IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why Hollywood is finally trying to tell slain Black Panther Fred Hampton's story

Hampton, killed during an "ill-conceived" police raid at age 21, embraced principles that remains relevant decades later.
Activist and Black Panther Party member Fred Hampton raises his arm at the 'Days of Rage' rally in Chicago on Oct. 11, 1969.
Activist and Black Panther Party member Fred Hampton raises his arm at the 'Days of Rage' rally in Chicago on Oct. 11, 1969.David Fenton / Getty Images file

Fred Hampton, the charismatic chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, is portrayed in two films gaining traction through Hollywood’s award season.

Played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Hampton briefly appears in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a dramatization of the 1969 trial against a group of antiwar and countercultural activists accused of a conspiracy to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Daniel Kaluuya stars as Hampton, who is being monitored by FBI informant William O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. As he infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, O’Neal grows closer to Hampton and eventually provides information leading to the Dec. 4, 1969, predawn raid where Hampton was killed by Chicago police officers. He was 21.

Of the two films, “Judas” presents a more detailed image of Hampton and the charisma and intellect that marked his time as a leader in the Illinois Panthers. But some scholars of Hampton and the Black Panthers at large argue that the film only glosses over his political outlook and the Panthers’ impact on social and economic justice.

“It's great that Hollywood is giving credence to the martyrs and icons of the movement,” says Jakobi Williams, an associate professor of history at Indiana University-Bloomington. “The downside of it is that some of this is hyperbole, incorrect and misleading.”

Williams, the author of “From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago,” said he does not endorse or promote the film, emphasizing that it “is not a biopic of Fred Hampton.”

Still, the movie has garnered critical and popular acclaim, highlighting that there is a new desire and appetite for better understanding about the Panthers and Hampton himself.

Hampton was an established activist before the Black Panthers

Frederick Allen Hampton was born in 1948, as the youngest of three children to Francis and Iberia Hampton. The family settled in Maywood, Illinois, a middle-class suburb of Chicago, during Hampton’s youth.

Hampton’s activist work began early. As a high school student, Hampton organized student campaigns for more Black teachers and administrators, pressed the school to select its first Black homecoming queen, and led protests at the Maywood police station.

In 1966, Hampton, by then a junior college student, was recruited to join the West Suburban NAACP chapter and eventually led the branch’s Youth Council.

By 1968, however, Hampton had grown frustrated with both the NAACP and the civil rights movement at large. After meeting a member of the Black Panther Party during the organization’s tour stop in Chicago, he absorbed the organization's calls for class solidarity and armed self-defense.

In footage used in the 1971 documentary, “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” the young activist discusses what pushed him to join the movement. “I was born in a bourgeois community and had some of the better things in life,” he says. “But I found that there were more people starving than there were people eating, more people that didn’t have clothes than did have clothes, and I just happened to be one of the few. So I decided that I wouldn’t stop doing what I’m doing until all those people are free.”

Hampton became a founding member and spokesman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. He gained notoriety among young Black Chicagoans with his magnetic personality and searing rhetoric on topics from local police violence, community control of programs, and his opposition to the Vietnam War.

But Hampton’s most repeated argument was focused on class solidarity. A self-identified Marxist-Leninist, he argued that communities needed to unite together to fight capitalism and continue efforts like the Poor People’s Campaign led by Martin Luther King Jr.

“We're going to fight racism with solidarity,” Hampton said in a 1969 speech. “We say you don't fight capitalism with no Black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”

Hampton and the Illinois Panthers pushed for class solidarity

While the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in California in 1966 with a focus on ending police brutality and the importance of armed self-defense, the organization also strongly supported providing resources to poor communities. The Panther’s “survival programs'' included free breakfast programs for children, medical clinics and food pantries, each serving as a criticism of the federal government’s failure to provide for its citizens.

Hampton saw the programs as a crucial part of the larger push for community empowerment and self-determination, saying in an undated speech that “first you have free breakfasts, then you have free medical care, then you have free bus rides, and soon you have freedom!”

The Illinois Panthers also made sure to highlight that their movement for Black self-determination and community control would not come at the expense of other communities. Chicago had historically been (and still is) one of the most residentially segregated cities in America. The Panthers argued that the poverty, discrimination and police harassment Black Chicagoans faced was also being experienced by other marginalized communities in the city. As such, the best way to fight these issues would be for poor communities across the city to come together to advocate as a united group.

Through the work of Bob Lee, a member of the Panthers, and Hampton’s powerful oratory, the Panthers established the Rainbow Coalition, a multiracial alliance led by the Black Panther Party that included Puerto Rican activists, white former Southerners and other radical organizations from around Chicago. Hampton saw the alliance as “a political coalition that respected ethnic communities of all kinds led by poor, Black youth.” The coalition quickly went to work as groups like the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang turned civil rights group, and the Young Patriots, a group of poor former white Southerners, organized around the needs of their respective communities and adapted the Panthers’ survival programs for their neighborhoods.

The coalition frequently denounced the administration of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, a Democrat who ran a powerful political machine. The local Panthers criticized Daley for encouraging police harassment in poor neighborhoods, for stifling the political chances of independent Black politicians unaffiliated with his group, and for pursuing an aggressive urban renewal campaign that pushed poor people into increasingly desolate conditions.

Hampton’s killing in 1969 sparked outrage — and a yearslong legal fight

The Rainbow Coalition raised Hampton’s profile in Chicago, and his growing influence within the Black Panther Party made him a target of federal surveillance. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared the group the “greatest threat to internal security” of the United States. Hampton was one of many Black activists watched by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, a covert counterintelligence operation of the 1950s and ʼ60s.

The FBI kept a close eye on Panther activities, with the help of informants and infiltrators. One such infiltrator was William O’Neal, the main subject of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” who joined the Illinois Panthers chapter and closely monitored Hampton.

The FBI worked closely with police in Chicago and passed along information requested by the Daley administration, which pressured federal officials for information. “The local government is way more sinister than the FBI,” Williams says of the law enforcement efforts to monitor and subvert the Illinois Panthers.

Daniel Kaluuya stars in "Judas and the Black Messiah."
Daniel Kaluuya stars in "Judas and the Black Messiah."Warner Bros.

The relationship between local police and the FBI led to the 1969 raid at a Chicago apartment used as a hangout by many of the Illinois Panthers. In the early morning, a group of 14 Chicago police officers knocked on the door and then opened fire, fatally striking Panther Mark Clark. Officers continued to fire as they entered the residence, shooting more than 90 rounds and wounding several Panthers inside. Hampton had been sleeping in a back bedroom at the time of the raid.

The officers argued that they shot him in self-defense, but witnesses said that Hampton remained asleep and that an officer shot him point-blank in the head. The Cook County state’s attorney at the time, Edward Hanrahan, argued that the Panthers had fired first and that the officers had responded to protect themselves. He initially tried to charge all of the survivors of the raid with attempted murder.

But that claim was quickly refuted after Panthers gave reporters access to the apartment after the raid, revealing that virtually all of the shots had been fired into the apartment by police. A federal grand jury found that the raid was “ill-conceived,” but ultimately declined to indict the officers.

The surviving Panthers described “nothing short of deliberate murder” in the hours after the raid, Jeffrey Haas, Hampton’s lawyer, wrote in “The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther.”

“The raid looked like an assassination,” Haas wrote.

Haas helped represent Hampton’s and Clark’s families, as well as the survivors of the raid, in a 1970 civil lawsuit that named city and federal officials as part of a conspiracy to conduct the raid. The legal battle revealed several details about COINTELPRO’s focus on the Panthers. The case was settled in 1982 for $1.85 million.

Decades after his killing, Hampton’s legacy endures

While Hampton’s story has long been a significant part of the history of the Black Power movement, his life as an influential activist and organizer has not been readily documented or highlighted in popular media until now. Part of this is due to a longstanding narrative surrounding the Panthers that frames them as an exclusively violent, anti-white organization, a characterization that ignores the ways that they were heavily active in helping Black communities and encouraged relationships with other marginalized people.

For some observers, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a Hollywood production that has already won major awards for actors like Kaluuya this season (Golden Globe for best supporting actor) as well as six Oscar nominations, including best picture, goes a long way toward helping to counter this narrative by providing a closer look at the Panthers and the ways that they were targeted by the federal government.

"The movie isn't a rah-rah pro-Panther narrative or an anti-Panther narrative. It's very much steeped in historical understanding," David F. Walker, who wrote a graphic novel about the Black Panther Party, told NBC News in February.

But for scholars of Hampton’s history and politics, the film, while a great display of his charisma and dynamic nature, falls short in actually telling his story or that of the Illinois Panthers.

Williams, the history professor, is working on a book about the Rainbow Coalition and is helping to develop a school curriculum in Chicago schools about Hampton and the Panthers. He said the film fails to truly engage with parts of the Panthers’ work, like the transformative nature of the Rainbow Coalition or its free survival programs. He added that the movie doesn’t acknowledge the role that women played in the Illinois chapter, in particular, and is overly sympathetic in its depiction of O’Neal.

“If you watch the movie, it’s all about guns and violence and shootouts,” he says. “It reinforces stereotypes.”

But the renewed attention to Hampton could help bring further awareness of the longstanding influence of the Panthers’ work on things like free school breakfast and lunch programs, and on the ways that its idea for the Rainbow Coalition would transform political organizing and help lead not only to the election of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983, but also become an aspect of the political playbook that helped drive the election of the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, in 2008.

And as the nation grapples with the same issues of racial injustice and police violence that Hampton spoke out against more than 50 years ago, his words are affecting a new generation of community activists and organizers.

Ultimately, Williams said, he hopes that more people are inspired to learn about Hampton and the Panthers. “Fred Hampton is the most important political figure in the 20th century that most people have never heard of,” he said.

Follow NBCBLK on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.