Sharpton says film debuts are at a “crisp point” in US politics

NEW YORK – Rev. Al Sharpton has been called names by many names in his public life: a hustler, a racist, an opportunist, a fraud, a rat, a fool.

He embraces at least one of the intended insults, a name often hurled by his critics left and right: “Loudmouth.” This is also the title of a two-hour documentary about it the national civil rights activist Premiered in theaters in over 20 cities on Friday.

Sharpton’s bold and combative style, which he employs in standing up for victims and families who seek accountability for police brutality and racial injustice, comes into its own as the filmmakers explore his evolution from Brooklyn rioter to a sought-after figure in the US political arena trace. Sharpton said he hopes the film will inspire rising generations of loudmouths to join movements against injustice in their own communities.

“You had to be loud because you weren’t invited to address the public,” he says in the documentary, which is framed around a wide-ranging, seated interview.

The slim build Sharpton sat in a three-piece, tailored suit and tie for the interview – a striking contrast to the plump, chain-and-locket-wearing young man in a tracksuit that many older Americans may remember.

The documentary begins with the civil rights activist’s birthday celebration in 2019, which was attended by A-list celebrities and senior New York City elected officials. The film ends with a tearful Sharpton leading a prayer in 2021 afterwards A jury convicted a white former Minneapolis police officer to the the murder of George Floyd. Between these bookends, viewers see an in-depth exploration of Sharpton’s upbringing from his mother, Ada Richards Sharpton, the mentorship of Rev. Jesse Jackson and soul music icon James Brown, and his headline-grabbing activism in New York in the 1980s.

It is probably the most differentiated view of the leader so far.

Directed by Josh Alexander and executive produced by singer-songwriter John Legend, Loudmouth has already done so shown in Tribeca, Film festivals in Chicago, Philadelphia, Martha’s Vineyard and Denver. Its nationwide release comes at a “crisp juncture” in US politics when a divided government between the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate could mean increased activism around a civil rights agenda, Sharpton said.

“I think there’s a need now more than ever,” he told The Associated Press, “the kind of direct action and work on the ground that creates the climate for protest. It will redouble our efforts.”

Concluding 2022, Sharpton reflected on a mixed but consequential stretch in progressive politics. On the one hand, the midterm election showed greater than expected engagement from a younger generation of voters, blunting a predicted “red wave” in state and federal offices. This, Sharpton said, encouraged him.

On the other hand, mass shooting violence this year, including the Massacre of black shoppers by a white supremacist gunman at a supermarket in Buffalo, New Yorkawakened many to how intractable gun and racial justice politics can be.

“I think the shooting showed that we were nowhere near where we thought we were going in pursuit of George Floyd,” Sharpton said. “From the Buffalo shootings to the synagogue attacks to the LGBTQ attack (in Colorado Springs), violent hatred is rampant out there.”

“We need strong and strict enforcement legislation,” he added.

Alexander, the director, said that whether viewers come out of the film and love or hate Sharpton, they will walk away and understand what the leader faced.

“If he’s saying the same things now that he’s been saying for decades, but was celebrated now and lashed out then, what does that tell us not about him but about the media ecosystem at the time?” Alexander told the AP.

Sharpton, 68, was a popular advocate for grieving Black American families seeking justice for nearly countless incidents that highlight systemic racism. Democratic politicians see him as a necessary ally to bolster their credentials on racial justice issues.

It took Sharpton more than two decades to get there. Born in Brooklyn in 1954, he showed promise as a minister at age 4 and was ordained a minister at age 10. At 13, Jackson appointed Sharpton youth director of New York’s Operation Breadbasket, an anti-poverty project of Rev. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Throughout the 1980s, a young adult Sharpton caused controversy for using inflammatory language against his opponents. His fiercest rhetoric was reserved for elected officials, from whom he called for action against instances of racist violence and police brutality.

“Loudmouth” draws heavily on recordings from this period. The documentary highlights Sharpton’s activism in the cases of Michael Griffith, a 23-year-old black man who was killed by white men in 1986 outside a pizza joint in the then-white Queens borough of Howard Beach; Yusuf Hawkins, a black teenager who was fatally shot in 1989 after confronting a mob of white youth in Brooklyn’s historic Bensonhurst Italian-American neighborhood; and most controversially, Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl who accused six white men, including police officers, of assault and rape in upstate New York in 1987.

A grand jury later found evidence that Brawley had made up the story. Although Sharpton was hardly the only prominent New York figure to believe Brawley’s story, many of Sharpton’s critics still bring up the case to discredit him.

“Later in life I became more aware,” Sharpton says in the documentary. “I saw Tawana in many ways as the black mother I had who fought for children. … I saw in her a black woman that black men would not stand up for, and I would not be the one to walk away from her. No matter how hot it got, I just didn’t want to do it.”

Sharpton told the AP that the documentary does a good job of dispelling the narrative that racism is largely a problem in the US South.

“Racism wasn’t just a Southern thing, it was a Northern thing,” he said. “But it was cultivated racism until we got out there and marched.”


Aaron Morrison is a New York-based national writer on the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter:

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Sharpton says film debuts are at a “crisp point” in US politics

Sarah Y. Kim

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