Here is an example of a necessary viewing experience for the western student. The majority of Americans aren’t properly educated. I would have known more about Fred Hampton’s work as the Illinois chapter chairman of the Black Panther Party (BPP) if they were. The only exposure I ever had to the Black Panthers was through popular media. Films like “Network” depicted the BPP as out of touch sociopaths with no connection to reality. Understanding their cause as human beings have mostly been muddled in what I can only describe as an education system created by white people for white people. Slavery was taught in my school as a bastardization to human dignity, but only in that extreme example of absolute injustice have the fellow whites in my classroom learned of the oppression that folks who didn’t look like me absorbed. Still, too little too late.
What sets Shaka King’s biopic on the late Fred Hampton and William O’Neal apart is its unrepentant nature for its subjects. Hampton’s actions aren’t glorified nor lionized. O’Neal is partially a lion but one living under insurmountable fear. These are men who were forced to make choices. One chose the honorary path as the other was the coward, selling his profit to the highest bidder. As a good film should adequately do, it allows its audience to empathize instead of judge one’s actions—the ultimate judgment for Mr. O’Neal’s specifically will be met with rageful skepticism by many even as one unfamiliar with the story of Mr. Hampton, the depiction of Ryan O’Neal left me enraged and saddened.
The moment we see Ryan O’Neal, I labeled him negatively, unaware of who he was. O’Neal breaks into a local black bar masquerading as a cop in an attempt to steal someone’s automobile. When the gig is up, he’s chased down, escapes, but is caught by the cops. Already we know that Mr. O’Neal is the furthest thing from a man of integrity. When confronted by FBI special agent Roy Mitchell, O’Neal takes an offer to rat out the Black Panther movement to evade jail time. Fred Hampton is hot-headed. Wise beyond his 21 years, Hampton’s brains get the best of his emotions. He’s willing to act violently without thinking. When it comes to him compared to Mr. O’Neal, Mr. Hampton willingly accepts whatever the corrupt American Judicial System will throw at him. What’s already known about these men is not altered. Whatever opinion you may have on them will not change as it’s not meant to. Like therapy, the answer isn’t a cure; it’s understanding someone’s situation.
It’s easy to say you’d never sell your people out, even if it meant jail time. Anyone who would tell me that they would never do what William O’Neal did, I’d feel compelled to question their sincerity. Facing imprisonment is something not everyone can do. Confinement takes a part of your soul, as does being a traitor. The question become which part you are willing to play. You can die a martyr without a penny in your pocket like Fred Hampton, or you could pass away living a comfortable life with $200,000 in your bank account like William O’Neal. Suppose financial stability wasn’t such a compelling force of evil. In that case, I’d have happily kept doing what I was doing, knowing full well I’ll probably never move my way up, dying in a small apartment compared to a lovely house or condo.
Bringing William O’Neal to life as a black man, I can only imagine through the narrow prisms of my confessed white privilege may feel a bit like playing a Nazi. As a man with an already impressive filmography, LaKeith Stanfield continues to hit grand slams. I don’t know if I want to punch William O’Neal in the face or hug him. Fighting back his tears like a kid who just got in trouble, Stanfield resembles the torment that O’Neal must have gone through at every moment during his life.
To match his extreme temperament is Daniel Kaluuya’s depiction of Fred Hampton. Packing some weight on for the role, confidently moving in a calculating manner, all while looking like he hasn’t slept in years, Kaluuya is an intimidating force to be reckoned with. Just by looking at Mr. Kaluuya’s face, you can see he knew his fate. The thought of his imminent death never left his mind.
Playing nearly the same character he was in “Breaking Bad,” but on the other side of the law, Jesse Plemons is a welcome addition projecting an accurate depiction of an FBI agent. Agents don’t torture you (at least not anymore, I hope) to get information. They pretend to be your friend to a certain degree to manipulate you to get the necessary information. Be sure to play ball, though, or they’ll calmly feed you to the sharks. In that regard, casting Plemons was a no brainer.
With my sincerest wishes, I want more films to be like this. Pictures that aren’t afraid to challenge their audience with its statements. The BPP was violent. Their bloodshed on the outside may not have solved anything, but its urgency addressed the ongoing issue of senseless police brutality. When beaten into submission since slavery, adhering to a system that continues to make you a slave but without chains is unacceptable. The move towards a revolutionary movement, although not condonable, is understandable. One can only be pushed so far until one pushes back. The toll left on William O’Neal’s soul led to his suicide. The guilt he felt, I couldn’t even imagine.
These men’s torment echoed in the screenplay’s brutal, almost documentary-like nature devoid of sentimentality. The gritty, intentionally ugly cinematography is the human spirit being taken to a task where one’s morals prevailed, and the other didn’t. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit’s murky use of neon lighting, coupled with Sam Lisenco’s dirty production design, made me feel the gates of Satin’s lair grabbing hold of Mr. O’Neal’s conscious. What these two men went through won’t be taught in a white education system’s history class for the most part. Because of that, most Americans will continue to see the Black Panthers as either an extremist movement of savages or Wakandans.