Reverend Al Sharpton has many familiar aspects. There’s Al Sharpton the preacher-protester, marching fearlessly through hostile white New York neighborhoods; Al Sharpton, the racial justice warrior, arm in arm with the mother of the latest police victim; Al Sharpton, the progressive TV host, hammering his monologue on MSNBC.
Then there’s the much-unknown image that fills the screen towards the end of Loudmouth, the new documentary about his life and struggles. It shows Al Sharpton collapsed on the ground, literally on his knees.
Never-before-seen archival footage captures him perhaps at his lowest. Sharpton looks sadly at the camera, clutching his chest where a white attacker stabbed him seconds earlier with a 5-inch steak knife.
The year is 1991 and Sharpton is in Bensonhurst, a white Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn where he staged 29 marches over 18 months to protest the murder of Yusef Hawkins, a black teenager gunned down by a mob of white youths. Other powerful sequences in the film show white New Yorkers pressing menacingly around the marchers, their expressions contorted with hatred, shouting, “White power! and these [N-words] should stay quiet, Al Sharpton is going home!
“It was a low point that ended in a high point,” Sharpton explained in an interview with The Guardian ahead of the film’s release. “The highlight was when I said, ‘No matter what happens, I’m not going to stop.’ You never know how committed you are until you face the unknown.
Not stopping is one of Loudmouth’s big themes. The film follows the civil rights activist from his famous confrontations in 1980s New York – the 1984 subway shooting of four black men by Bernhard Goetz; the 1986 murder of Michael Griffith, an African American who was beaten and chased to death by a mob in an all-white Howard Beach, Queens; and the 1989 murder at Bensonhurst – to his current defense of the families of victims of police brutality, including the eulogy he delivered in 2020 at the funeral of George Floyd.
The film’s title is a play on how Sharpton has sought to reclaim the many pejorative character traits that have been held against him. Over the years, he has been called a publicity-hungry demagogue, a chubby exhibitionist, a scoundrel agitator, a race aggressor, a chatterbox and a buffoon.
He takes it all, then spits it out. Yes, he’s a loudmouth, proudly – in 1980s New York, you had to be if you wanted to fight overt racism. “Sometimes you have to be loud to let people know it’s not the real story; you had to fight to make sure you controlled the story,” he told the film’s director, Josh Alexander.
It was around the time of the Bensonhurst stabbing that Sharpton experienced a turning point. Until then, he had played both ways: one day he would be the reformer seeking change from within in the mold of Martin Luther King, the next day he would be the incendiary agitator in the mind of Malcolm X. “As these racial killings started, I got angrier, I became Malcolm and Martin,” he said.
In the wake of the stabbing, Sharpton made a decisive shift toward MLK’s path to legislative and policy change. The critical push was provided by Coretta Scott King, MLK’s widow. “She said to me, ‘You have to decide which route you’re going to take,'” Sharpton said. “It was the stabbing and the warning of Mrs King that for the past 35 years has made me walk a road. »
This contrast between the young activist Sharpton and the mature reformer Sharpton who is hosted by Barack Obama in the White House and chats on the phone with Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer is stark in Loudmouth. The first images show him walking on the front line, his long hair billowing in the wind, a gold medallion around his neck, dressed in a shiny nylon tracksuit.
In contemporary footage, he weighs 175 pounds less, looks sharp in sleek tailored suits and with impeccably styled hair. The bling was replaced with a lapel badge from the National Action Network, the civil rights network he founded shortly after the Bensonhurst attack.
Sharpton rejects the superficial contrast of appearances. “They call it growing up. I’m 68, am I still supposed to wear platform shoes and bell bottoms? »
But he accepts that there was a key transition at that time. “I have never advocated violence. I organized dozens of marches, and none of them turned into a riot. We were very disciplined, but our language was undisciplined. I called people N-word and white names. Mrs. King showed me that your language should reflect who you are.
Photography: Greenwich Entertainment
Loudmouth traces Sharpton’s powerful influence on racial politics from an early age – by age 13 he was already youth director in the MLK organization, and by 16 he had formed his first advocacy group civics, the National Youth Movement. Its impact was felt most in New York and the Northeastern United States, which had long been under the illusion of being free from the scourge of racism that plagued the Deep South.
“I was saying to liberals in New York and the Northeast, ‘You’re sitting here in the comfort of thinking you’re not like them down south. And you are, you just do it more neatly.
The film explores two essential roots of his power as an agent of change: Sharpton the preacher and Sharpton the interpreter. Sharpton the preacher appeared, remarkably, at the age of four when he was first asked to stand on a box in his Pentecostal church in front of 900 congregants.
“I started preaching and have been preaching ever since,” he said. “While most of the kids were playing softball or jumping Double Dutch, I was preaching to the congregation live. »
Sharpton, the performer, grew out of his long friendship with James Brown, whom he met during his activism as a teenager and who became his mentor and sponsor in 1973. “I learned from James Brown that ‘you have to be dramatic to get people to see things they’re not inclined to see. Especially in New York where you compete with the lights of Broadway and Times Square – we had to do extraordinary things to get attention.
He began to use the power of the preacher-interpreter. He forced the media to shine a spotlight on racial killings in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst through a series of marches, sit-ins and blockades of bridges and train stations. He has been arrested more than 30 times for acts of civil disobedience.
There’s a striking parallel to another innate performer who used his communication skills and celebrity status to move the crowd, albeit in the opposite direction. “The desirability of this documentary is that it tells the country who and where Donald Trump is from,” Sharpton said.
“How he knew how to appeal to basic racism and homophobia, because he grew up in Queens, a short distance from Howard Beach. To understand Donald Trump, you have to understand New York – I understood it, because I grew up on the other side of the tracks.
Sharpton draws a direct line from Loudmouth footage of the white crowd shouting the N-word at 1986 Howard Beach to Trump’s Maga World today. “There was no shame in the face of those Howard Beach guys, they weren’t hiding from the cameras, just like on January 6, people weren’t hiding. I saw the same arrogance, display of bigotry, that I saw on January 6 about 40 years ago at Howard Beach.
Although the film is largely adulatory, it doesn’t shy away from addressing the problems of Sharpton’s case. The most serious of these was her adoption of the case of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl who was discovered in a trash bag with racial slurs written on her body who claimed she had been assaulted and raped by six white men in New York.
Photography: Greenwich Entertainment
After seven months of investigation by a grand jury, her story was found to be fabricated.
Although the Brawley saga has tarnished Sharpton’s reputation over the years, he still chooses to stick to the line he struck in 1987. After 35 years, isn’t it time for a change of framing? to accept that mistakes have been made?
“I might have had a different strategy and a different language,” he replied. “But I still would have said Brawley deserved her day in court and deserved to be investigated. »
While the material from 1980s Loudmouth is dominated by Sharpton’s confrontations with the white New York mob, the most recent concerns his seemingly tireless advocacy on behalf of victims of police brutality. He reads a list on camera of the cases he has taken on, and it goes on and on; lately he’s been there not just for Floyd but for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and, tragically, many others.
In his eulogy of Floyd, he gave a characteristically double-edged assessment of modern America. Meet Sharpton, the fiery preacher: “What happened to Floyd is happening every day in this country – it’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our neck!’ »
And here is the Sharpton who is hopeful for the future: “You changed the world, George,” he said. “We’ll keep walking, George. We’re gonna keep fighting, George. We’re moving forward, George.
So which one is it? Which Sharpton is the real one: the one who keeps getting the call from bereaved black families in a seemingly endless litany of woe, or the hopeful Sharpton for a changing America?
“Yes, I keep getting calls,” he said. “But I also continue to see people from all demographic groups responding by participating in multiracial marches. That wouldn’t have happened when I started.
He sees hope, he says, in the fact that he was in Johannesburg the night of 1994 when the ANC won the first multiracial election and Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. He sees the hope reflected as he sat on the platform of the United States Capitol during the inauguration of the first black president in 2009.
“I’ve seen too many breakthroughs not to believe in breakthroughs,” he said. “My job now is to keep telling people in the dark night that the sunlight will come if we can just hold on, and I’m going to do that for as long as I can. »
Source : BBN WORLD NEWS