As the current chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs, Fred Hampton, Jr. was guarded when he heard a studio wanted to make a movie about his late father, Fred Hampton. With good reason, too. The elder Hampton was the fiery and charismatic chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. The FBI had its eye on him through a program called COINTELPRO, where they would infiltrate groups like the Black Panthers and use information to launch disinformation smear campaigns.
Hampton was in the midst of corralling disparate, multi-racial groups under the banner of the Rainbow Coalition. The idea was to organize these groups to fight poverty and police brutality. Then, Chicago police shot and killed Hampton and another member of the Black Panther Party in an early morning raid. In an interview, Hampton, Jr. pointed out others have tried to make this movie without coming correct—no knowledge or respect for the legacy of Hampton and the Illinois Black Panther party. "Legacy," he said, "is more important than our life."
This is what director Shaka King was thinking about when he signed on to make Judas and the Black Messiah, the new movie about the life of Fred Hampton through the eyes of William O'Neal—the man who infiltrated the Black Panthers on behalf of the FBI. The pitch he got from the movie's co-writers, Kenny and Keith Lucas, was a movie about Hampton and O'Neal that was like Martin Scorsese's gangster film, The Departed, but set inside the world of COINTELPRO. It didn't take much beyond that. "I was like, I see it. I'm done. I'm in," said King.
The result is a tense, thrilling movie that draws as much from The Talented Mr. Ripley as it does The Departed, packaging Hampton's radical politics beneath a sheen of high budget movie making. Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton's partner Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri), says she trusted King with Hampton's legacy. "His confidence and ability to make an authentic story, but not at the cost of somebody's life," she said helped her feel more comfortable to make the acting choices she made.