“Most of the motivations were fear, just trying to stay out of trouble and trying to stay afloat,” says LaKeith Stanfield about what drove his character William O’Neal in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” O’Neal was the real-life FBI informant who infiltrated the Black Panthers, leading to the assassination of Chicago Chairman Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya). Stanfield had to invest deeply in the character “because otherwise you don’t understand why or how someone could do some of the things he was into doing.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
Despite O’Neal’s participation in the murder of the activist leader, Stanfield “tried to go in without judgment as much as possible, get over my own biases, so that way I could tap into the character in an honest way. You can’t really connect to something if you don’t see it as human.” O’Neal was interviewed for a documentary produced years after Hampton’s execution called “Eyes on the Prize” — parts of which are recreated in this film — but Stanfield found O’Neal’s justifications “quite boring, so I didn’t want to play that.”
What he took instead from that interview was “a lot of what wasn’t spoken, that he might have some regrets or might feel bad about what he did … It was clear to me that when he wasn’t speaking he was going through some type of internal dialogue. I wanted to try to tap into that and help bring that part of him to the screen.” While making the Warner Bros. film, Stanfield brought O’Neal everywhere else with him too: “I felt like no matter where I went, Bill was always with me … so that way I’m never really having to do much of a transition when I get on set. He’s already there.”
Stanfield doesn’t have any specific hopes about what the audience will take away from this story in light of the continued struggle for racial justice in America. “The only thing that I want is for more people to know about the story of Fred Hampton and know about the life he lived,” instead of just the way he died. People should also be more skeptical of their government “because look at what they’re capable of doing.” The most important thing he’s hoping against is apathy: “The only concern I would have is if someone could watch a movie like this and feel nothing.”
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