‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ stars were ‘moved’ while researching Fred Hampton’s speeches
LaKeith Stanfield, who plays the FBI informant who betrayed Hampton, hopes in particular that Chicago’s Black youth will see the film.
Once actor LaKeith Stanfield agreed to become a part of the cast of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” he reveled in the opportunity of telling the story of the Black Panthers.
Initially, he thought he would play Fred Hampton, the charismatic chairman of the Black Panthers’ Illinois chapter. Instead, he was offered the role of FBI informant William O’Neal.
“I had to be part of it. I don’t care if they wanted me to play [Hampton’s] hat,” he said, laughing.
The film, which arrives Friday in theaters and on HBO Max, details how O’Neal provided information used to plan a 1969 predawn raid that led to the killing of Hampton, 21, and Mark Clark by the Chicago Police Department, in conjunction with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the FBI.
Stanfield (of “Uncut Gems” and TV’s “Atlanta”) said Hampton was rarely mentioned in his history classes. He did his own research and was moved by what he discovered.
“All the things that I had learned about the Panthers that I hadn’t seen represented in their story, I really wanted to be a part of that,” said Stanfield. “I found out later I’m playing O’Neal. I had to come to terms with that for a couple [of] days.
“I used to hate history [class] because I wasn’t really being represented. … I came across videos and I was moved by [Hampton’s] speeches. So, not knowing years later I’d be doing a story about him, the opportunity presented itself.”
Actor Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Hampton in the film, learned of “Chairman Fred” in a similar way as Stanfield did, adding the shock of the circumstances of his murder, and of his age at the time.
“In my late teens and early 20s, I was hit with the frustrations of being a Black man in a Western society; I kind of gravitated toward [Hampton’s ideology],” said Kaluuya, a current Golden Globe Award nominee for the role. “... I was moved — deeply moved. And for me, it was looking at how I wanted people to be moved in a way that I felt. … I felt blessed and honored to play Chairman Fred.”
Kaluuya (“Get Out,” “Black Panther”) says he understood why Hampton sought out the positive effects of uniting with like-minded organizations as the Panthers did with the Young Lords and Young Patriots when they formed the Rainbow Coalition.
In one scene from the film, the Rainbow Coalition speaks out in the aftermath of the murder of Young Lords member Manuel Ramos — the grandfather of Sun-Times reporter Manny Ramos — by a Chicago police officer.
“In those kinds of moments you have to focus on what [Hampton] wants from that scene,” said Kaluuya. “ ‘Let’s find points of interest in order to unite together. Then, we are stronger together’ is what was going through my head in that scene.”
“Judas” was filmed in Cleveland. Stanfield says some of the cast and crew visited Chicago ahead of production to see the locations of the film’s pivotal scenes, but he missed out. “I wish we would have been able to go to some of those landmarks and spots and be able to walk and touch the street and feel the energy,” said Stanfield.
As part of his cooperation with the FBI, Stanfield’s character provided the floor plans of Hampton’s apartment in the 2300 block of West Monroe Street, where police killed him.
“Regardless of all the decisions he made, he was still young,” Stanfield said. “All that being said, no, I don’t agree with the decisions and choices that he made.”
He describes O’Neal’s 1990 suicide, where he was struck by a car after running across the Eisenhower Expressway, “another tragic ending for a Black man.”
Stanfield hopes Chicago’s Black teens see the film in order for them to see what can be accomplished.
“They can see that it’s OK to love and care about something besides yourself, and fall in love with the character that is Fred Hampton. We got to be able to love ourselves internally to express that love outward. Then you won’t see all of the violence and all the problems.”