It probably would be possible to make a good documentary about Al Sharpton, one that offered some nuanced insight into the life of a genuinely bizarre man, the former child preacher from the streets of Brooklyn, mentored by the likes of Jesse Jackson and James Brown, who would go on to become one of the most recognizable and expensively dressed demagogues of his generation.
That film would be nothing like Loudmouth, the John Legend-produced Sharpton documentary available now (for purchase, obviously) on iTunes and Amazon Video after a limited run in theaters and a star-studded world premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Robert De Niro, the Hollywood deadbeat and Democratic activist, reportedly introduced the film by describing its subject as “so soft-spoken and so reasonable.” Attendees who knew (or knew of) Sharpton before his 21st century rebrand laughed out loud, but the actor wasn’t joking.
This dichotomy reveals the extent to which Sharpton has succeeded in transforming himself into a respected member of the cultural establishment. The megaphone-wielding, morbidly obese race hustler marching the streets of New York in garish track suits while being denounced by the NAACP has blossomed into a laid-back, alarmingly emaciated race hustler cruising the streets of New York in the back of a chauffeured SUV en route to his private cigar club wearing immaculately tailored (but still garish) pinstripes, fielding calls from leading Democrats and prepping for his show on MSNBC.
Loudmouth attempts to chronicle this evolution using archival clips from his rabble-rousing exploits in the 1980s, when Sharpton honed his talent for appearing on television during moments of racial strife. These clips are interspersed with footage from the summer of racial unrest in 2020 and a running commentary from Sharpton, the only person interviewed for the film. Seated in a massive library, surrounded by leather-bound books and rich mahogany, Sharpton positions himself alongside MLK in the history of the civil rights movement. They were both indicted for tax fraud, he explains. Q.E.D.
It is, quite literally, a one-sided account that warrants far more scrutiny than the filmmakers were either willing or permitted to allow. Though we see a few instances of fat Sharpton ranting about “Jews!” and the “Hallacast,” his instigating role in the Crown Heights riot (1991), the worst outburst of anti-Semitic violence in modern American history, is never discussed. His deplorable handling of the Tawana Brawley rape hoax (1987) is downplayed as the story of “a young lady who made an accusation” and a passionate young activist who believed she “deserved a day in court.” That’s one way of putting it.
In a display of the wisdom one has come to expect from skinny Sharpton’s low-rated television show and numerous guest appearances on Morning Joe, he explains that if the jury in the O.J. Simpson trial could acquit an obvious murderer, the grand jury’s conclusion in the Brawley case—that she was not kidnapped and gang raped by a racist police officer and county prosecutor with ties to the Mafia and Irish terrorists—might also be wrong.
Only Al Sharpton, a man of immeasurable capacity for self-promotion, could say something so absurd with a straight face. He must have been relatively confident the film would not discuss the successful defamation case against him, the prominent black leaders who denounced his conduct, and the former confidant who told the New York Times that Sharpton and Brawley’s attorneys “knew they had no evidence” but were determined to exploit the publicity to become, in Sharpton’s words, “the biggest n—s in New York.”
The film’s opening sequence includes a line that could be seen as an attempt to justify this revisionist narrative. “The history of the lion and the hunter would look a lot different if the lion could read and write,” Sharpton says. “The reason the hunter always comes off as glorious is he’s the one that writes the story.” It’s not entirely clear if the filmmakers included this line out of sincerity, irony, or a mixture of both. One scene in particular suggests they are not oblivious to Sharpton’s contradictory persona.
It’s June 2, 2020, at the height of the violent unrest following the murder of George Floyd. Sharpton is speaking at a press conference in New York and takes a moment to address the unsavory elements of the mass protests. “If you are one that is a looter, don’t act like you are an activist,” he says. “Because an activist goes for causes and justice, not for designer shoes.” Cut to Sharpton in his chauffeured SUV, a close up on his immaculately pressed pocket square.
What happens next is another example of how the legacy Sharpton envisions for himself is at odds with the legacy he has earned. He takes a call from Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and stresses the need for “legislative change” in addition to the performative outrage he once so proudly pioneered. (Remember all the celebrities reading White Fragility and posting black squares on their Instagram accounts?) Schumer responds by boasting about the “really strong” speech he gave denouncing President Donald Trump.
This doesn’t appear in the film, but several days after that conversation Schumer and his fellow Democratic leaders demonstrated their own knack for appearing on television during moments of racial strife by donning kente cloths and inviting journalists to observe them kneeling in silence on the floor of Emancipation Hall.
In October 2020, the Loudmouth film crew followed Sharpton as he celebrated his 65th birthday at a celebrity-packed gala in the New York Public Library. The event was co-chaired by Tanya Lombard, head of Multicultural Engagement and Strategic Alliances at AT&T, graduate of Harvard Business School, member of the Clinton Global Initiative, and self-described “Transformational Change Agent”—an example of how, like Sharpton himself, the so-called racial justice movement has graduated from the streets to the C-Suites.
Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, was among the notable figures who took the stage to laud the guest of honor. “I spent my entire career working in media,” he says. “I always tell people, ‘If you want to understand the media world and how it’s changed, you follow the life of Reverend Al Sharpton.'” Viewers who know anything at all about Al Sharpton or the media world will laugh out loud.
He wasn’t joking.