Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 2021. Bron Studios, Bron Creative, MACRO, Participant, Proximity. Story by Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenneth Lucas, Keith Lucas, Screenplay by Will Berson, Shaka King. Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt. Produced by Charles D. King, Ryan Coogler, Shaka King. Music by Craig Harris, Mark Isham. Production Design by Sam Lisenco. Costume Design by Charlese Antoinette Jones. Film Editing by Kristan Sprague. Academy Awards 2020. Golden Globe Awards 2020. Screen Actors Guild Awards 2020.
It’s the late sixties and the popularity of the Black Panther party has spread across the country, promoting the resisting of police oppression, community food programs to fight hunger and health clinics for those ill-served by their place in the class struggle. To the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen in some very bad makeup), they are a terrorist organization, as “bad as the KKK” as agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) puts it to his informant Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), likely because they don’t agree that America’s capitalism is benefiting everyone equally. O’Neal was caught impersonating an FBI agent to steal cars and has been given the option of either going to jail for a decade or helping bring in a bigger fish, prompting him to go undercover as a Panther and get close to Chicago chairman Fred Hampton. Twenty years old, a gifted speaker and influential activist, Hampton (played with buzzing charisma by Daniel Kaluuya) is not the terrorist that O’Neal has been told he is but an almost saintly figure who has a dream of making all of Chicago’s underprivileged citizens join together, from the city’s rival gangs (fictionally portrayed here as “The Crowns”) to their Puerto Rican counterparts and Confederate flag-waving poor whites. Hampton’s efforts get him imprisoned on a bogus charge and O’Neal has to keep his cover while collecting hefty pay-days during his secret steak dinners with his mentor Mitchell. After he sees friends get shot, the Panther office bombed and starts to get wind of what it is that he is actually being asked to help facilitate, he becomes equally conflicted about his personal feelings about what the party stands for and just how easy his conscience feels about profiting from his betrayal of them. Director Shaka King and co-writer Will Berson have a very powerful tale to write about here, one directly linked to more recent conversations about the institution of law enforcement in America and the country’s reaction to those fighting racial and economic injustices. What they’ve written, however, appears to only be interested in the skeletal structure of the two-man plot , one character a supernaturally gifted true-believer (and therefore inevitable sacrificial lamb), the other a “practical” i.e. self-serving traitor. What the filmmakers execute isn’t complex or interesting enough, and when compared to the recent BlacKkKlansman, lacks the vivacious dazzle that Spike Lee would have brought to this story. The film recreates interviews the real O’Neal gave many years later in which he appeared to always have a strong idea of knowing what he was doing but the flashbacks suggest otherwise, and this conflict is a fascinating one. Unfortunately, there’s very little happening on screen to suggest that an investigation of a spiritual struggle is happening; making the audience’s mind up doesn’t provide a riveting two hours, particularly when a great deal of the dramatic action just feels like it’s killing time until the climactic killing spree which is the main reason for making this chapter in history into a film. The terrific cast help make up for the middlebrow execution, aside from the leads there is also the wonderful Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s love interest and Algee Smith as fallen Panther Spurgeon “Jake” Winters.