Black Panthers on the Prowl

Published: Sun 18 Apr 2021 08:20 AM
Black Panthers on the Prowl
A passionate and gripping, “inspired by true events,” political drama from director and co-writer Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah is an informative and instructive tale of human frailty that centers around the charismatic Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was murdered at the age of twenty-one during a police raid. It was organized by the office of Cook County State Attorney Edward Hanrahan, whom Hampton had vehemently criticized, insisting his talk about a "war on gangs" was just rhetoric that justified and enabled a "war on black youth." The police had been given inside information about the layout of the apartment by the FBI, who four years earlier had flipped a petty criminal and street hustler, William O’Neal, and encouraged him to become an informant. He rose up through the ranks to become security captain of the local Illinois chapter and Hampton's personal bodyguard
O’Neal would have remained an historical footnote, had he not slipped Hampton a Mickey Finn before the raid, sedating him with Seconal (a barbiturate used to treat insomnia) and blurring his reactions. King's movie elevates O'Neal to equal status with Hampton, portraying him as a confused car thief who grew up on the same mean streets, but might have found a similar vocation, rather than becoming a two-faced Judas to Hampton's precociously and politically liberating Messiah. It remains unknown whether O'Neal, who died in 1990, was really the person who drugged Hampton. Having survived a previous suicide attempt in which he was prevented from jumping out of a second-story window, O'Neal drove his car into on-coming traffic on Interstate 290. Although his death was ruled a suicide by the coroner and his uncle thought he was "filled with guilt" for collaborating with the FBI, his wife always claimed his death was accidental.
Ten days after the raid, Bobby Rush, then deputy minister of defense for the Illinois Black Panther party, accused the Chicago police of being part of an "execution squad” and Michael Newton is among several writers who have concluded that Hampton was deliberately assassinated. In his 2016 bookUnsolved Civil Rights Murder Cases, 1934-1970, he writes that Hampton "was murdered in his sleep by Chicago police with FBI collusion" and his view is supported by Jakobi Williams' bookFrom the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago. According to a 1969Chicago Tribune report, "The raid ended the promising political career of Cook County State Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan, who was indicted but cleared with thirteen other law-enforcement agents on charges of obstructing justice." The families of Hampton and Clark filed a $47.7 million civil suit against the city, state, and federal governments, but at the close of the plaintiff's case, after more than eighteen months of testimony, Judge Sam Perry dismissed the case. The plaintiffs appealed and the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ordered that the case be retried. More than a decade after it had been filed, the suit was finally settled, with $1.85 million going to nine plaintiffs, the largest ever in a civil rights case.
Jeffrey Haas, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the federal suit Hampton v. Hanrahan, was convinced that social problems and racial discrimination increased in Chicago following Hampton's death - “There's also the legacy that, without a young leader, I think the West Side of Chicago degenerated a lot into drugs. And without leaders like Fred Hampton, I think the gangs and the drugs became much more prevalent on the West Side. He was an alternative to that. He talked about serving the community, talked about breakfast programs, educating the people, community control of police. So I think that that's unfortunately another legacy of Fred's murder." In 1990, the Chicago City Council unanimously passed a resolution commemorating December 4 as Fred Hampton Day, stating that he “made his mark in Chicago history not so much by his death as by the heroic efforts of his life and by his goals of empowering the most oppressed sector of Chicago's Black community, bringing people into political life through participation in their own freedom fighting organization."
This is only King's second feature film since his debut Newlyweds and he has described it as “The Departed inside the world of COINTELPRO," an ingenious way to "sort of Trojan-horse a Fred Hampton biopic and introduce … a great segment of the world who is unaware of who he was and is highly unaware of the Panthers' politics and ideology." His screenplay depicts O'Neal as equally important to the balance of the narrative as the bulked-up Hampton, superbly played by Daniel Kaluuya who captures his muscular charisma, rhetorical prowess, and instinctive leadership. LaKeith Stanfield has stated he needed therapy afterwards supplying an equally barnstorming performance as O'Neal, a sucker drawn in way over his head, his gentle face often breaking into a slippery but charming smile. Dominique Fishback gives a sensitive and sympathetic performance of guileless warmth as Hampton’s partner Deborah, while Jesse Plemons is entirely convincing as Roy Mitchell (the agent running O’Neal), and Martin Sheen laps up the role of creepy gay homophobe J Edgar Hoover with a severe case of facial prosthetics.
There is a mesmeric, high-octane charge of excitement in the way Hampton faces everyone down with his basilisk stare, yet still remains boyishly shy around Deborah, who provides the audience with a sympathetic character with whom we can easily empathise. Stanfield portrays O’Neal as a naive and romantic figure who is excruciatingly aware of the risk he is running, while enjoying a lavish steak-house dinner or drinking Scotch at his handler's home. Kaluuya and Stanfield are thirty-one and twenty-nine respectively, but Hampton was only twenty-one at the time of his death and O'Neal was just seventeen at the time. (Incidentally, Kaluuya, Stanfield, and Lil Rel Howery previously worked together in Get Out (2017), while Algee Smith and Dominique Fishback co-starred in The Hate U Give (2018). Stanfield and Howery also worked together in The Photograph (2020), in which they played brothers. Coincidentally, another one of their co-stars from that movie, Keelvin Harrison Jr., portrayed Hampton in last year's The Trial of the Chicago 7, in which Hampton appears in a supporting role, but played by Harrison).
“A badge is scarier than a gun,” explains O’Neal after he is arrested for impersonating an FBI agent in order to steal a flashy ride, “It’s like you got a whole damn army behind you.” Instead, he now has Mitchell on his case, offering him a choice between spending several years in prison or becoming an informant. On Hoover's specific instructions, the FBI has set its sights on Hampton, who is forging allegiances with a rainbow coalition of partners (“rednecks and Puerto Ricans!”) as the Panthers’ influence rapidly expands across the country. With no political convictions beyond simple self-preservation, O’Neal is the perfect tool to wangle his way into the party and report on its inner workings. As he rises within the ranks, Hoover decides to use him “more creatively.” Yet O’Neal’s own affiliations become blurred, with his fears of being revealed as an informer intertwined with a growing sympathy for Hampton’s revolutionary proclamations. As Mitchell observes after watching O’Neal at a fiery Panthers meeting - “Either this guy deserves an Academy Award or he believes this shit.”
Just how much the real-life O’Neal bought into the Panthers’ rhetoric remains a matter of debate. Watching the full unedited footage of his 1989 interview from the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize II (parts of which King restages), it is clear that he liked and admired Hampton and felt both “bad” and “betrayed” by his part in his downfall. Yet he also respected Mitchell as a “role model” and admired the FBI, which he considered above the petty politics of the viciously racist Chicago Police Department. Stanfield manages to keep these complex contradictions alive throughout his performance, capturing perfectly the uneasy manner that O’Neal exhibited on camera, his eyes darting anxiously as he attempts to read his surroundings, his manner an anxious admixture of furtive fear and forceful ambition.
In contrast, Kaluuya’s Hampton remains stalwart, steadfast, and determined. Inspirational in public and physically imposing, while privately often gentle and soft spoken, he is a fully rounded character into whom Kaluuya injects an large shot of adrenaline. It is hardly surprising that O’Neal is so taken with him, despite the Panthers’ quasi-Maoist teachings leaving him completely cold. For all of Hampton’s incendiary speeches about killing “pigs” and dying for the revolution (Mitchell calls the Panthers and the Klan two sides of the same coin), it is the free breakfasts for kids and healthcare programmes for the community that remain his lasting legacy. The inevitable denouement comes during a final meal at Hampton’s apartment - the last supper. Like many paint-it-by numbers biopics, King concludes his drama with a cliched postscript (four stark sentences outlining the historical facts), but also begins with Stanfield as an older O’Neal giving a TV interview in 1990 and unexpectedly ends with the real O’Neal repeating the same words, but now loaded with a poisonous sting in the tail.
Composers Craig Harris and Mark Isham provide close harmony to Sean Bobbitt’s gorgeous cinematography, with melancholy chords, angular percussion, and prowling bass riffs both amplifying and intertwining seamlessly with the action, while the superb production design draws us deep into the period setting. There is also plenty of contemporary pop music. In a car chase scene, Chris Clark's 1966 hit Love's Gone Bad is heard. Clark was a minor Motown recording artist who made two albums for the label, Soul Sounds and C.C. Rides Again, but went on to earn an Oscar nomination for co-writing the screenplay for Lady Sings the Blues. Intriguingly, Jay-Z, who also performs on the soundtrack, was born on the same day that Hampton was killed.
With both Stanfield and Kaluuya receiving Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor, Judas and the Black Messiah is the first film to have multiple black performers nominated in this category for the same film. Despite campaigning for the lead actor category, Stanfield received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, alongside Kaluuya, due to the fact that the Academy allows each voting member to self-determine into which category an actor's performance falls. It is also the first time that a film with all black producers has been nominated for Best Picture and that more than two African-American producers have been nominated for Best Picture.
Kaluuya is also the first black British actor to receive multiple Academy Award nominations and the second film (after Queen & Slim) in which he plays a character who is murdered by the police. The final assassination scene was filmed fifty years after its actual occurrence. Recalls Kaluuya, "To be doing that scene on that day, it was really heavy. It was really, really, really, really heavy and everyone felt it. We just knew it was a moment. We had a speech, said a couple of words, really thankful to be here and thankful for what Chairman Fred did for us to be here together. To honor him and to honor his words and bringing it to a wider audience. So that was a really heavy day. Even the stuff I was saying in that scene, the decision he makes in that scene, to say that on that day, was really heavy. I think if I did it another day I wouldn't be able to do it like I did it."
Howard Davis
Scoop Arts Editor
Educated at Cambridge and UCLA; worked on several major Hollywood feature films and as a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Los Angeles; currently enjoying life in Wellington.
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