For a long time, if you said the name “Reverend Al Sharpton,” you were guaranteed a response that seemed to spring from the gut flora of mainstream media outrage. Loudmouth, the fascinating new documentary about Sharpton, proves convincingly that most of this moral arrogance was fatally exaggerated. In the ’80s and ’90s, Sharpton was the melting center of every race-related news event in the New York area. Some would reasonably say that this made him a dedicated activist. (No one has ever pilloried the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for showing up too much of.) At rallies, protest marches, on the courthouse steps, Sharpton spoke with a prickly ferocity and power, giving a voice to those who did not have it.
Was he a new version of King or Gandhi? Of course not. And he didn’t have to be. He was his own creation — the tracksuit-wearing civil rights agitator who bridled the activist idealism of the ’60s with something ruder, bolder, and (in hindsight) absolutely necessary: the showboat tactics of the contemporary media age. With his bouffant hair and mustache and a doe-eyed and reptilian glow at once, he looked like Prince’s doughy brother, and many people – almost all white commentators – regarded him with deep suspicion. At the beginning of “Loudmouth” we see a clip of Lesley Stahl in “60 Minutes” interviewing Sharpton for a segment and suggesting with a grin that there is a clear contradiction between his activism and the fact that he is in “a slicker Place.” You listen to that and think: Really? Is that a contradiction or white double standards?
But Sharpton endured this every day. The documentary includes footage of a protest march he led in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to investigate the murder of Yusef Hawkins, the teenager who was shot after he, his brother and two friends were attacked by a white mob. We see footage of neighborhood kids grinning and shouting “White Power!” as they march. into the news camera, and a young man says, “It’s all the media’s fault! These things should be kept quiet! Al Sharpton, go home!” The self-righteousness and indeed the virtual admission of guilt encoded in this statement is mind-boggling. (What kind of defense is: That’s a scandal! It should have been covered up!) What we are hearing is the voice of tribal racism.
However, if you really think about what that outrageously racist boy said – that the media is to blame for everything! — is a roughly direct echo of the drumbeat of criticism Al Sharpton endured as an activist for decades. The mantra was always the same. He’s been called showman, grocer, one-man publicity machine, mock crusader addicted to putting himself in the spotlight. There is no point in denying that when Sharpton faced cases of racial antagonism and genocide, most of them on the outskirts of New York, Sharpton did everything he could to bring the media spotlight to those cases. Megaphone in hand, he was a born speaker and, yes, an amateur – a preacher and speaker who enjoyed hearing himself speak.
But just watch “Loudmouth” and listen to his words. The film contains many footage from his earliest days when he was youth director for Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign (he was just 18 years old), or when he worked for James Brown and Operation Breadbasket, or when he protested against genocide – particularly by Cops — with the same harsh, flat, commanding rhetoric he used decades later about George Floyd and Trayvon Martin. Sharpton sought the limelight, but what he said was never a sham. His words brought warmth and light. They were disciplined. They focused on questioning the system. Because of this, the system tried in many ways to write him off.
Directed by Josh Alexander, Loudmouth is a broad and searching and somewhat undisciplined film. At a time when the spotlight in America has refocused on racial injustice, the film impressively channels the racial riots of the 1980s and gives you heaps of insightful news material from the period. Screams of “No justice, no peace!” filled the air at the Sharpton-organized protests, but getting the establishment to actually listen and respond was a daily climb. Everything in the documentary, set in that earlier era, feels compelling and essential.
But half of the film is set in the present, with Alexander Sharpton following the racial justice movement in his current role as the slim Eminence Gray. Around the time he was running for the Senate seat in New York, Sharpton underwent a dramatic transformation, losing 175 pounds and toning down his burn surface. He became a cable news pundit, a national icon, a senior statesman of the movement. This is all important to show, and Sharpton, seated in the two-story, wood-panelled, book-lined drawing room of his home, offers a fantastic deconstruction of how the media saw him and what the agendas that drove that view were really about went.
Still, the two-hour film still feels more recent. I would instead have liked to see another dimension of Sharpton – who he is, apart from the protest marches. “Loudmouth” feels heavily controlled, almost too focused on Sharpton’s political identity at the expense of everything else. And at one point the film makes a serious compromise that mirrors the compromise Sharpton made himself.
In the ’80s and early ’90s he drew attention to cases of racial violence, and the allegations of demagoguery leveled against him, like those by New York Mayor Ed Koch, were paranoid and unjustified. But Sharpton, after a mostly flawless track record, gave his critics a grenade to use against him when he became involved in the case of Tawana Brawley, the New York state teenager who claimed that four men, including a police officer and a Prosecutor said he had kidnapped and raped her. She was found in a garbage bag, her hair smeared with feces, racial nicknames scrawled on her stomach. It looked like a heinous atrocity, and Sharpton treated it as another incident consistent with the Howard Beach murder and the Bernard Goetz subway shooting. But in this case the facts were not there. This New York Times video report provides a definitive summary of what really happened in the Tawana Brawley case. Put simply, she lied.
Sharpton still maintains that Tawana Brawley deserved her day in court, and he’s right. Which is why he rightly signed the case. But once the realities emerged, he should have retired. The Brawley case has become a conspiracy theory and the fact that Sharpton, who is being interviewed today, will not admit she lied – although you can tell from what he says he knows she did – his legacy is tantamount to a serious flaw. He claims to stand up for truth and justice. And he does. He should have been big enough to admit his one crucial mistake. If he had, it wouldn’t define him so much.
But a blemish doesn’t cloud the moral urgency of what Al Sharpton stands for. He took risks and paid a price when he was once stabbed in the chest with a kitchen knife by one of these Bensonhurst residents. In Loudmouth, Sharpton offers the best defense of his tactics in his eulogy for George Floyd. From a church podium in Minneapolis, he explains: “Critics would say that all Al Sharpton wants is publicity. Well that’s exactly what I want. Because nobody calls me to keep a secret. People call me to blow up problems that no one else would deal with. I’m the blow-up man, and I make no apologies for that.” But then he adds with an uplifting rhetorical force, “George Floyd’s story was the story of black people. Because for 401 years, we’ve never been able to be who we wanted or dreamed of because you held your knee on our neck.” Al Sharpton worked for decades to lift that knee. If that isn’t heroism, then I don’t know what is.
https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/loudmouth-review-the-reverend-al-sharpton-1235302314/ ‘Loudmouth’ Review: An unapologetic look at Reverend Al Sharpton