‘Judas and the Black Messiah’: Inside the Long Struggle to Bring Fred Hampton’s Story to the Screen

Studios didn’t exactly jump at the chance to make a movie about the late Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton.

“It knocked me on my ass,” admits Shaka King, the co-writer and director of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the blistering new look at Hampton’s short life and enduring impact. “I was under the impression that if you make a movie about a Black Panther, produced by the director of ‘Black Panther,’ which made a billion dollars, starring two of the best actors of our generation, and you have a producer and co-financer in Charles King, who is willing to put up half the budget, it’s going to be a bidding war. That was not the case.”

Hollywood is facing a lot of pressure to become more diverse in the stories it tells and the filmmakers it promotes. However, Black filmmakers say that it’s still a struggle to get projects made. “I don’t see a tremendous difference how Hollywood interacts with Black storytellers and Black art as commerce,” Shaka King says. “It moves in waves. I don’t think there’s been a bone beat, spiritual makeover in Hollywood.”

That’s shocking in many respects, because Hampton’s story, one filled with dramatic highs and tragedy, seems tailor made for the big screen. A charismatic speaker, Hampton was an active leader in the NAACP and joined the Black Panthers in November 1968. Rising to a leadership position, he became the deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers, organizing rallies, establishing a free breakfast program for his community and negotiating a peace pact among rival gangs. He also ruffled feathers with the powers that be, becoming a target of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, which utilized their Cointelpro program to infiltrate and spread disinformation among the party faithful. In December 1969, Hampton’s head of security, William O’Neal, who was secretly an FBI informant, put a sleep agent into his drink. Later that evening, law enforcement officials raided Hampton’s apartment, killing him while he slept next to his 9-month-pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson, now known as Akua Njeri.

It’s been 51 years since Hampton’s death. In film and television, he has popped up in the documentary “Death of a Black Panther: The Fred Hampton Story” and as a supporting character in the Netflix film “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” In Black culture, his name has an almost mythological power, and yet, despite his prominence, many people are hazy about the details of his life beyond the circumstances of his death. There have been previous attempts by the likes of Forest Whitaker and Antoine Fuqua to dramatize Hampton’s story, and those projects have been explored and announced but somehow failed to ever make it in front of the cameras. In 2014, Keith and Kenneth Lucas, better known as the stand-up comedy duo The Lucas Bros, pitched the idea of the Fred Hampton film to several studios, selling it as Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” meets Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.” Studios like A24 and Netflix passed.

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Director Shaka King and Daniel Kaluuya on set.
Photo by Glen Wilson
Courtesy of Glen Wilson

Even as the Lucas Bros. made the rounds in Hollywood, Will Berson, a secular Jewish comedy writer from New York, put the finishing touches on his own Hampton script, entitled “The Assassination of Chairman Fred Hampton by the Closet Queen Mulatto Edgar Hoover.” His story had a more expansive approach, beginning with Hampton’s mother babysitting Emmett Till and culminating with his own funeral. Berson also failed to get much interest from various production companies. One prominent studio executive grilled him by asking “Where’s the traditional arc? What are the challenges?” Berson’s response: “It’s not a traditional biopic because he was not a traditional human being.” Another studio executive suggested that he show Hampton “learning how to speak in front of a crowd; perhaps he gets nervous and stutters for his first outing.” Berson was having none of it. “This isn’t “The King’s Speech,” he quipped.

They may have been working on different projects, but Berson and the Lucas Brothers were working toward the same goal: introducing the world to Fred Hampton in a way that would inspire a new generation.

In 2016, while collaborating with Shaka King on an FX pilot that didn’t get picked up, the Lucas Brothers spoke with the director about the project. “He instantly knew what we wanted to do,” Keith Lucas says.

Hollywood loves the biopic genre, tackling everyone from former presidents like Abraham Lincoln to movie legends like Judy Garland. The entertainment industry hasn’t shown the same eagerness to tell stories about the Black community, despite an abundance of heroes and historical figures. Hollywood also tends to embrace pat stories of triumph over adversity, preferably making movies that end on an optimistic note. That’s not “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Shaka King’s film is more similar to Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” which used the outlaw’s killer as a way of looking at James’ life and times. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is as interested in O’Neal’s treachery and feelings of guilt as it is in documenting Hampton’s position in the Civil Rights movement.

On New Year’s Day 2017, Shaka King began to dig in. “I really started to learn more in an in-depth way, other than the surface understanding I had growing up, which was he was a Black Panther who’d been shot,” he says.

Actor Jermaine Fowler called King to tell him that his friend Berson had a Hampton movie that he was trying to get made. In August 2017, Berson’s script version, now titled “To Fred Hampton,” was getting some heat, with. F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton”) in talks to direct and Casey Affleck and John Powers Middleton in negotiations to produce. Names like Jaden Smith and O’Shea Jackson Jr. were being floated to portray the chairman. Berson and Shaka King opted to join forces, and

King made the studio rounds again. “They would express passion for the material, but they would come back with a figure that was just impossible to make this movie, especially a period film,” he remembers.

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clockwise from left: Fred Hampton at a rally in October 1969; Lakeith Stanfield as William O’Neal, with Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell; FBI informant William O’Neal Hampton: AP Images; Judas and the Black Messiah: Warner Bros. Pictures

Another executive told the filmmaker that his $26 million budget was too high, explaining that when he crunched the numbers, an algorithm said the movie was worth far less.

“That’s when you realize that even the math in Hollywood is racist,” says Shaka King recalling an earlier meeting with the same executive, who stated that Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” was “going to tank.” Lee’s film grossed $93 million worldwide, becoming a major hit for distributor Focus Features.

According to producer Charles D. King, founder and CEO of Macro, Ryan Coogler called him about three weeks after the release of “Black Panther” and talked about wanting to start his own company, Proximity, as well as his interest in Shaka King’s pitch. “After reading the script, I fell in love with it,” says Charles King who financed 50% of the film.

The excitement for the upcoming film has been somewhat eclipsed by Warner Bros.’ recent announcement that it would release its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max on the same day the movies debut in theaters.

“Unfortunately, we read in the trades, just like everyone else in our entire town, about the potential day-and-date release of the films on the Warner Bros. slate,” says Charles King. “We were surprised and disappointed to read that in the way that we did.”

With financing in place, Shaka King and the filmmakers reached out to Njeri and her son, Fred Hampton Jr., to get their approval.

Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Hampton, also made the pilgrimage to Chicago to get the family’s blessing. “We had to declare who we were and what our intentions were,” says the actor.

Eventually, Njeri and her son gave their endorsement. However, not everyone was pleased with the final result. When the film’s trailer dropped in August 2020, there was social media criticism about the British born Kaluuya portraying an Illinois native like Hampton.

“I’m a vessel for a spirit that is going through me,” Kaluuya says when asked about the blowback. “It’s important for us as Black people across the diaspora to be together. And that’s not to discount what Black Americans feel, what they’ve been through. It’s not about me. It’s about chairman Fred Hampton.”

On the 50th anniversary of Hampton’s murder, with Fred Jr. on set, they filmed the scene in which O’Neal spikes the chairman’s drink. “It was intense,” says Kaluuya. “Artistically, we went above and beyond to support each other in those moments where we felt the gravity of what we were bringing into reality on screen. The film is bigger than us.”

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Daniel Kaluuya and Dominique Fishback in “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros.) Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Dominique Fishback, who plays Deborah Johnson, felt that responsibility and says she was overcome with emotion when she walked onto the set of the apartment where Hampton’s character is killed. In the scene in which Hampton is fatally shot, the real-life Johnson, was off-camera watching it all unfold. She was adamant that Fishback not cry.

“At that moment, that was for the ancestors during slavery when they couldn’t show that side, for the mothers now who are losing their children and still have to be strong for everybody,” says Fishback. “That’s what black women do.”

Lakeith Stanfield, who plays O’Neal, had his own struggles portraying his character. To avoid prison, the real-life O’Neal agreed to befriend and betray Hampton. “I had so many walls up about what I thought he represented, which is everything I found abhorrent, wrong, immoral, weak and cowardly,” says Stanfield. “I had to break down the barriers of my own ego to tap into who he was.”

When the film opens in February, “Judas and the Black Messiah” will mark a milestone for Black representation both in front of and behind the camera. Not everyone will rejoice. The movie’s portrayal of the violent clashes between the police and Black Panther members will likely inspire Tucker Carlson monologues and provide fodder for conservative critics of the Black Lives Matter movement.

But that movement and the unprecedented outpouring of activism that has greeted the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others, is also what makes “Judas and the Black Messiah” so sadly relevant even though it tells a story set more than half a century ago. Police officers have killed 213 unarmed Black people in 2020, according to the Washington Post database of police shootings. Fred Hampton’s fight is ongoing. “His assassination was a robbery,” says Coogler. “More than just his life and family. It was a robbery for all of us.”

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is scheduled to be released on Feb. 12.