88, the cynical political thriller from writer/director Eromose (Legacy), is sure to ignite divisive responses in audiences and critics.
Femi (Brandon Victor Dixon of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It) is the Financial Director for a democratic super PAC, raising money for a leading presidential candidate. But when he notices some strange patterns in the PAC’s donation records, Femi uncovers a conspiracy that is much deeper and more dangerous than he realizes.
Though the film’s twists are turns are predictable by thriller standards, this isn’t a film that is aiming to elicit shocks or gasps. It’s a slow build, and Eromose’s script eschews easy, binary moralizing in favour of a more complex (one might even argue honest) view of the ways that political power is intertwined with greed, capitalism, and history.
The more complex aspects of political funding and super PACs are explained to the audience via amusing animations. It isn’t quite Margot Robbie in a bathtub (à la The Big Short) but it’s effective enough. By the time Femi stumbles upon his discovery, we know enough to keep up. Unfortunately, the film’s first act is held up by this necessary, but not exactly riveting, exposition. Once 88 manages to get off the ground, it has a lot to say. And if the film feels overly preachy or heavy-handed, that’s the point.
As politics, and society, becomes ever more polarized, 88 dares to suggest that neither side of the political spectrum is “right” – and that the policies and politics of center-ists and liberals (particularly those who cling to neoliberal ideologies and individualist ideals) may further disenfranchise those in society with the least amount of power and resources.
To some, this suggestion will seem like an obvious statement of fact, to others an absurd conspiracy theory. Such is the nature of our current political and social moment.
The characters are well-realized. Dixon’s Femi, in particular, is complex and sympathetic. A family man, and passionate supporter of the Obama-esque democratic candidate Harold Roundtree (Drumline’s Orlando Jones), Femi is driven by his love for his wife and son and his faith in the larger political and social systems that he has been taught to believe in. His wife Maria, played by the captivating Naturi Naughton (Fame , Notorious), is both his partner and his foil. A director at a bank, she is more overtly political than her husband. When the couple’s son shows a video of police attacking a black man to the other kids at his school and writes “Black Lives Matter” on his desk, Femi is quick to blame Maria and her views. Later, however, in one of the films most affective moments, he rehearses with his son what to do if he is stopped by police. He reiterates the importance of submission, his fear for his son creeping into every syllable.
Though 88’s plot hinges on a political conspiracy, some of the most impactful moments of the film are those depicting Femi’s domestic life. For Femi and Maria, the personal, social, and political are not spheres of life that can be kept separate from one another. Femi’s work impacts his ability to show up for his family as a husband and father, but the broader context of racism and violence in American culture also impacts his marriage and his relationship with his son.
Femi’s search for the truth is intercut with scenes featuring Harold Roundtree on a television talk show-style interview. For much of the film, this is all we (or Femi) see of Roundtree. Roundtree and the interviewer debate political issues like the role the government and social support systems should play in individual’s lives. Though Roundtree is collected and knows how to sugar-coat his policies, it becomes increasingly clear that his political views are conservative and traditional.
In the film’s final act, Roundtree turns the tables on his interviewer, and the audience, by asking us to question the role that the media (and Hollywood, specifically) play in creating the norms and expectations of our society.
These are deep questions, and 88 isn’t a film that provides many answers. Whether audiences like or hate it will largely depend where they stand on certain issues coming in. This is a story that spells out it’s position clearly, and tackles sensitive, urgent issues head-on — but it probably isn’t going to change anyone’s mind.
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