Loudmouth’s first images are of New York City in the 1980s, startling footage of frothing racism from Howard Beach to Bensonhurst back when Rev. Al Sharpton rose to prominence as an organizer, orator and agitator.
The film by Josh Alexander follows the rise of sometime controversial founder of the National Action Network and former TV host. Sharpton has been accused of spotlight seeking. In the doc, that’s by design in that Sharpton, from early on, was deliberate about being loud, ubiquitous and on TV whenever and wherever possible as the best strategy to change the narrative and eventually the law around social justice. The family of George Floyd was in the audience for the premiere of the documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival. The fest’s closing selection ushered in the national Juneteenth holiday.
Loudmouth delves into Sharpton’s activist roots as a teenager — in 1972 he worked for the presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm, who was the first Black woman in the U.S. Congress. He was charged with tax evasion (charges dropped), arrested for trespassing, and stabbed in the chest in New York, his base of operations. In 1986, a mob of white teens in Howard Beach, Queens attacked three black men who had walked miles to a pizzeria there after their car broke down. One died and the city polarized along racial lines. Sharpton led protests that closed down streets, bridges and subways. In 1989, a black teenager was shot to death in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn when he and friends were attacked by a crowd of white youths.
“People are familiar and comfortable with talking about what happened down South. They don’t want to talk about what happened in New York,” Sharpton said in a conversation onstage with Spike Lee and John Legend, an executive producer on the film.
“You’ve been there from the get-go. You didn’t just show up. You took your blows, you just kept swinging,” said Brooklyn born and bred Lee.
Legend focused on the need to have “control of our own narrative and tell our own story.”
“Now we are seeing what it means… School boards and libraries are trying to get rid of our stories and our struggle. We see what it means, and they know what it means too. That is why they are putting in so much effort to sanitize these stories, to get rid of our narrative. Because they saw what happened with George Floyd. Every time we have progress, there’s a backlash and we’ve got to control the narrative.”
There’s been progress. Lee ruefully recalled being “traumatized” by a public school class trip in third grade to see Gone With The Wind — something not likely to happen now.. “They didn’t say what it was about. You loved class trips, you didn’t have to go to class, but, we went to see Gone With The Wind!”
“We have a long way to go,” said Sharpton, who was recently in Buffalo with families of the victims of a racially motivated mass shooting. But, “I have seen enough victories to see we can win.”