I was familiar with Fred Hampton. I knew he was a Black Panther leader and that he was assassinated by the FBI. Just recently, I had watched The Trial of The Chicago 7 in which Hampton was a supporting character and his death had been shown as part of that story. But beyond that I didn’t know much about Fred Hampton. And I didn’t know that the FBI had an informant, William O’Neal, planted in Hampton’s Chicago Black Panther chapter and that he assisted in his assassination. The film was produced by Ryan Cooler and Shaka King, who also directed and co-wrote the script with Will Berson and it’s bookended by an interview with O’Neal for a PBS documentary from 1989.
William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young, small time car thief who gets caught and courted by an FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons) to infiltrate the Black Panthers and provide them with info. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) had Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) in his sights and was very worried that he could be a ‘black messiah’ to the ever increasing anti-establishment movement. He wanted to find a way to discredit the movement and stop Hampton.
Hampton was a young charismatic man who wasn’t afraid to step up and be a leader. He sought to unify the various gangs/groups in Chicago, black and white, to join together with the common denominator that they were suffering because they were poor and the poor were always powerless but together they could exert real power. This made him a dangerous man, of course.
O’Neal wasn’t as tuned in to the cause. He was a young thief who was just looking for a way to stay out of jail and make some money but the more he works with the Panthers and Hampton the more conflicted he becomes. Hampton also gets involved with a smart young woman. Deborah (Dominique Fishback, The Deuce) who sees the sensitive, shy man beneath the brash, inspirational speaker. We know how this ends but seeing the entire story is powerful and heartbreaking.
Plemmons continues to build a strong body of work and he’s very good again here as the manipulative FBI agent who also has moments of pause over the FBI’s methods. Stanfield also gives another strong performance as the hesitant informant who feels there’s no way out. I first saw Fishback in the HBO series The Deuce and she’s one to keep an eye on. She’s really lovely here as Hampton’s girlfriend who loves what Hampton is fighting for while being scared for what it will mean for both of them. Kaluuya delivers a powerhouse performance as Hampton. He transforms himself, physically as well, and is simply mesmerizing. It’s an Oscar worthy performance, no question.
The young director, Shaka King does a good job keeping the narrative moving and the focus tight on a small group of characters. The film tells a strong story, one you think you know and gives it new light and life. It hits a chord that still resonates today only too well. A powerful film I highly recommend .