I think we can all agree that racism and bigotry are bad. At least, I wish that was the case, as we see all the time that those horrid ideas are still alive and well in American society (and if you subscribe to them, please leave, as I want nothing to do with you). But what should be a relatively simple consensus is oftentimes handled in media in a similarly simplistic fashion. A heavy-handed approach can – and does – work in certain situations, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t wish that more movies would reach farther in their messaging.
That’s part of why I loved Till, because it treated the murder of Emmett Till as common knowledge and instead spent most of its focus on his mother’s necessary transformation into a national advocate for racial justice. Along similar lines, I admire the latest film from James Gray (The Lost City of Z, Ad Astra), Armageddon Time. The basic moral against discrimination is there – and it’s sadly a timely one because 40 years after its events, we STILL haven’t gotten our collective shit together – but more importantly, there’s a thoughtful, nuanced approach that shines a light on the surprising shades of grey in what is literally a “black and white” issue.
Framed as a coming-of-age story, the film focuses on Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a sixth grade student in New York in the fall of 1980 (Ronald Reagan’s election is used as a thematic backdrop). Taking his first steps into a wider world, he immediately becomes friends with Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a class clown who receives the brunt of any ire from their teacher (Andrew Polk). They bond over their mutual sense of humor and lofty ambitions in life – Paul to be a famous artist and Johnny to be an astronaut.
However, it becomes apparent quite quickly that neither child is exceptionally gifted. Johnny has been held back a year and is basically written off by the entire school administration. Their teacher is particularly harsh on him, disproportionately punishing him for any shenanigans, even if he’s not involved. On more than one occasion he’s blamed and bullied with the teacher never even turning his head to investigate the cause of the disturbance. Paul, on the other hand, while talented at drawing, devotes way more time to it than anything else (and draws whatever he wants rather than what he’s assigned when he’s given artistic work to do), and has been evaluated by the faculty as being “slow.” There’s even a perception that he only gets by because his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) is the head of the PTA.
Things come to a head when the boys are caught smoking weed in the bathroom, both unaware that it’s illegal. Paul is pulled from the school and enrolled in a fancy academy alongside his brother, while Johnny is essentially left to his own devices, the staff having long washed its hands of him. He doesn’t care anyway, as all that matters to him is moving to Florida and eventually enlisting in the Air Force like his own brother, so he can eventually go to space. The tragedy of course is that he has no idea how doomed his dreams truly are in the grander scope of the real world.
Once in private school, Paul faces pressure from all sides. His father (Jeremy Strong) can’t exactly afford for him to go, but he’s willing to make financial sacrifices if it finally gets Paul on track, so there’s immense stress at home. Johnny shows up to hang out, only for the situation to play out in very awkward fashion, and for Paul’s classmates to levy slurs at him as soon as he leaves. It leads to both boys planning extreme moves to extricate themselves from their shitty situations. This is why I say the film is framed as coming-of-age, because unlike most films of the subgenre, neither one truly seems to mature as a person. Instead, they simply become more aware of how unfair life can truly be.
There are some times when the messaging gets a bit too obvious. Paul and Johnny’s teacher is constantly on the brink of an n-word or a “you people” dig at Johnny whenever he’s an imperfect human being. A police interrogation focuses solely on trying to get Johnny to confess to being a criminal while practically coddling Paul. In a cringeworthy scene where things are laid on about as thickly as possible, Jessica Chastain cameos as Donald Trump’s sister, Maryanne (who resigned from the federal bench in disgrace four years ago to avoid tax evasion charges), giving a speech at Paul’s private school about how all the children there have “earned” their place rather than getting a “handout.”
But once you set that stuff aside, the movie truly does succeed because of its deeper explorations on what bigotry and situational privilege can actually look like. Paul is part of a middle-class Jewish family, with father Irving working as an electrician and handyman so Esther can essentially be a homemaker. But even within this very unit there’s subtle and overt racism. After the marijuana incident, Esther tells Paul that he’s not to see Johnny again, adding, “I think you know why,” before trying to walk it back as if it’s not because of his race. She says she doesn’t care what color Johnny is, but she still defaults to the idea of someone not like them being a bad influence. This contrasts with a family dinner where one of Paul’s relatives outright says that there are too many black people in her neighborhood.
At the core of it all is Paul’s relationship with his grandfather Aaron, in another nomination-worthy performance from Anthony Hopkins. His parents escaped the Holocaust, and he still deals with discrimination based on his heritage, even though he believes that living in America gave him the best shot at a good life. He is deeply empathetic with Paul and encourages his dreams and ambitions, but he also holds him accountable as a person. Paul is in a unique position, in that he doesn’t face racism because he’s white, and with a less obvious surname like Graff he can even avoid a degree of antisemitism, and Aaron is keen to remind him of that fact. As such, he has a responsibility to stand up for those less fortunate, for those targeted by the powerful. He’s going to have opportunities through essentially random chance that a rigged system will never give to people like Johnny, so he not only has to seize them when they present themselves, but pay it forward in a way that advances equality.
In many ways, Aaron is the only one who treats Paul like a young adult rather than a child, and their rapport is what drives the more nuanced takes on race relations. The world isn’t always so simply divided. People who were themselves persecuted can still hold implicit and explicit biases against other groups. Those who have privilege will delude themselves into thinking they deserve it, and will fight tooth and nail to keep it. The inherently unfair system will occasionally work out in your favor, and it may be better to take advantage of it with the goal of fixing things once enough has gone your way to give you a chance. Meanwhile, that same apparatus will destroy others, and you may have to accept that there’s nothing you can do in the moment other than be thankful it wasn’t you. But through it all, you have to be upstanding and do what’s right, in whatever capacity you can.
That’s where the film is able to set itself apart from similar morality tales. It holds no illusions that one boy would ever grow up to end racism in America. Instead, it lets us see how far we still have to go as a society from his level, in areas where the problem can both hurt and help him while shaping a complex worldview. But through it all, the true message is that every day you’ve got to go out there and try to make the world just a little bit better. You may not always succeed, but you’ll never fail as a person.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you deal with bigotry within your family? Reagan really was a schmuck, huh? Let me know!