(Written by Allison Brown)
88 might be the most memorable Tribeca selection yet this year. Director Eromose highlights the number 88 in a fictional manner along the lines of the well-known 23 enigma, upon which films were also based like 2007’s The Number 23. 88, however, has a more niche significance, as it only relates to financial investments and their influence on politics and race. Conspiracy theorists are bound to flock to the film. It is over the top, and guaranteed to hold one’s attention completely despite its two-hour runtime. I don’t think the film is particularly powerful. It is cheesy and at times trying way too hard to be politically correct. It panders to a decidedly scholarly audience, but also provides a necessary “for dummies” description of the more complicated political concepts. I had to pause the film several times and replay the explanation as it was hard to grasp upon initial viewing; I imagine anyone eventually watching at home may need to do the same. To be quite honest, the more educated audience it desires may come out of the film hating it, as much of the narrative is convoluted and provides a sufficient dose of camp. Nevertheless, 88 is incredibly entertaining, even if that means finding scenes comical that probably were not intended to be.
Femi Jackson (Brandon Victor Dixon) is the Financial Director for One USA, a super PAC (political action committee) devoted to the campaign of democratic presidential hopeful, Harold Roundtree (Orlando Jones). He idolizes Roundtree, even watching his political speeches while doing his morning exercise routine. Femi decides to do a deep dive into the donation log and discovers something very odd. Hundreds of donations each month from nonprofits Independence.nyc and Future Moving Frontiers are permutations where the sum of its digits strangely add up to 88. 75% of One USA’s contributions originate from those two donors. His boss, Agatha (Amy Sloan), attempts to quickly brush him off, so Femi decides to reach out to his financial blogger friend, Ira Goldstein (Thomas Sadoski), to investigate. The amusing writing begins to unfold as this friend, with a stereotypically Jewish name, just so happens to be the one who discovers that the money has ties to a Nazi organization, the Crooked Cross. Femi presents it to his team, who then decide to take Ira on to see how deep this influence lies.
There are several preposterously stereotypical side plots. These include an ex-felon who has difficulty securing a loan to start his wooden figurine business and Femi’s very young son, Ola (Jeremiah King), terrifying his female classmate by telling her that “cops kill black boys.” Because Femi’s wife, Maria (Naturi Naughton), taught Ola about the Black Lives Matter movement, he is now terrified of police. The parents eventually decide to bring his uncle, who just so happens to be a white cop, to take him to school and show him that there are good guys out there. This same cop happens to be in an interracial marriage, just to push the agenda further. The tokenism in the film is on another level. Agatha introduces Committee Research Director, Zahar, merely to mention she is her girlfriend. The character has no other significant influence in the story aside from her existence as one half of a lesbian couple. Just for balance, a two-line exchange between Maria and their neighbors feels like it solely exists to introduce them as a gay couple. There is an Asian character only presented to exploit his “stop Asian hate” pin, along with a debate with Femi about who has had it harder historically: Asians or Blacks; this man is nowhere else to be found in the narrative.
Finally, despite a story that seems to support the struggles of the Black community, the stereotype of the “angry black woman” and “the mammy caricature” both live in the script. Maria goes on a rant pointing out how Black Panther is a step backwards for the black community and urges Ola to pick a different costume to wear. She continually acts as a personification of a political agenda for equality, while Femi barely stands up for anything. In a late part of the film where Femi visits a reformed elderly Nazi, his caretaker is inexplicably dressed as a slavery-era mammy, and in fact, almost serves as his slave willingly. It is just outlandish.
I first saw Brandon Victor Dixon at the live taping of NBC’s rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar playing the lead role of Judas. He was fantastic then, and was equally great as aged-up lead Femi Jackson here. Dixon endeavors to present a serious dramatic performance despite the ludicrous script, score, and staging. In one scene as the music swells, he stares at an empty whiteboard, just prompting laughter; it is set up in such a stereotypical way implying the character is about to discover something important. When the film cuts to Femi stepping back to see all he has accomplished, I was immediately reminded of the popular meme depicting Charlie from Always Sunny in Philadelphia manically attempting to decipher a mess of paper pieced together. I paused and tried to understand what it all meant, which was a part of the thrill of this movie, but thankfully it was described to another character moments later.
As I dissect the film, it becomes more confusing as to who this film is meant for. Exposing a democratic candidate as potentially corrupt and trying to provide sympathy for police leans heavily Republican. Yet, everything else uncovered in Femi’s descent into the conspiracy, as well as his wife’s ideologies, condemn the alt-right. There is a lot of race conjecture that is hypocritical and conflicting. I look forward to seeing the public reaction, which is sure to be very mixed. Perhaps someone else will be able to illuminate the intention behind this wild ride of a film.
88 exposes the corrupt truth when it premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 11th.