Last night I caught my second viewing of James Gray’s Armageddon Time (Focus, 10.28) at Telluride’s Chuck Jones cinema. I loved this film — honest, deeply moral, genuinely sad — when I saw it in Cannes last May. I regard it as Gray’s best ever, and feel it fully deserves Best Picture consideration.
There’s a scene at a snooty prep school (Kew Forest) that Banks Repeta’s Paul Graff, an 11 year-old based on Gray himself, has recently enrolled in. Jaylin Webb’s Johnny, a spirited black kid from a public school Paul had previously attended and whom Paul regards as his best friend, drops by for a chat during an outdoor recess.
After Johnny leaves one of Paul’s snooty classmates asks if he was friendly with “[plural N-word]” at his previous school. The instant the kid says that, a white guy sitting 10 or 12 feet to my left said “whoa whoa” with a tone of alarm, as if to say “hold up there…that’ll be enough of THAT word, even in an ‘80s period drama…we don’t allow that term at the Telluride Film Festival.”
The “whoa whoa” guy, in short, was announcing to those within earshot that even within the context of a moral-minded period film about racial disparity and race-blaming, the use of such a term had crossed a line.
I was wondering how the “whoa whoa” guy might have reacted if that KF kid had (God forbid) repeated the term once or twice more. Would he have walked out in protest or perhaps complained to a TFF rep about Gray’s film having agitated the audience with an unsafe word?
Variety‘s Clayton Davis has posted a torpedo response to James Gray‘s Armageddon Time, at least as far as its awards potential is concerned. Scenes conveying white elitist viewpoints from three or four odious characters have rubbed Clayton’s woke sensibilities the wrong way.
In describing the film as deeply offensive in terms of said attitudes, Davis is half-suggesting that the film’s admirers are either missing something or oblivious to same.
The autobiographical Armageddon Time is a humanist, well-honed, memory-lane film about what Gray experienced as an 11-year-old youth in Queens, and the ugly elements that he encountered after enrolling in a Forest Hills private school. It’s the first really good film I’ve seen at this technically troubled festival.
Davis excerpt #1: “Armageddon Time, a deeply personal look at how the auteur became the auteur we, or at least the French, came to know and love, debuted to warm applause on Thursday. However, the film’s problematic depiction of racial inequalities in the Reagan era may turn off awards voters.”
Davis excerpt #2: “In a one-scene surprise, recent Oscar-winner Jessica Chastain plays U.S. State Attorney Marianne Trump, speaking to a sea of privileged white children at an elite private school, where [lead protagonist] Paul eventually attends, while Fred Trump (yes, Donald’s father) is present.
“[Marianne] channels the entitlement to be superior, oozing the grotesque and vile nature of a class of people in this country who are ‘the chosen ones’ for no other reason than the tint of their skin. While never named, two boys who use the ‘n-word’ when speaking about [a young Black protagonist] when he visits the school, have the narrative DNA of young Eric and Donald Trump Jr. The cringe factor may be too much to bear for more progressive voters.”
Davis excerpt #3: “Respected critics like Justin Chang of the L.A. Times were high on it, while Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian absolutely admonished it. Unfortunately, when this tale unveils itself stateside, a new racial debate will likely ensue regarding the undertones, similar to Licorice Pizza from Paul Thomas Anderson last year in the AAPI community. That may keep many voters at a distance.”