This is the true story of Fred Hampton, young Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his ultimate betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal.
William, or Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), is a low-level hustler and car thief who gets caught by the wrong guy at the wrong time. FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons) is looking for a way to impress his boss, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), and Bill is just the kind of guy he could use. Dangling his crimes and the threat of life in prison, Roy will be able to manipulate Bill into doing just about anything, and the thing at the top of everyone’s list these days is increasingly noisy Fred Hampton and his Black Panther Party in Chicago. Fred (Daniel Kaluuya) is agitating for things like equality and education, which of course infuriates the institution. How dare he? Worse still, Fred is so charismatic and galvanizing that he’s actually uniting not just his own party, but members of different and sometimes adversary groups that share, at their core, some common ground. Roy will have Bill infiltrate the Black Panther Party to get close to Fred.
As FBI informant, Bill will eventually betray Fred, ultimately leading to his assassination, but Shaka King’s brilliant film tells the tale of not one but two lives ruined by the FBI and its machinations. Bill is a victim too, and the film finds empathy for a man even its title suggests is a villain.
Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield both had break out performances in Jordan Peele’s Get Out and both have chosen extremely well and wisely since, their careers pointed ever upward. How lovely to see them reunited here, and to such splendid effect. Kaluuya gives off such a strong, committed, and lyrical vibe that I must constantly remind myself that Hampton was but 21 years old when he died. Stanfield suffers quietly, his internal conflict not verbally expressed but no less apparent for it.
It can be difficult for an historic thriller to capture an authentic sense of excitement, but Shaka King’s perspective brings new urgency to the story, making for a compelling, electrifying watch, ready to pounce.
Few Americans know what a criminal Hoover was, that Fred was a really bright committed young activist brutally murdered by the FBI in a state sanctioned lynching. The same Hoover who was trying to blackmail King into committing suicide. Too often simple minded Americans conflate law enforcement with justice, but in fact when the justice system has a systematic criminal component in the enforcement, all bets are off.
A while ago I saw a doc on Hampton’s assassination. Brutal. I had had no idea about any of it. It was before my time.