Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 09, 2022 9:21 am 
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Vivid documentary about the activism of Rev. Al Sharpton lacks three-dimensionality

Loudmouth is a documentary about the Rev. Al Sharpton as a political activist. It is a film that consists almost entirely of archival footage, with no new commentary except for a present-day interview with Sharpton himself. For anyone who wants to know more about one well-known New York figure's Black political activism and how racially divided the city was in past decades, this is a movie worth seeing - especially if you already know the historical background of things like the 1988 Tawana Brawley case. More involved is Rev. Sharpton's prominence in 1986, following the killing of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, Queens by young white racists, when Sharpton led demonstrations in this hostile community. Both of these are seen almost exclusively from Sharpton's eyes. The most interesting thing Sharpton says, speaking in the present day with his long perspective of forty-plus years of activism, is that what counts about events is who controls the "story," and that white-dominated, superficially "liberal" media has always concealed its bias.

But as a documentary, though the footage is often extremely lively, Loudmouth is nonetheless generic and limited. We need more than an anthology of moments from street demonstrations and old TV talk shows, however vivid, to learn about the man, the public issues he has taken up, and the details of those issues. Mostly this is an unmitigated promotional film for Rev. Sharpton, but there are a few criticisms. One man is heard to say that Sharpton was "in the civil rights business" instead of being a "civil rights leader." Sometimes he appears more a civil rights performer than a civil rights activist.

One obvious detail about Sharpton that needs no voiceover, captions or talking heads to explain is the marked current change in his appearance. At some point a news article is glimpsed that says he lost 175 pounds. In all the early footage he is overweight, with big hair like James Brown, whose manager he once was. Now, in the current interview and the recent moments when the filmmakers follow him around to gatherings, he is slim. He dresses in nice suits. His hair is short. It's surprising that his weight in the earlier footage makes him look like a much bigger man than he clearly is now. But the how and the why of this transformation isn't explained. The transformation shows the man's greater respectability and restraint. Up to a point. He still refuses to apologize for his unquestioning support of Tawana Brawley, whose case he used to publicize white racism and abuse of Black women, whereas her claims of rape and abuse were thrown out.

As Lena Wilson wrote in a review for The Wrap, when this film debuted at Tribeca and was introduced by Sharpton friend Robert DeNiro, Loudmouth shows the "severe divide between the Rev. Sharpton of the 1980s, an unapologetic practitioner of civil disobedience who was staunchly critical of whites as a class, and today’s Rev. Sharpton, an old-school liberal who has his own show on MSNBC." But the story, if one wants to learn about Al Sharpton the man, is how that transition came about, and the film doesn't tell us.

Loudmouth glimpses the way Eighties TV daytime talk shows like the long-running "Phil Donahue Show" allowed outright white racists to sound off to create drama in "debates" with Sharpton and others. It also shows us the many marches and public rallies in which Sharpton played a prominent part. Today, it shows us how connected Sharpton is with formerly prominent figures like Andrew Cuomo. He may be more effective, but less visible, today.

Since Sharpton, in the archival footage, lives up to the adjective of the title and the contexts are intense and controversial, this doc is lively and energetic. It moves right along. This may serve to cover up the fact that it is lacking in depth or intimacy. What is and was Sharpton's private life like? What are the details of his youth, other than that he became an activist almost from early childhood? What is his history as a man of religion (someone is seen saying he was a minister without a church)? How has he supported himself and what is his financial situation? In what campaigns was he most and least successful? Loudmouth is like the old saying about Chinese food, that you're hungry two hours after eating it. This is a film with useful references to the fight for Black equality of the past four decades, but the material it provides is too incomplete to provide lasting satisfaction.

Loudmouth, 120 mins., debuted at Tribeca, June 2022, also showing at Philadelphia Oct. 29, with limited US theatrical release starting Dec. 9, 2022. Metacritic rating: 58%.


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