Introducing “Loudmouth” at the Tribeca Festival, Robert De Niro referred to the film’s subject, lifelong racial justice activist Rev. Al Sharpton, as “so soft-spoken and so reasonable.” The audience at the closing-night screening, many of them the Rev’s personal guests, laughed.
But De Niro, a friend of Rev. Sharpton, seemed to mean the sentiment genuinely, showing 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.
“Loudmouth,” directed by Josh Alexander (“Prescription Thugs”), chronicles that evolution, although it leaves most of the pushback against Rev. Sharpton to archival footage rather than challenging the legend head-on.
The documentary focuses on two 1980s legal cases that Rev. Sharpton worked on as an advocate, with flashes forward to his career from 2019 to 2021. Per the doc, Rev. Sharpton rose to prominence — and media infamy — in 1986, following the killing of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, Queens. As Sharpton puts it, he’s “barely been home to change clothes since.” The only interview subject is Rev. Sharpton himself, lit exquisitely in a sprawling, mahogany library. Any other voices come from archival footage, much of it from ’80s talk shows. As a result, the film is mostly a celebration of the reverend’s work.
That’s not to say that “Loudmouth” doesn’t raise any eyebrows at the flashy reverend whatsoever. There are a few references to his wealth, including one poignant cut from him deriding May 2020 looters, saying that “activists go for causes and justice, not designer shoes,” to a close-up of him in the present day, being chauffeured in the back of a car. The shot begins on his immaculately pressed pocket square. De Niro makes an appearance in the doc as well as a guest at a lavish birthday bash for the Rev, alongside Senator Chuck Schumer and Andrew Cuomo. (“I raised you well,” Rev. Sharpton tells Cuomo in greeting.)
Rev. Sharpton also has plenty of critics in the archival footage, much of which documents broadcast media footage and what Sharpton calls “racy” talk shows of the time, like “Donahue.” In the talk-show setting, white people endlessly scorn Rev. Sharpton. There are frequent references to “you people” and the consistently reductive argument that, by being a Black rights activist, he and his allies are “making everything about race.” Some of their sentiments are familiar, though most of them seem laughable today. (Literally — there was much scoffing from the audience.)
The filmmakers choose to focus on that erstwhile controversy, while offering few other dissenting, or even more neutral, voices. This is most apparent as the film chronicles Rev. Sharpton’s work on the Tawana Brawley case of 1988. Those unfamiliar with that case are likely to come away on Sharpton’s side, though it was an incredibly complicated, controversial story. Brawley, a Black 15-year-old in a Poughkeepsie suburb, was found in a trash bag, covered in feces and epithets, and claimed a group of white men (including a police officer and a powerful attorney) had held her captive and raped her for four days.
Rev. Sharpton took up the case, insisting before it even went to trial that this represented another instance of a young Black woman failing to get justice against her white rapists. Of course, many were also prone to discredit and insult Brawley before they knew of any evidence, either. But after hearing exhaustive evidence — not including accounts from Brawley herself or Brawley’s mother, who both refused to testify — a grand jury concluded Brawley had not been truthful.
The “exhaustive evidence” part does not make its way into this documentary; instead, we’re left with Rev. Sharpton’s present-day insistence that Brawley did not get her proper day in court. He likens disbelieving those findings to disbelieving the jury that found that O.J. Simpson did not murder his wife.
The filmmakers do include several questions to Rev. Sharpton about his unflagging belief in Brawley, as well as two segments of archival footage (one from an NYU law scholar and one from a leader of the NAACP) claiming that this activism may actually have made it more difficult for Black women to come forward in the future. But since the film is scant in its details about the Brawley case, unfamiliar viewers must turn to other sources after their screenings to get the full picture.
Despite its teasing name, the pushback this film offers against Rev. Sharpton makes him look more heroic than complex. By today’s standards, the Rev. Sharpton of the 1980s was simply a radical for whom the world was not yet ready. If you want to know why the Rev was so controversial in his 30s, you won’t get much of an answer beyond, “He was a little edgy, and people were a lot more racist.” That may well be true, but Alexander sells himself short by failing to engage more deeply with Rev. Sharpton’s good-faith critics.
This is still a very worthwhile film. It offers a portrait of one of the most prominent civil-rights leaders in America and sheds light on the injustices of our not-so-distant past. These days it can often feel like justice for Black people is moving backwards, but “Loudmouth” is overall hopeful, chronicling the progress from Rev. Sharpton’s rise to now. It’s a powerful, well-assembled watch, but curious viewers may feel prompted to seek out more details than this film is willing to offer.
“Loudmouth” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Festival.