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Posts Tagged ‘Black Panthers’

Foreground: Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Fred Hampton; background: LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal

“JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH”  My rating: B (HBO Max)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The title of “Judas and the Black Messiah” smacks of folklorish hyperbole, but then Shaka King’s film about the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton is positively overflowing with Biblical  allegory.

The Black Messiah, of course, is Hampton, a rising star in black activism who was targeted for elimination by the FBI and shot to death in his bed during a raid in Chicago in 1969. Hampton is here given the hagiographic treatment…after this you half expect the Catholic Church to start stamping out medallions with his likeness.

Whether Hampton was the sinless knight errant portrayed here is a matter for the historians to parse; what’s not in doubt is that Brit actor Daniel Kaluuya sells this interpretation with such conviction and certainty that — while you’re watching the movie, anyway — you absolutely buy into its premise that this guy could really have become the black messiah. Comparisons to Bobby Kennedy seem apt.

Of course, saints aren’t nearly as interesting as devils.  The Judas of this yarn is Bill O’Neal, a crook and con artist recruited by the feds to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Panthers, rise within its ranks, report on what he saw and eventually set up the circumstances under which Hampton would be murdered.

O’Neal is played by LaKeith Stanfield as a man of few or no moral convictions, a survive-at-any-cost scrambler blackmailed into informing and, once in place, perfectly willing to reap the perks of his position.  Does he feel guilt? Remorse?

Hard to say.  What’s obvious, though, is that Stanfield perfectly captures the desperation and creative scheming of a lowlife being squeezed from both directions.  The authorities will send him to prison if he fails to cooperate; his Panther colleagues would no doubt kill him if they knew of his betrayals.

In a weird way we find ourselves rooting for him to squirm his way through this minefield of treachery.

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black maxresdefault“THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION” My rating: B 

115 minutes | No MPAA rating

History comes to incendiary life in “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” a remarkably well-rounded portrait of the once-maligned African American organization that will leave viewers both inspired and perplexed.

Director Stanley Nelson (“Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple”) seems to have utilized every available photograph and newsreel of the Panthers from the late 1960s and early ’70s, and he gets some terrific comments and reminiscences from graying Panthers (not to mention former cops who maintain to this day that the Panthers were a terrorist organization).

His film effortlessly gets its arms around the knotty history of the group, its major players, and its continuing impact on American society.

Eldridge Cleaver

Eldridge Cleaver

The doc tells us right off the bat that the Panthers weren’t a homogenous group. Politically they ranged from hardcore Marxist to conventionally liberal. The violence and militancy embraced by some members dismayed others.

The Panthers got their start in Oakland CA in 1967 largely as a response to an overbearing police presence that singled out the black community for persecution and brutality.

The group coalesced around three charismatic but very individual leaders.

There was the matinee-idol handsome and quick-tempered Huey Newton, who in the early ’70s would descend into a world of crime and paranoia.

Bobby Seale was a more traditional social activist, more comfortable with community service.

And then there was  jailhouse author Eldridge Cleaver (Soul on Ice), whose literary reputation  legitimized the movement in the minds of many white intellectuals even as his rhetoric became ever more strident. Says one former Panther of Cleaver: “That boy was crazy. He got a lot of people hurt.”

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