The Gripping True Story Behind Judas And The Black Messiah

Two films nominated for multiple Oscars in 2021 brought renewed attention to the real-life 1969 assassination of Fred Hampton, the deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party. In the best supporting actor category, Daniel Kaluuya — who plays Hampton in "Judas and the Black Messiah" — won out over his co-star, Lakeith Stanfield, who plays FBI informant Bill O'Neal. Kaluuya also beat out Sacha Baron Cohen for his performance in "The Trial of the Chicago Seven," in which Kelvin Harrison, Jr. portrayed Hampton.

The title of "Judas and the Black Messiah" alludes to the biblical story of Judas betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. In the movie, O'Neal agrees to go undercover in the Black Panthers for the FBI after he gets nabbed for car theft while impersonating a federal officer. Though "Judas and the Black Messiah" marketed itself as a film "inspired" by true events, this closely mirrors Hampton's real biography.

Smithsonian magazine, the official journal of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., notes that O'Neal "was a habitual criminal with little interest in activism" before an FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (played Jesse Plemons in the film), approached him. Hampton was just a teenager at the time, and according to the Chicago Tribune (by way of the Smithsonian), Mitchell promised to let him off for his "involvement in a multi-state car theft in exchange for intel on Hampton."

Hampton is a galvanizing figure in the film, just as he was in real life. Kaluuya was 31 when "Judas and the Black Messiah" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year — yet Hampton was only 21 when he died.

The True Story of Fred Hampton

At the age of 10, Fred Hampton was already involved in community initiatives, holding weekend breakfasts for other kids in his suburban Chicago neighborhood. The tradition of these meals would live on in the Panthers' free breakfast program, and — as Smithsonian observes — you can trace a line from that to contemporary food welfare programs. 

In the movie, Hampton is also able to unite people in "a Rainbow Coalition of oppressed brothers and sisters of every color." This, too, happened in real life. By 1969, Malcolm X — the subject of his own Oscar-nominated Spike Lee biopic – had already been assassinated, but Hampton sought to follow his example and mount a sturdy self-defense against oppression. This put him in the FBI's crosshairs.

In "Judas and the Black Messiah," Martin Sheen plays FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who pointedly says, "The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security. Our counterintelligence program must prevent the rise of a black messiah." This is in line, per PBS, with a real declaration Hoover made that "the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country."

Perhaps the most damning bit of info comes from Truthout, which released documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act days before the world premiere of "Judas and the Black Messiah." These documents seem to verify that Hoover himself had a hand in planning Hampton's assassination.

There is much more to the story of Fred Hampton; we've barely skimmed the surface here. However, by reviving his ghost onscreen, "Judas and the Black Messiah" offers a much-needed reminder of one of American history's greatest martyrs.