*The Warner Bros film “Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of the 1969 murder of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton. The film stars Daniel Kaluuya as the charismatic Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield portrays FBI informant William (Bill) O’Neal, the man who infiltrated the Panthers and provided the layout to Hampton’s apartment where he was murdered while sleeping with his pregnant fiancé Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback.)
The film opens as O’Neal- a petty thief – is arrested for impersonating an officer in a scam to steal cars. His arrest places him in the hands of FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who convinces him to join the Black Panther Party as part of COINTELPRO, the covert and illegal operation to take down political groups put together by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen.) Hoover was particularly interested in Hampton whose socialist-leaning belief system was making an impact in communities, by building a Rainbow Coalition of activists.
EURweb correspondent Jill Munroe talked with Kaluuya and Fishback about taking on the roles, meeting with the family of Chairman Hampton including his son Fred Jr. and Mama Akua, formerly known as Deborah Johnson, plus Daniel’s thoughts on if Bill O’Neal should receive any empathy even though he set Hampton up.
Daniel Kaluuya on what he knew about Fred Hampton before being cast:
Not too much. What I was taught in school, I wasn’t taught about Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party at all in school, maybe very minimally. From conversations with friends and people, I was around. Navigating feelings of anger and being a young, Black man coming up in that kind of space. I would take in ideas from that side, the Black Panther Party, and think, you know I really want to take a deep dive and get to know them and myself through them. I was always going to go in that direction and see what I can learn from them, so this was an incredible opportunity to learn about them and see what they stood for.
On if there is room for empathy for FBI informant Bill O’Neal:
That’s actually something that I am meeting on this press run. Someone said to me how young Bill was, and you just highlighted it. He was 19, that’s a young kid that was being bullied and threatened by the FBI. It shows the dangers of apathy, and how much you can destroy with that. And how it makes you so malleable if someone understands what they can do with that. It also makes you understand the root of his deeds. It’s in the establishment that activated him in order to destroy what he did and lead to the assassination of Chairman Fred. That’s the root of it and you have to have empathy… well you don’t have to, but he’s a human being. And that’s why I feel like this film and LaKeith show that balance. They don’t excuse it, but they show that this is a person who is in conflict. He is being educated and he believes in the Black Panther Party and the words of Chairman Fred, but because of the apathy of before. Because he was self-preserving, it leads to an erosion of others around him and ultimately of himself.
Dominique Fishback on meeting the family of Chairman Hampton including his son Fred Jr. and Mama Akua, formerly known as Deborah Johnson:
We met with the family before we started shooting. Chairman Fred jr. had each member of the cast go around the table and say why we wanted to do this movie. We got to learn each other’s hearts and we also learned that each one of us was in this for reasons bigger than our own selves or egos. We wanted to tell it from a guttural and ancestral kind of need and I think that the family saw that. Even though Mama Akua pulled Daniel and me aside… she would say (about Daniel) ‘oh he’s speaking my language, I like him.” But then give me the side-eye. But I can handle that, I’m a Brooklyn girl. She later told me that she wanted to make sure there was no punkness in me. When I was leaving I hugged her and told her that I hope she knew my heart. She said I know, I just had to give you a bit of a hard time. I respected it though. I’d much rather that. It made it much better, we went from that. She came to set early on and she said, ‘you did the Deborah Johnson up there, you did that.’ So that let me know that all the work I was doing, the journaling, the poetry, all the work that I was innately doing to build the world that we couldn’t see, that I was on the right track.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is directed by Shaka King and produced by Ryan Coogler hits theatres and HBO Max on Feb. 12.