On December 4, 1969, at 4:45 a.m., police stormed the apartment of Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton and fired up to 100 bullets, immediately killing him. He was sleeping next to his nine-month pregnant girlfriend. He was 21 when he died.
In the Variety Streaming Room hosted by deputy awards and features editor Jenelle Riley, the cast and crew of “Judas and the Black Messiah” discussed the real-life story behind the historical figures portrayed in the film, visiting their real-life relatives in Chicago and the pressure behind getting the story right.
Director/producer/co-writer Shaka King said the idea behind making a film about Fred Hampton and William O’Neal came from the Lucas Brothers, who served as co-producers on the film.
“A lot of Black people might’ve heard the name, Fred Hampton, but don’t really know much about him,” King said. “Even myself with black nationalist parents, I grew up hearing the name, Fred Hampton, knowing that he was a Black Panther who’d been shot a hundred times sleeping next to his pregnant wife. But I didn’t know anything about the way that he lived. That wasn’t what was taught to me, what was taught to me was the horrible way he died. So just understanding that and the landscape of the market, I understood that this was really the only way we could bring out the story like that for.”
Daniel Kaluuya, who portrays Hampton in the film, said that he also heard of the Black Panther chairman from friends and documentaries.
“I remember I went on a deep dive, going, ‘He can’t be 21 and be the chairman, they got the date wrong,”‘ Kaluuya said. “In terms of the Black Panther Party, I knew quite a bit just from living my life and being interested in those people, in their philosophies.”
Lakeith Stanfield plays Bill O’Neal, an FBI informant who infiltrates the Black Panther party and betrays his people. When he first read the script, Stanfield said he immediately dismissed his feelings because he felt what O’Neal did was so reprehensible.
“I didn’t really want to give my attention to him,” Stanfield said. “When I first had found out about it, I was like, ‘Yeah fuck that. Can we just move on to the next thing?’ So exploring this role would be a unique challenge for me because in spite of my judgments, trying to figure out how to play him in a way that felt real human to me and not just like a caricature of a villain or something like that.”
Dominique Fishback plays Deborah Johnson in the film, who was Hampton’s girlfriend. She said she wasn’t as intimidated by the character or the love story, but felt the pressure when visiting the family of the political figure in Chicago.
“Chairman Fred Jr. said, ‘I want everybody to go around the table and say why every single one of you wanted to do this movie,”‘ Fishback said. “I definitely felt the pressure of it. Not so much that I was questioning my intentions, but that I was more so like, ‘I hope that they see my heart. I really care. I don’t want to say the wrong thing.'”
Watch the full conversation above.