Directed By Shaka King
Starring – Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons
The Plot – The story of Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his fateful betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal (Stanfield).
Rated R for violence and pervasive adult language
– Expanding links. As can be expected in a movie revolving around this story, the growing trust and bond between Fred and William is deeply explored, complete with a fleshed out arc that establishes the importance of the movement to the latter, but surprisingly the film as a whole is based on a series of relationships and dynamics that preserve so much depth and stakes constantly hanging in the balance of the movie’s script. There’s the many layers of Fred, in particular his relationship Deborah, which not only fleshes out the human side against his detractors, but also proves that he invested the most to the movement, during the most meaningful time for both of them. In addition to this, I greatly appreciated the thoroughness of the arc between William and C.I.A agent Roy Mitchell (Played by Plemons), the latter of which feeling anything but the one dimensional villain we’re led to believe by everyone who wears the badge. Roy’s movements are periodically questionable, but there’s several instances where the character shows concern for what the C.I.A is cooking up against Hampton, showing shades of internal conflict that does the characterization a huge compliment on both sides of the moral coin.
– Gifted direction. This isn’t King’s debut feature film, but it’s easily his most important to date, and he rises to the occasion with a continuous finger on the pulse of the movie’s atmosphere and tonal capacities that maintains urgency in the heat of the story. On a visual spectrum, King’s compositions and movements throughout the various settings and historical occasions gives the audience a spectator perspective, seen through the vantage point of handheld schemes that never hinder or limit the appeal of what’s being documented. The sequence of events are tense and completely engaging, there’s plenty of exhilarating drama that plays in the hands of the audience knowing information long before the characters do, and the tonal shifts between humor and dramatic lends itself brilliantly to some transitions that are thoroughly earned throughout. Overall, there’s a raw and gritty circumstance surrounding King’s depiction, conjuring up a stripped-down, bare-bones experience that is unlike anything currently playing in the mainstream eye of contemporary cinema.
– Entrancing cinematography. Adding to the film’s riveting presentation is the spell-binding design in color and lighting from cinematographer Shawn Bobbit, who preserves an air of professionalism to the picture that continuously captures your attention during shots that would typically be considered throwaway. Being that this was the same man who worked with director Steve McQueen on my favorite film of 2013, “12 Years a Slave”, it’s no surprise that Bobbit instills a sense of curiosity to the darkness and shadows that frequently envelope the characters in frame, and garner an element of authenticity within the lighting that never feels influenced or post-produced. It’s also no surprise that his exceptional framing gives audiences plenty to chew on in the visual context of the many predicaments that these characters find themselves in, particularly that of iconography of Fred, who earns the attention of peers every time he opens his mouth.
– Musical luster. In both the film’s musical score and selective track listing, the duo of Mark Isham and Craig Harris cement an emphasis to the overwhelming tone and energy that I greatly admired throughout the film, and throw in some elements with selections that lend themselves to the movie’s timely production value. Being that this is the 60’s, at the heart of Motown madness, it’s no surprise that the duo fully commit themselves to the particular sound that was audibly raising the culture for the time, but what is surprising is that a film this important also simultaneously churns out what is currently my favorite soundtrack of 2021. Curtis Mayfield, Cytations, The Jhamels, and The Outlaw Blues Band were all artists who I grew up with when drifting off to the AM radio that serenaded me to sleep, so to see them combining their strengths here is slightly surreal yet smoothly accomodating for the place in time the film is channeling.
– Riveting performances. Warner Bros. has entered the Oscar buzz discussion, and it comes as a result of the work of Stanfield and especially Kaluuya, who prescribed goosebumps to my skin during the long-winded diatribes that he thunderously channels as Fred. Both of these men seamlessly transform into their respective characters, complete with quirks and nuances that really allow their contrasting personalities to stand-out, but it’s the delivery within their registries that take their skills to a whole other level than previously seen, fleshing out two male leads who we easily engage in despite the bad decisions that unfortunately define them. Stanfield’s William is a coward, but he’s a coward who is a victim of immaturity and poor timing, thus we understand and empathize with the unfortunate road that his character is forced to travel. For Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton, we get a powerful leader in front of the public eye, but a sympathetic everyman within the clutches of his loving lady, and it creates a juxtaposition for Hampton that unfortunately only very few people saw before this film.
– Biggest takeaways. What’s most rewarding for someone like me, who has studied Hampton vividly since high school, is the factual accuracy of the film, which in turn outlines why Hampton was thought of as such a dangerous adversary for those who opposed him. Granted, some things about the dangerous night in question are still speculation, but the film’s dialogue and chain of events leads things in a believable direction that does its best to fill in all gaps. As for Fred, he was very much a mender who believed in bringing together as many colors and races for the common good, and only when that army grew to noticeable numbers did the C.I.A, and particularly J Edgar Hoover, pay attention and choose to divide it, by any means necessary. As a revolutionary, Hampton’s words are simple enough for everyone to accurately interpret, but it’s the way they channel resonance in current times that speaks the loudest to how far we still have to go in our quest for equality, giving him a prophetic underlining that keeps his legacy alive over fifty years later.
– World-breaking. There’s an almost documentarian feeling to what transpires in King’s presentation, most notably in the form of an introduction and epilogue inserted to competently remind us that these were real people with real stakes. From the opening shot, we are shown stock footage of on-the-ground incidents and moments in this continuous struggle, setting the mood for the story and engagements that are set to follow in cinematic rendering. However, it’s the closing moments that are most numbing to me, with the real William’s realization that he was part of the problem instead of the solution. This follows with some crippling on-screen text that really alludes to how one event in history can hold so much weight for so long over the mentality of one of its pawns, and it left me with one last playlist through the abundance of emotions that the film itself took me through repeatedly.
– Authentication. Major respect goes to the production behind the scenes, whose attention to detail not only transformed character likenesses and audibility before our very eyes and ears, but also conveyed a sense of realism and respect for the cinematic aspects that attain a lifelike quality. It starts with Martin Sheen’s turn as J. Edgar Hoover, layered with make-up and prosthetics that immerse the familiarity of the cherished actor seamlessly, and rids itself of any unintentional humor that could stem from such a design. From there, we place Stanfield in a real life interview for PBS that William did decades later, and again we’re treated to make-up and prosthetics that are far more subtle than the ones used on Sheen’s Hoover, but still effective in aging the actor nonetheless. Finally, it’s the acoustics and sound mixing in the context of these Black Panther meetings that did a huge assist to Kaluuya’s tremendous vocalization familiarity of Hampton, and allowed his words to rattle with urgent intentions.
– Limited snapshot. Most appreciated within Kenneth and Keith Lucas’ screenplay is the decision to only withstand this story as a particular place in time. This not only keeps the pacing firmly in tow throughout the entirety of the film, but omitted an origin story for Hampton, which wouldn’t have worked particularly well with the dilemma that the entirety of the film works around. Even with this story only spanning a couple of years, it’s interesting to note that the dramatic muscle never suffers because of such, instead feeling like a never-ending roller-coaster that takes these Panthers from one tribulation to the next, which in turn works wonderfully for the empathy we as an audience invest within them. There isn’t a single scene I would leave out, nor a sequence that I would shorten throughout. It’s very much the perfect portrait for the magnitude of injustice that has only elevated in the many cultural injustices that have followed since.
– Attention distribution. While intentional with William being our central protagonist and titular Judas throughout, I selfishly could’ve used more attention to Hampton, especially the moments of levity away from public attention that humanize him in a way very few people knew about. We see that in the form of his relationship with Deborah, but it’s very scattered throughout, and occasionally rushes their relationship in ways the other arcs in the film received stern patience for. It almost feels like one of those occasions where, despite this film being a modern day masterpiece, it doesn’t always feel like the camera and the attention for the film is in the place it rightfully should be, standing as a testament to Kaluuya’s magnetism, which is felt in absence after his character leaves frame.
My Grade: 9/10 or A