(director/writer: Shaka King; screenwriter: Will Berson/story by Keith & Kenneth Lucas; cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt; editor: Kristan Sprague; music: Craig Harris/Mark Isham; cast: Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton), LaKeith Stanfield (William O’Neal), Jesse Plemons (Roy Mitchell), Dominique Fishback (Deborah Johnson), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Bobby Rush), Ashton Sanders (Jimmy Palmer), Algee Smith (Jake Winters), Graham Lutes (Alex), Martin Sheen (J. Edgar Hoover), Nick Fink (Fesperman), Khris Davis (Steel), Ian Duff,  Robert Longstreet (Special Agent Carlyle), Jermaine Fowler (Mark Clark), Terayle Hill (George Sams), Alysia Joy Powell (Mrs. Winters); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ryan Coogler/Charles D. King/Shaka King; Warner Bros./HBO Max release; 2021)

“Powerfully directed by Shaka King.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The biopic on Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is based on a true historical story, with added small touches of fiction. It tells the story of the martyred Black Panther 21-year-old radical. In 1969, the truth-speaking activist leader, Fred Hampton, was killed by the Chicago Police Department in a predawn raid on his apartment while he was sleeping with his pregnant poetess girlfriend (Dominique Fishback).

It’s powerfully directed by Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”), showing Hampton’s passionate fight for Black justice, the country’s turmoil, the violence and the deep racial divide. It’s co-written by King and Will Berson (whose credits are in TV comedy). The fiery story is attributed to Keith & Kenneth Lucas.

The film is noteworthy for its provocative jazz score by Mark Isham and Craig Harris, the excellent period visuals by Sean Bobbitt and the marvelous acting (even if the actors were too old for their characters). The Brit actor Daniel Kaluuya is electric as the screen friendly Fred Hampton, while LaKeith Stanfield is terrific as the conflicted, soul-searching, FBI snitch William O’Neal. He gives a noteworthy performance playing such an unpopular figure in a difficult role, as he waivers between
having a Black conscience and of being a coward by setting up a brother fighting for Black rights. The story is told from the POV of the Judas, which probably takes away something from the Messiah-bent Hampton’s ‘martyrdom.’

It’s a raging story about Black self-determination that’s just as relevant today as it was back then, as America has never gotten over its conflict over racial issues. The country still suffers from racism even if it has made some civil rights changes for the better over the years (but the Trump movement is certainly racist).

The articulate orator Hampton ran the Panthers’ chapter in Chicago, in which he believed was “the most segregated city in America.”  Hampton was preaching “Rebellion is our only solution” and “Political power flows from the barrel of a gun.” He recruited militants for the revolution, gave speeches about “killing the pigs,” organized legal-aid sites, medical clinics, help and breakfast programs for the Black community and was martyred when killed at an early age because he was detested by the sinister, bigoted lawman J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen)–afraid his calls for racial justice would make him a national hero, even unite with white radicals to gain more popularity. The FBI director used his office to hound Hampton, first sending him to prison, and then orchestrated his assassination when he felt prison was not enough of a punishment. One of the chief’s oily but personable white agents, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, a real-life FBI agent), recruited the shifty Black car thief, William O’Neal, nicknamed “Wild Bill” because of his
fierce reflexes, who was 19 at the time to go undercover as an informant within the Black Panther party after arrested in 1968 for impersonating a FBI agent over a scam. The snitch became Hampton’s driver, and was caught in an intrigue he couldn’t understand and know how to get out of.

The real-life Panthers like Bobby Rush (Darrell Britt-Gibson), co-founder of the Illinois chapter, and Mark Clark (Jermaine Fowler), who also died in the raid on Hampton’s apartment, were mixed in with the fictional characters like (
Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith and Dominique Thorne).

The hard-edged film, sympathetic to the Black radicals, is unafraid to show the violence on both sides (like the many Panther shootouts with the Chicago cops and of the loutish police after capturing some Panthers during a shoot-out (in its highlight sequence), burning down their headquarters for no reason and the white press never calling them out).

It ends with the pessimistic observations made by the filmmaker about race relations in the country still a major problem after all the years of systemic racism. It tells us “America’s on fire right now, and until that fire is extinguished, don’t nothing else mean a damn thing.”

I agree. I’m cautious about America changing its divide over racism, as I still see too many haters on both sides.

Lakeith Stanfield and Jesse
        Plemons in a tense scene from Judas and the Black Messiah.