I sat down on Thursday evening craving to watch something with a bit of weight behind it after a crappy day. With a click glance at VOD, I saw a stream of big hitters had landed during the week including the much lauded Judas and the Black Messiah. Shaka King’s film had peaked my interest months before on first hearing of it, given I studied the Black Panther Party during my days at university and star Daniel Kaluuya is a certified baller.
The film isn’t a biopic or an in-depth study of the activist group. It’s very much a movie about characters and in particular the two principle ones: Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) and Bill O’Neill (LaKeith Stanfield).
Yes, we get a bit of an insight into the goings on of the civil rights struggle in the late 60s: the breakfast clubs, the medical centres and various organisations fighting for equality and justice. But JATBM is very much about the performances. Kaluuya is an excellent physical actor. His presence is engrossing and his facial expressions often say more than a word or phrase could ever do. Through him you get a real insight into Hampton and his battle for civil rights.
Meanwhile Stanfield does shifty very well. You can feel that his character – a Panther member who’s also an FBI informant – is having his soul torn in two through every nervous glance he pulls and every drop of sweat that runs down his face. Yet although you know he’s doing crappy things, Stanfield’s performance makes it hard to truly hate him.
Then you have Jesse Plemons as an FBI agent pulling the strings in the background – the guy knows how to work silence! Yet again, though, he’s not seen as the archetypical bad guy – you feel like the film is pushing that title in the direction of a heavily made-up Martin Sheen as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Last but by no means least, Dominique Fishback, who might not say a lot, but is wonderful as Hanpton’s partner Deborah Hampton – my one wish of this very well-put together flick is that we saw a little bit more of her.
I liked how this wasn’t a sprawling biopic. I liked its focus, I loved its character work and the cast knocked it out of the ball park. It’s an important, fascinating, infuriating story that is well worth your time. Catch it on VOD now.