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Armageddon Time / Zeiten des Umbruchs

Director: James Gray (USA, Brazil). Year of Release: 2022

Queens, New York. 1980. It’s the first day of school at a local state school. The register call shows that there are a lot of minorities in the class. Quite a few of the surnames are Jewish, and some faces are Asian- or African-American. Paul has a more neutral surname – Graff – but that’s only because the Rabinowitz family had problems getting work when they fled antisemitic pogroms in the Ukraine, and found that racism in the USA was just as strong but with a smilier face.

Paul is placed into the class of Mr Turkeltaub – an officious man who doesn’t show any trace of humour. Pretty soon, Paul draws a caricature of Turkeltaub which is passed around the class, and he’s made to sit at the front of the class. He’s soon joined by Johnny who has been messing around. Paul makes faces behind Turkeltaub’s back, but it is always Johnny who is punished. Could it be because he’s black? Paul and Johnny build up a budding friendship.

Johnny is a fan of disco, in particular the way in which it is currently developing into hip hop, through artists like the Sugarhill Gang. Paul tells him that Disco Sucks, boasting that they’ve got loads of records at home, including not just the Red but also the Blue Beatles album. The film contains occasional flashes like this where Paul makes out that he’s the knowledgeable one, only to betray his ignorance, and show that Johnny is much cooler that he will ever be.

Paul’s parents are worried about his poor grades and his ambition to be an artist when he grows up, rather than getting a proper lob like a lawyer or accountant. When he and Johnny get caught smoking a joint in the school toilets, they move him to an élite private school. Paul feels that no-one in his family understand except his grandfather Aaron, played by Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins has lived in the US for decades now, but I don’t remember the last time he sounded so Welsh.

I have no idea if this is what writer director James Gray intended, but there is a very legitimate reading that Armageddon Time is about the impotency of Liberalism. During the film, Reagan wins the 1980 US election, and Paul’s family curse the television. There is a walk-on part for 2 members of the Trump family, one of whom tells the private school kids that, like her, they will triumph on their own hard work and not down to any hand outs (I presume the irony here is deliberate).

But with the possible exception of Aaron, the Graff family attempts to accommodate to the system, not to challenge it. Paul’s mum Esther is the president of the PTA of her local state school, but she already has one kid in private school, and when the going gets tough, she raises money from relatives to send the other one there. Dad Irving mouths off against racism, but is not above using the occasional racist epithet himself. They hate injustice, but only when they are the victims.

The film opens with the start of The Clash’s cover of Armagideon Time, and riffs from the song recur throughout the film. The song’s opening lines are appropriate: “A lotta people won’t get no supper tonight / A lotta people won’t get no justice tonight ”. The truth is, though, that although the Graffs may not be as well off as their family members and the parents at their kids’ school, they’re not the ones who will have to do without supper or justice. It’s not the same for Johnny.

Esther and Irving are petit bourgeois – she from a family of teachers (when teaching had more social clout than today), and he a (presumably) self-employed plumber. This means that while they do not have the wealth of the other parents at the posh school, whose kids unanimously cheer Reagan’s name, neither do they have an automatic feeling of class solidarity. They view working class people (and in particularly black working class people like Johnny) as obstacles, not allies.

Aaron, in contrast, preaches solidarity. In a scene which you already know if you’ve seen the trailer, he berates Paul for not standing up and challenging the racist talk of his classmates. When the film ends with Paul once more staying silent in the face of racism, he is visited by a vision of his grandfather, looking very disappointed. But what is the message here? That the central character of the film is a bad person, or that moral failures are ok if you feel bad about them afterwards?

I think that the film allows (at least) two interpretations. Liberals can watch it and say, look we told you that racism is bad, and that Black people sometimes lose out because of this, but what can you do? We didn’t vote for Reagan or Trump (or, as the obnoxious Liberal in the superior Get Out says, we’d have voted three times for Obama if we could). But there is a much more radical reading which see the victories of the Right as directly flowing from the compromises of Liberals.

I think it is to the film’s credit that it is perhaps more radical than it intends to be. It uses a conservative format – you’re never in much doubt what will happen or who the Good and Bad guys are (although many more people are part-Good, part-Bad than is usual in this format). Yet it is able to deliver a message which is more radical that just saying “racism is bad”. Maybe I underestimate it and this is all intentional, but even the fact that this reading is possible is a step forward.

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