Director: James Gray
Writer: James Gray
Cast: Banks Repeta, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Jaylin Webb, Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Sell, Andrew Polk, Tovah Feldshuh, Jessica Chastain
Part of: Viennale
Seen on: 29.10.2022
Content Note: racism, child abuse
Paul (Banks Repeta) just had to change schools, and started public school in Brooklyn. Paul’s parents (Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong) would rather see him in private school and think very little of Paul’s dreams of becoming an artist, contrary to his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) who is his continuous supporter and moral guide, drawing on his experiences as a holocaust survivor. Paul immediately strikes up a friendship with Johnny (Jaylin Webb), their clowning in class consistently getting Johnny, who is the only Black kid in class, in more trouble than Paul. After yet another misdemeanor at school, Paul’s and Johnny’s lives take very different paths.
I don’t know who said it but they referred to Armageddon Time as “White Guilt – The Movie” and that is the perfect summary and criticism of a film that tries very hard to be an example of critical whiteness but ultimately fails to afford its one Black character actual humanity.
I read the descritption of the film and already guesses that it wouldn’t be my kind of film. But when I cobbled together my plan for the Viennale, it fit right into a slot between two films I did want to see and there wasn’t another film that fit into my plan as well, so I decided to give it a try anyway. Please remind me next year, should this happen again, that I should rather go for a coffee instead.
Anyhow, I ended up seeing the film myself, and unfortunately it proved my worries right. It’s a film that tries to acknowledge the privileges that Paul as a white kid from a (upper) middle class family has over a poor Black kid, and is quite successful with that, in fact. That Paul has these privileges despite his own Jewishness (that gives his advantages a certain precarity), and that his childhood isn’t carefree just because he has certain privileges are also well-made points of the film.
But the film never really knows what to make of this. It lays out the network of privileges and marignalizations, then looks at it and shrugs as if to say “I try to be a good person, a mensch, but in the face of this, what can you do, I guess I will be forever guilty and bad” before walking away. Instead of coming to a meaningful conclusion, it is frozen in this sense of white guilt. Add to that that Johnny is less of a person and more of a white person’s (well-meaning) imagination of a poor Black boy (not the fault of Webb’s performance, by the way, he does the best one could do with that script), and one can’t help but think that maybe Gray should have listened to Black anti-racist scholars and activists a little more before trying to tackle this film and its topic.
Even aside from this, the film fails to convince though. The characterization is uneven, the pacing is worse. The cast is excellent when the script gives them anything to sink their teeth into, including a cameo by Jessica Chastain as Maryanne Trump. That the film has two female characters who get to say anything makes Trump’s speech about the difficulties and possibilities of succeeding as a woman (in participating in the patriarchy and white supremacy) uncomfortably framed to say the least. In short, I spent most of the film squirming in my seat, and not in the good way.
Summarizing: I’d rather not.