powers that be. And, you know, I think especially in a city like Chicago, that historically has been so deeply segregated, that was just like unheard of, you know? So, I think the reason to include that is just a testament to his power, but it’s also just historically accurate.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s so interesting to have you on, Shaka, as well as Juan, co-host of Democracy Now!, but one of the co-founders of the Young Lords. Juan, when Fred Hampton was assassinated in his own bed, along with Mark Clark, the impact it had on you and the Young Lords?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, yes. Well, clearly, there were Lords in Chicago, as well as some of the Young Lords in New York, who had worked closely with Fred Hampton. Specifically, Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán was working with him a couple of months before he was killed. So it was felt across the nation, that Fred Hampton was already seen as, really, one of the leaders nationwide of the Panther Party. And so, his murder really was a shock throughout the country. And there were many protests, not just in Chicago, but across the country, against his assassination.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to two clips, because what’s happened this weekend with this film premiering at the Sundance Film Festival on the first day of Black History Month, I wanted to turn to Daniel Kaluuya, who played Chairman Fred Hampton, talking about the scene in which he delivers the speech to one of his largest, most diverse audiences, just after coming out of prison.

DANIEL KALUUYA: Being in that moment and saying his words and seeing everyone, being in Cleveland, seeing everyone’s faces, seeing that, it just felt like he was in the room, if I’m being honest. And it felt like, like I said, something is going on through you, and you’re a vessel. And it was just — I don’t really — if I’m being honest, I don’t really remember the takes. Like, I watched the trailer, and I was like, “I don’t really remember that.” So, I usually remember takes. So, I was like, “I don’t really remember that. I don’t remember that.” But I just kind of left, that kind of bit — I mean, left. And I remember I’d go in between takes. Like, the background noise was like calling “Chairman Fred! Chairman Fred! Chairman Fred!” You know, it was like he was in the room. It was him, you know, because it was his words. It was his energy. It was his purpose, his message, his ideas, that was coming through all of us in that room.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Daniel Kaluuya, of Get Out fame, starring as Fred Hampton. Shaka,, I was watching you and Questlove, whose film is also premiering, the Summer of Soul, at Sundance, having a conversation. And you talked about this moment that you filmed Fred Hampton — of course, Daniel — giving this speech and what that was like. Can you bring us behind the scenes? What? He had just gotten off a plane?

SHAKA KING: Yeah, he had been doing press for Queen & Slim for a week, and so he’d been away from the shoot for a week, and he hadn’t played Fred in a week. And he woke up late. It was the only time he woke up late, and I know he was nervous. And he walked into the church. And we just — I mean, I can’t express how that day is really — we had a lot of moments on set where we kind of felt confirmation that we were doing the right thing, but none quite like that day, because it almost felt like everyone was trapped in a time warp. And everyone was treating him like Fred that day. I mean, the first take, he came up those steps, and just the way that the crowd greeted him, it really did feel like Fred Hampton just came out of prison and was welcomed with open arms by the community that loves him. And that energy that they gave to him, he fed off of. And it just became a — it ceased to become a performance, specifically that scene. It really became, you know, just a very real thing.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s an outstanding moment. I also want to go to LaKeith Stanfield, who plays William O’Neal, the FBI informant in Judas and the Black Messiah, speaking in a Q&A with SAG-AFTRA.

LAKEITH STANFIELD: I think there’s just nuances to characters. And so, I don’t know, I always try to keep that in mind, that there was some love in O’Neal. Even though he may have done things that we don’t understand and agree with, I had to find that love. And it wasn’t always easy, you know? I would be crying and [bleep], telling Shaka, like, “Yo, I don’t know. What the [bleep] is this?” you know, especially when we got down to the scenes where I had to make a decision to, like, poison Fred or whatever. I was [bleep] up about that. I couldn’t even keep it together for the scene, because I was just like, damn, you know, everything just felt so real. So, I just had to find the truth in it and try to move and trust in that.

AMY GOODMAN: LaKeith played William O’Neal. What you want people to take away from this film, Shaka, and the significance of getting it out to this mass audience?

SHAKA KING: A number of things. You know, I think one of the reasons to make O’Neal a central character is, to me, in a lot of ways, in terms of his storyline, the movie is about the dangers of being apolitical, and not only how it can lead to deep manipulation and one destabilizing a movement, but William O’Neal’s life came to a bitter end because of the decisions he made. They didn’t just hurt other people; they ultimately hurt him, even though he made them in a very self-serving manner.

You know, I think there’s also, obviously, a desire to make it clear that the Panthers were largely motivated by love, love of each other, love of their community, love of their people, and to kind of correct the historical record. You know, these weren’t, like, terrorists, you know, just individuals interested in targeting white people and hateful of white people. It’s just a total fictive.

You know, I think, in regards to Roy Mitchell, who’s a primary character in the film and William O’Neal’s handler, there’s a reason why we kind of tried to make him complex, as well, because I think that, in a lot of ways, his character highlights the dangers of being a white centrist, especially when you’re a white person who works for the white power structure. And it doesn’t get more — you don’t find anyone who does that even more so than an FBI agent. So —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

SHAKA KING: I think there’s a myriad of things to take away from it, but those are some of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Shaka King, I want to thank you so much for being with us. And congratulations on this epic work. The film is Judas and the Black Messiah, premieres tonight at the Sundance Film Festival, out February 12th on HBO Max.

That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe. Wear a mask. Wear two.

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