An extremely well-made, well-acted and tense film telling the true story of how the FBI suborned a minor black criminal to infiltrate and inform on the Black Panthers in late 1960s Chicago.
The Black Panthers had been formed in California in 1966 by college students Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton. Though revolutionary socialist in ideology, they were not nihilists. They advocated and practiced the open carrying of firearms, but this, they said, was to protect black citizens from police brutality. With a black pride agenda bolstered by social programs such as free food outlets and health programs for the poor, they enjoyed widespread support in black urban communities, which gradually waned over the course of the early seventies due to an increasing resort to criminal activities such as extortion from local merchants, and the advocacy of violence – often against each other – by leaders such as Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X.
When several police officers were killed in gun battles with the Panthers, J Edgar Hoover declared them ‘the greatest threat to the internal security of the country’, which set in train the events depicted in the movie.
At the time the story is set, 1969, the Panthers in Chicago were still very popular thanks to the charismatic and idealistic leadership of Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya.
Lakeith Stanfield plays William ‘Bill’ O’Neal, the petty car thief recruited by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (blond, square-jawed Jesse Plemons) to infiltrate the Panthers and get close to Hampton, which he does, rising to become Hampton’s right-hand man.
One of the many things I liked about this movie is that it does not stereotype or demonise the characters – an admirable outcome in this era of red-hot BLM racial politics. Hampton is portrayed sympathetically but so is agent Mitchell, O’Neal’s handler, who comes across as a straight-shooting, somewhat naive cop who genuinely believes in law and order and the redeeming power of friendship. He even invites O’Neal into his nice white middle-class home for dinner.
In the end they both become victims of the duplicitous and pitiless FBI quest to destroy Hampton, and the movie rightly doesn’t stint on telling this part of the story like it is.
Both Stanfield and Kaluuya have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscars, but if I had to choose between them I’d give it to Kaluuya, who manages to nail the accent and attitude of a streetwise black Chicago tough guy, when he was actually born and raised on a council estate in Camden Town in London. In fact I don’t know why he isn’t up there among the Best Actor nominees.