Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Judas and the Black Messiah

How much of the movie about Fred Hampton and the FBI informant who betrayed him is true?

Fred Hampton and Daniel Kaluuya.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by David Fenton/Getty Images and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Judas and the Black Messiah is based on the true story of FBI informant William O’Neal and his role in the 1969 killing of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. It took years for the facts around Hampton’s killing to become public, thanks to a vigorous government effort to cover them up. While the movie, directed by Shaka King from a screenplay he wrote with Will Berson, stays relatively faithful to history, it does take some liberties with the historical record—including by filling in some of its blanks. Here’s what’s real and what’s invented.

Fred Hampton

Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the central figure in Judas and the Black Messiah, was only 21 when he was gunned down by police officers in a pre-dawn raid on his apartment. The film follows him from the time FBI informant William O’Neal began infiltrating the Black Panthers late in 1968 through Hampton’s killing about a year later on Dec. 4, 1969. Calling Hampton’s political rise meteoric is an understatement. In 1965, he organized a chapter of the youth branch of the NAACP, leading a campaign for a public pool in Maywood. He became disillusioned with nonviolent protest after observing Martin Luther King Jr.’s Chicago campaign, and when a 1967 rally he organized turned violent after the police tear-gassed the crowd, both local police and the FBI began surveilling him.

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In the summer of 1968, Hampton was accused of assaulting a Good Humor truck driver, stealing $71 worth of ice cream, and giving it to schoolchildren for free, a charge he denied. That fall, Hampton and Bobby Rush (played by Darrell Britt-Gibson in the movie) organized the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. That’s right around the time the movie starts. The film doesn’t get into the details of Hampton’s criminal trial, but it does imply that it was a setup to get him off the streets. That’s a fair implication: After Hampton was convicted in May of 1969, the trial judge indicated that he planned to sentence Hampton to probation—but when Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan held a press conference railing against the light sentence, the judge took his cue from Hanrahan and sentenced Hampton to two to five years instead.

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Hampton was in prison from May 27, 1969, until Aug. 13, when he was released on bond while the state supreme court considered his appeal. On the night of Aug. 14, he spoke at the Church of the Epiphany, a speech that was captured on film and forms a crucial scene in Judas and the Black Messiah. On Nov. 26, Hampton’s appeal was denied. Before he returned to prison, however, he was shot to death by police in his apartment early in the morning of Dec. 4, as seen in the film.

There is no better way to get a sense of Hampton’s personality than by checking out The Murder of Fred Hampton. The filmmakers behind the 1971 documentary set out to profile a rising political star, and they captured footage of Hampton’s speeches and conversations from before his death.

William O’Neal

Lakeith Stanfield in a still from the movie.
Lakeith Stanfield as William O’Neal. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
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William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), the FBI informant who provided the information used to organize Fred Hampton’s killing, kept an extremely low profile both before and after Hampton’s death, but his character in the film is consistent with the known facts. Stanfield spoke with Slate’s Allegra Frank about preparing for the role with so little primary source material to draw from. O’Neal gave only one interview about his time with the Panthers, to PBS for the second season of Eyes on the Prize, a documentary series about the civil rights movement. The series only used short clips from O’Neal’s interview, but Washington University in St. Louis has a transcript of the full conversation, and Judas and the Black Messiah incorporates unused footage from the interview to give a fuller picture of O’Neal.*

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In O’Neal’s telling, sometime in 1967, when he was 17 or 18 years old, he and a friend stole a car, drove it across state lines to Michigan, left their real names and addresses at a pool hall that required a sign-in sheet to play, then promptly crashed the car. Three months later, FBI agent Roy Mitchell contacted O’Neal, told him he knew he’d stolen the car, and offered him the opportunity to avoid prosecution by working as an informant. The 1973 Chicago Tribune article that revealed O’Neal was an informant told the story a little differently: In their version, in 1968 a Chicago police officer pulled O’Neal over in a stolen car, at which point he “calmly told the arresting policeman that he was an FBI agent, and produced phony identification to prove it,” which got him handed over to the feds. Judas and the Black Messiah basically follows the Tribune’s version, with a flourish: The movie has O’Neal using the fake FBI badge to steal the car in the first place, telling the owners the car had been reported stolen and then taking it himself.

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After O’Neal agreed to work for Mitchell, he was asked to join the Black Panther Party and pass information about the Chicago chapter’s activities back to the FBI. The film’s characterization of O’Neal’s time with the Panthers aligns with the memories of people who knew him in that context, and in retrospect, it seems likely he was acting not just as a spy but as a provocateur. Here’s how attorney Jeffrey Haas, author of The Assassination of Fred Hampton, described learning in 1973 that O’Neal was an informant:

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Like a lover who discovers betrayal, I reconsidered O’Neal’s behavior in light of the new disclosure. It fit uncomfortably well. He always had money; he was constantly offering to chauffeur Fred and [Bobby] Rush and Deborah [Johnson] in his big car; he never attended political education classes and pushed actions over thought and politics; he advocated the most militaristic line; he often carried a gun; he was constantly suggesting other Panthers engage in criminal activities; he was at Fred’s apartment the night before the raid when everyone else had dinner. Then he left.

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O’Neal’s aversion to politics and his tendency to push the Panthers toward violence are both shown in the film. The scene in the movie in which he shows up with a trunk full of C-4 is based on a real incident in which O’Neal offered a satchel full of explosives to fellow Black Panther Louis Truelock and encouraged him to use them in a burglary. (In the movie, O’Neal is shown to be wearing a wire, which may not have been the case in real life.) The real man seems to have pushed things even further than the film’s version: At one point, he tried to get the Panthers to install defense mechanisms in their Chicago headquarters that included nerve gas and an electric chair. The movie closes with a clip in which the real O’Neal talks about letting “history speak for me,” before cutting to a black screen with white text:

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“Eyes on the Prize 2” premiered on PBS January 15, 1990, Martin Luther King Day.

Later that evening, William O’Neal committed suicide.

This epilogue implies that O’Neal killed himself after being faced with what he’d done, but the chronology is wrong. O’Neal did kill himself on Jan. 15, but it was at 2:30 in the morning, after spending the evening before hanging out with his uncle. Eyes on the Prize didn’t air in Chicago until 9 that night. Eyes on the Prize 2 was also a series, not a feature, and the episode O’Neal appears in, “A Nation of Law? (1968–71),” wouldn’t air until more than a month later, on Feb. 19. If there was a connection between O’Neal’s death and his betrayal of Fred Hampton, it’s not as straightforward as the film’s epilogue makes it out to be.

Deborah Johnson

Dominique Fishback in a still from the movie.
Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
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Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who today goes by the name Akua Njeri, is the character whose story is the hardest to compare with the historical record, since her most significant scenes tend to be unverifiable moments alone with Fred Hampton. She told PBS in an interview for Eyes on the Prize about introducing herself to Hampton after a speech he gave at Wright Junior College; according to a later interview, they discussed poetry. That incident is faithfully reproduced in the film, but as Fishback explained in an interview with Who What Wear, although she met Njeri during filming, the movie’s version of Johnson is primarily fictional, because Njeri has studiously kept personal details about her time with Hampton to herself, even in her out-of-print 1991 memoir, My Life With the Black Panther Party. (Fishback wrote the poem Johnson reads in the movie.)

COINTELPRO

J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Sheen.
J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Sheen. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
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COINTELPRO, the FBI’s secret effort to subvert and discredit disfavored political groups, including civil rights organizations and the Black Power movement, was just as vile in real life as it appears to be in Judas and the Black Messiah. An early scene shows J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) railing about the need to “prevent the rise of a black messiah” who could unite the left; his speech draws heavily from an infamous March 4, 1968, memo laying out the program’s goals with regard to “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups.” Judas and the Black Messiah shows Hoover personally ordering Hampton’s assassination. There’s no evidence this happened, but recently FOIA’d memos reveal that Hoover was aware of the bureau’s involvement in Hampton’s death. What’s more, Hoover’s office approved a bonus to Roy Mitchell six days after Hampton’s murder, “for your outstanding services in a matter of considerable interest to the FBI in the racial field.”

Roy Mitchell

FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) really did become a sort of father figure to William O’Neal, as seen in the movie. During his Eyes on the Prize interview, O’Neal described their relationship like this:

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I had been to Mitchell’s home, I have held his child in my hands, in my arms when he was 1 years old. I have been through the offices of the FBI wearing sneakers and a dirty T-shirt with Mitchell. I’ve rode around with him in his car during that time, three or four months after I became a Panther. I’ve eaten at his table, at his dinner table. We had a very, at one point he was a role model for me, when I needed one. I mean, we had very few role models back then; we had Malcolm X, we had Martin Luther King, we had Muhammad Ali, and I had an FBI agent.

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The real Roy Mitchell worked on the FBI’s investigation into the murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, just as he claims in the film. He died in 2000.

The Crowns

The “Crowns,” the beret-wearing street gang Fred Hampton forms a tenuous alliance with, are a composite of different groups, but they’re primarily based on the Blackstone Rangers, a large Chicago-based gang that flirted with social activism in the 1960s. The film’s gang leader, Steel (Khris Davis), is modeled after Rangers leader Jeff Fort. In real life, the FBI attempted to engineer a feud between the Rangers and Panthers by sending Fort an anonymous letter warning him the Panthers wanted to kill him. Hampton did engineer a meeting between the Panthers and the Blackstone Rangers early in 1969, and the result was more or less the same as it was in the movie: The Panthers, who were not interested in helping the Rangers move drugs, didn’t get access to the gang’s territory or form an alliance, but tensions lessoned considerably. (Hampton had more success with the Black Disciples.)

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The film distorts one aspect in the interest of drama: Hampton meets with the Crowns in an abandoned, decrepit church building that seems to serve as their headquarters. The Blackstone Rangers were meeting at a church during this period, but it was the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, which was an active congregation (and still is). It’s unclear if that’s where Hampton met with Fort, but the church had partnered with the Rangers on some of their charitable and social service projects. For more on the Blackstone Rangers during the time Judas and the Black Messiah is set, check out the Atlantic’s two-part investigation into the gang from the spring of 1969.

The Rainbow Coalition

One of the reasons Fred Hampton was particularly threatening to the FBI was that he was able to successfully build coalitions between activist groups, even across racial lines. The Rainbow Coalition—the name was later co-opted by Jesse Jackson—was his most successful effort of that sort. The Black Panthers originally made contact with the Young Patriots Organization, a leftist group of white Southerners, by accident: A venue was double-booked and Black Panther Bob Lee ended up making the initial contact with the Young Patriots. That first meeting was captured on film and appears in the 1969 documentary American Revolution 2, a kaleidoscopic portrait of leftist organizing in Chicago in the late 1960s.

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In Judas and the Black Messiah, the Panthers’ first contact with the Young Patriots is a lot more dramatic: Fred Hampton (who wasn’t actually at that first meeting) marches a group of Panthers into a Young Patriot meeting and, ignoring the giant Confederate flag on the wall, convinces the crowd that the two groups have a common interest. Bob Lee, played by Caleb Eberhardt, is shown as present at that meeting, but Hampton takes the lead. The third leg of the stool was the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang that was making the jump to political action. In the film, Hampton meets the Young Lords and their real-life leader José Cha Cha Jiménez (Nicholas Velez) outside the funeral of Manuel Ramos, a Young Lord who had been shot by an off-duty cop in May of 1969. Ramos’ killing was a locus of protest activity that spring, and one of the coalition’s first joint actions was a protest demanding the arrest of James Lamb, the man who shot Ramos.

George Sams Jr.

Judas and the Black Messiah briefly touches on the May 1969 death of Alex Rackley, a member of the New Haven, Connecticut, chapter of the Black Panther Party who was tortured until he falsely confessed to being an FBI agent, given a show trial, then murdered. George Sams, one of the Panthers who organized the killing, managed to escape New Haven before the police caught him. Over the summer, while Sams was in the wind, the FBI responded to tips about his location by raiding Black Panther offices in at least six cities, including Chicago, without ever catching him. After Sams was finally tracked down in Canada that August, he turned state’s witness, claiming that party chairman Bobby Seale had ordered Rackley’s killing. Eventually, Seale and New Haven chapter founder Ericka Huggins were tried for their supposed roles in the killing as part of what became known as the New Haven Black Panther trials, but their jury deadlocked and the case was dismissed.

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Sams’ summer-long flight across America and the raids that followed it, combined with his immediate decision to turn state’s witness, convinced many Panthers and their affiliates that he was an informer who was providing a pretext for FBI raids. That’s the version of events presented in Judas and the Black Messiah (and in Haas’ book), but it may not be true. In Paul Bass and Douglas W. Rae’s 2006 book about the killings, Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of a Killer, the authors note that no hard evidence has surfaced showing that Sams worked for any branch of law enforcement, “only the observation that Sams helped destroy the party with his actions, that he behaved like an agent provocateur, and that his actions resembled those of actual FBI plants in other party chapters.” Sams has always denied the accusation.

Jimmy Palmer

Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders), the Black Panther member shot by the police in a deli, is based on Larry Roberson, so much so that it was originally announced that Sanders’ character was named “Larry Roberson.” (At the time, the working title of the movie was Jesus Was My Homeboy.) In the movie, Palmer is shot by police who are harassing the patrons of a local deli, an incident that takes place more or less according to the accounts of Roberson’s shooting found in the Chicago Daily Defender and the Black Panthers’ own newspaper. On July 17, 1969, Roberson, returning from work with another Black Panther named Grady Moore, encountered two policemen interrogating a group of Black men about a burglary and got into an argument with the police over whether they were investigating or just harassing residents.

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Both the Black Panthers and the police officers claimed that the other party shot first, but whoever it was, the end result was that one police officer was hit in the shoulder and another grazed in the head while Roberson was shot in the abdomen. The police officers recovered; Roberson died Sept. 4 of his wounds. However, the police didn’t cause Roberson’s death by transferring him from one hospital to another as they do with Jimmy Palmer in the movie. Roberson was taken to Cook County Hospital in July and died there in September, although the Black Panther newspaper alleged that he was “harassed, threatened, and periodically beaten” while a patient.

Shootout at the Black Panther Headquarters

Judas and the Black Messiah conflates two different incidents for the shootout at the Black Panther headquarters but primarily draws from a clash that happened on Aug. 1, 1969. In the film, the police are outside the Black Panther headquarters harassing people in broad daylight in retaliation for the Jimmy Palmer shooting and call for reinforcements after seeing fictional Black Panther Judy Harmon (Dominique Thorne) brandishing a shotgun in a second-story window. The police see a man with a gun on the roof (William O’Neal, trying to escape the shootout), and the police open fire. After a lengthy gun battle, the Panthers surrender and are taken into custody.

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In real life, the August encounter happened around 1:30 in the morning, not the middle of the day. According to contemporary newspaper reports, police claimed to have seen two men with shotguns entering the building; on stopping to investigate, they claimed they were fired upon and called for backup. The Black Panthers claimed that the police had opened fire first. The gunfight lasted about 30 minutes and ended with the arrest of three male Black Panthers; five police officers were wounded. As seen in the film, the police reportedly set the headquarters on fire after the battle.

The movie also draws from a different raid at the Black Panther headquarters, which took place on Oct. 4, 1969. In that incident, police claimed to have seen a gunman with a shotgun on the roof of the building, charged in, and beat and arrested the Black Panthers inside. According to Jeffrey Haas, no one was actually on the roof when the police charged. Berson and King moved the “mystery man on the roof” detail to the August gunfight in order to make William O’Neal accidentally responsible for the shootout. According to Jeffrey Haas, as “one of the few Panthers with mechanical and carpentry skills,” O’Neal took charge of the repairs to the offices after the Oct. 4 raid, as seen in the film.

The Death of Spurgeon “Jake” Winters

Jake Winters (Algee Smith), a 19-year-old Black Panther killed in a shootout with the police after the raid on the Panther headquarters, was a real person, although his death didn’t happen exactly the way it does in the movie. On screen, Winters, trying to figure out how Jimmy Palmer died, questions an unfriendly hospital orderly who calls the police. The cops then hunt him down and kill him on the grounds of an abandoned refinery, although two officers are killed in the ensuing shootout.

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In real life, on Nov. 14, 1969, Winters and another Black Panther named Lance Bell allegedly tried to ambush a Cook County correctional officer in an abandoned building. Police arrived, and a shootout ensued in which Winters and two police officers, Frank Rappaport and John Gilhooly, were killed. Winters was said to have been gunned down immediately after executing a wounded Rappaport with a point-blank shot to the head, as seen in the movie. The Black Panthers treated Winters as a martyr and named their medical clinic after him, as seen in the film, but there was no direct line of causation between the death of Jimmy Palmer/Larry Roberson and the death of Jake Winters as the film suggests.

The Assassination of Fred Hampton

The events surrounding the Dec. 4, 1969, deaths of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark are the most contested scenes in the entire movie, primarily because they were the subject of an extensive cover-up effort from the Chicago Police Department, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, and the FBI. Jeffrey Haas, who worked on the lawsuits that followed the killings, chronicles the slow process of uncovering the truth in The Assassination of Fred Hampton, and there’s probably another whole movie to be made about the state and federal government’s perfidy in the aftermath of Hampton’s death. Although it was apparent within days that the physical evidence in Hampton’s apartment bore no resemblance to the pitched gun battle State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan was describing at press conferences, the FBI’s involvement remained a secret until the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI burglarized a bureau field office on March 8, 1971, and leaked COINTELPRO files to newspapers. Similarly, William O’Neal was not exposed as an informant until a Feb. 11, 1973, article in the Chicago Tribune, and it took years of litigation until enough of the truth had been dragged out that the government settled lawsuits from the survivors.

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The version of the story in Judas and the Black Messiah is reconstructed from the testimony of the Black Panthers who were there and later revelations about the government’s involvement, but some of its facts are still disputed, and the movie’s depiction doesn’t match the actual events in a few key regards. First of all, perhaps because it was never entirely clear which police officers fired which shots—especially who fired the shots into Hampton’s skull—the officers on the raid are all fictional. (One of them is named “Sergeant Blart” in the screenplay.) In real life, the squad included Sgt. Daniel Groth, who led the raid and lied to the press about what had happened, and James “Gloves” Davis, so nicknamed because of the leather gloves he would don before beating suspects. It was Groth who allegedly met with either O’Neal or Mitchell on Dec. 2, where he was given O’Neal’s sketch of the apartment, a key piece of evidence in eventually establishing FBI involvement.

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The main never-proven aspect of Hampton’s death shown as fact in the film was whether O’Neal drugged Hampton that night. The evidence makes this seem overwhelmingly likely—Hampton fell asleep midsentence while talking to his family on the phone, the Panthers testified they were unable to wake him during the raid, and one autopsy showed barbiturates in Hampton’s blood, though he did not use drugs—but O’Neal never admitted to this, so the scene in which he is told to drug Hampton is an extrapolation.

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As for the raid itself, initially the police claimed that the Panthers had fired first and a lengthy shootout ensued, during which the police called for three separate cease-fires broken by gunfire from the Panthers. The ballistic evidence in the apartment, however, pointed unequivocally toward a scenario like the one we see on screen, in which the police opened fire from outside the door, sprayed the apartment with bullets indiscriminately, and executed Hampton with two point-blank shots to the head. Deborah Johnson testified and later told PBS that she heard an officer say, “Well, he’s good and dead now,” as in the film, after the final two.

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The only shot fired by any of the Panthers was a shotgun blast from Mark Clark, and the low angle from which it hit the door suggests the gun went off as Clark fell to the floor after being hit. (In the movie, Clark’s gun goes off right as he begins to fall, seemingly into the ceiling.) There’s one regard in which the police were a little less bloodthirsty than they appear to be in Judas and the Black Messiah: The film shows three officers spraying the living room wall with machine guns, but in reality only one officer, Groth, brought along a machine gun. (That any of the police brought a machine gun for what they claimed was the routine service of a search warrant is a whole other matter.) Besides a few details, though, Judas and the Black Messiah presents what happened in Hampton’s apartment on the night he was killed, as far as anyone can reconstruct it from such limited information.

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The film’s final scene, showing Agent Mitchell giving William O’Neal a bonus after the raid, is true, although that bonus did not include a free gas station. (O’Neal did manage a gas station in Maywood, but it doesn’t seem to have been a gift from the FBI.) The memos requesting authorization for O’Neal’s bonus became crucial evidence showing a link between the FBI and the raid on Hampton’s apartment, since they explicitly said that O’Neal’s information had been used in the raid and demonstrated that the bureau considered it a success. O’Neal ultimately got an extra $300 for his role in Hampton’s death.

Correction, July 3, 2021: This piece originally misstated that Washington University had posted a transcript of William O’Neal’s full Eyes on the Prize interview. It was Washington University in St. Louis.

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