Jose Viera’s review published on Letterboxd:
We see Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) going into a bar posing as a police officer. He carries a fake badge and almost has the bar patrons fooled until his ruse begins to unravel. The patrons chase him out of the bar as Bill jumps into a boosted to car to escape. And his escape is very narrow, with one of his attackers even cutting through the roof of the car and almost stabbing Bill to death. One wonders if Bill would’ve been better off with the patrons catching him and teaching him a lesson he would never forget. Instead Bill goes from the frying pan and into the fire when he’s pulled over by law enforcement officials. It’s here that Bill is taken into police custody and fatefully meets Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), an FBI agent that is thoroughly impressed with Bill’s talents to disguise himself. By threatening serious jail time, Roy manages to recruit Bill to infiltrate the Black Panther Party, specifically the Illinois branch, so that the FBI can keep a close eye on the chapters charismatic leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
Kaluuya has a difficult role in the movie that other great actors have gone through such as Denzel Washington portraying Malcom X in Spike Lee’s Malcom X and David Olyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. I would say that yes, Kaluuya is the heart and soul of the movie, but Stanfield has an even more difficult part as the films Judas. The amount of suffering and emotional turmoil that Stanfield has to convey is absolutely astounding. Even by actions, it seems that Bill is a fairly thorough traitor through and through, but somehow Stanfield manages to convey the emotional complexities of his character in ways that makes the audience doubt the characters allegiances to the FBI. The whole time that I’m watching the movie it really feels like Bill truly loves and is committed to Hampton and his methodology to attain social justice. Meanwhile, we are given sequences with Bill and Roy that would indicate that Bill is sold out to betraying Hampton. These scenes are difficult because Plemons and Stanfield somehow have to convey that these two characters trust each other, but somehow there’s a lack of honesty between the two. We sense that Bill isn’t really welcome in Roy’s home by noticing subtleties in Roy’s behavior, such as the way he declines Bill’s help with getting the hot dogs ready. Then there’s all of the fancy restaurants which are clearly a ploy to make Bill think that Roy is fastidiously looking out for Bill and his needs. Bill is smart enough to know that he’s being played by this government stooge, but circumstances preclude Bill from getting himself out of this cycle of being used.
It turns out that the FBI has more than just one informant in the Black Panther organization, which does in fact lead to tragic results that further complicate Bill’s attempts to act autonomously from the FBIs demands. Again, you sense that he really loves Hampton, which is a testament to Stanfields acting that he can put forward all of these character complexities without the aid of exposition. Another notable exception in the film is Dominique Fishback as the love of Hampton’s life, Deborah Johnson. Director Shaka King firmly established a very emotionally moving romance between Deborah and Fred that helps to further accentuate Fred Hamptons normalcy. I guess what I mean by that is that he’s a twenty one year old man who’s having a massive influence in this country during a very tumultuous time. His reputation is almost mythic with all that he’s accomplishing. Seeing him in the scenes with Deborah really helps the audience to connect with him more on an emotional level. He falls in love just like the rest of us. In the scene where they first kiss, Deborah makes a fun observation regarding Fred’s shyness, which is something no one would ever assume about Fred Hampton because of how powerful a speaker he is. Deborah brings out those human vulnerabilities in Fred that illicit the necessary empathy from the audience to further connect with his struggles for Civil Rights and equality. Fishback’s final moments in the movie are truly some of the most heart wrenching drama you will more than likely experience in 2021.
Aside from Stanfield’s critical work as Bill O’Neal, Kaluuya will absolutely make you surrender yourself and resolve to Hampton’s cause. He preaches with ferocity, even though Hampton was far more than just a preacher. He was a man of action and courage. It takes a lot of nerve and boldness to go to a meeting such as the one Hampton goes to when he needs to meet the leader of the rival outfit known as The Crowns. As Hampton starts to amass several different desperate groups of people such as Puerto Rican’s and lower income white Americans, a powerful rainbow coalition begins to form that will draw the ire of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen). The white power structure of America begins to quake in fear knowing full well that this is a twenty one year old man who’s only getting started. There’s no telling what he will accomplish in a lifetime. The motivation of the FBI in this movie is presented as a movement based on cruelty underlined by fear. They behave just as vile and evil as the very thugs they are supposed to be serving and protecting us from.
Director Shaka King is going to be a talent to watch moving forward because he so masterfully directs this story it’s as if he’s a veteran that’s been in the game for decades. As I watched this film on the big screen it was if the screen itself became this flimsy chasm separating me from the very past this film is presenting. The murders, the tragedies, and the injustices depicted are so palpable that you will feel enraged. And then the film gives us a dose of reality when it showcases the real archival footage of Bill O’Neal. Seeing Bill speaking for himself just almost stops your heart. This is the real flesh and blood man who’s story was just told and it’s hard to know what to feel. You can’t really know how to feel, but all you can do is stop and think deeply about what drove Bill to do what he did. It couldn’t just be for survival could it? There is a strong ambiguous reality to this man that haunts you when you leave the theater. One of the greatest activists and leaders of yesteryear was taken from this world just as he was making headway in changing our country for the better. It’s tragic to see good men & women die so young, and then see the worst of the worst be acquitted and survive to further corrupt our world in the future.
I think that the existence of this movie is a strong victory because it prolongs Hampton’s legacy. It also showcases to us how much further America has to go for social justice. There has been much bloodshed and unfortunately there still is till this day. But a film like this encourages us and allows you to hope for bold and great leaders. It makes you look at yourself and wonder what you can do, no matter how small, to make a difference. A young twenty one year old man scared the hell out of the federal government because he had empathy for people. He knew how to organize people. That’s a very encouraging thought because it all boils down to empathy and loving your fellow neighbor. Caring enough to back up your empathy with actions just like Hampton did. This is one of the great films of 2021! See it as soon as you can!