When Judas and the Black Messiah screenwriter Will Berson was researching the final days of William O’Neal, the federal government informant who infiltrated the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, he came across something strange.
It was a small detail in a Chicago Tribune article published in 1990, shortly after O’Neal died in a fatal accident that was ruled a suicide. O’Neal is the film’s titular Judas (played by LaKeith Stanfield) to Fred Hampton’s Black Messiah (played by Daniel Kaluuya); Berson was trying to learn as much as possible about the informant, who supplied key information for the controversial 1969 predawn raid that killed Hampton and fellow Black Panther member Mark Clark.
“It’a very long article—probably 1,500 words or something,” recalled Berson, who wrote the screenplay with the film’s director, Shaka King, based on a story by brothers Kenneth and Keith Lucas. “It talks about his life and working for the FBI, and it says he killed himself by walking out on the Eisenhower freeway into oncoming traffic. And then it goes on and there’s a tiny, almost throwaway paragraph, revealing that another man from the same housing complex killed himself in the same way in almost the same spot hours later. ” The exact excerpt:
On Monday evening, a second man who lived in the same apartment complex where O’Neal had been visiting before his death, apparently committed suicide by running onto the Eisenhower and was struck by a truck in virtually the same place as O’Neal, Kirschner said. Relatives said the two men did not know each other.
Berson’s admittedly “crazy” theory: that O’Neal “didn’t kill himself, and was put back in hiding by the FBI.” Berson said he shared the theory with the film’s creative team and was very much “derided for it.” Berson explained that his rationale, in part, is that O’Neal had a five-month-old baby at the time of his death.
“I think there was certainly the possibility that he looked at his own son and knew what he had deprived Fred Hampton of,” said Berson; Hampton himself died before his child was born. That said, he continued, “I think it’s certainly logistically more likely that he killed himself. But I also think, given everything we know about the FBI, given everything we know about O’Neal…I really wouldn’t be surprised if some other dude did actually kill himself that night—walked onto the freeway and Fred said, ‘Okay, we’re just going to put in the newspaper that happened twice and no one will know.’”
In a separate interview, King said that he doesn’t think the theory is completely out of line. “I think it’s not impossible,” King conceded. “I don’t think it’s true, though. Because I don’t understand what the purpose would be for him to go back into witness protection.”
O’Neal died months after filming an episode of the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize II, in which he reflected on his experience infiltrating the Black Panthers and working with Hampton. A haunting excerpt of the interview appears at the end of Judas and the Black Messiah. King said that before filming, he managed to track down someone who had worked on Eyes on the Prize II and discovered the strange circumstances in which O’Neal—who was going by the alias William Hart at the time of the taping—came to participate.
“He was tracked down by the producers and he said, ‘I’m in one of these three places—Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago. If you pick the right place, I’ll do the interview,’” recalled King. “They picked the right one and they met him there. He wouldn’t take off his sunglasses for the first 45 minutes.”
King said that he felt that O’Neal was very much conflicted in the interview—especially, King pointed out, because O’Neal used “we” interchangeably to refer to himself with both the FBI and the Black Panthers. The interview was really the only piece of archival footage the filmmakers had of O’Neal.
“We had to kind of scrub that stuff like a detective to get a sense of what this person was thinking, how they—how they felt about what they did. Because so much of that interview is filled with lies,” said King. “He was lying to himself after all these years […] we had to really parse through that and go through that stuff for clues.”
Shortly after O’Neal’s death, an official told the Chicago Tribune that the informant “was always a mysterious guy. He could play all the roles, every part [the FBI] needed. I think he never got it out of his system and was confused.”
O’Neal’s uncle Ben Heard told reporters that O’Neal had run onto the highway once before, but survived without an injury.
Fred Hampton’s late brother Bill, meanwhile, theorized at the time that O’Neal’s guilt over being an informant had caught up to him: “It’s something he tried to live with and couldn’t.”
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