The name Rev. Al Sharpton elicits strong responses. In fact, the opening clips of writer-director Josh Alexander’s documentary Loudmouth contain a 1993 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace in which Wallace rattles off a laundry list of (mostly white) critics of Sharpton, including: “impresario of hatred, demagogue, hate-monger, and racist clown.” Sharpton stares stone-faced, taking the verbal slings and arrows without batting an eye. He points out that those scurrilous barbs are taken from the same playbook used on Dr. Martin Luther King just decades earlier. King’s widow once introduced Sharpton, stating his work was “in the spirit and tradition” of her husband, and she joins a list of admirers that is equally as long as those who wish him ill.
Cobbled from years and years of archival footage, Loudmouth showcases Sharpton’s ability to be present at pivotal moments in history. Starting back in the 1970s, when Don Cornelius, of Soul Train fame, welcomed a 19-year-old Sharpton on stage to award James Brown a plaque for his voice in the black community. In the following decades, Sharpton grew to be an increasingly louder voice for those he felt were in need of representation. Being an ordained minister since the age of 9, Sharpton had finely honed his oratory prowess, which served him well as a public advocate.
From the 80s on, if there was a controversial case in which race was a factor, there was a good chance Sharpton could be found either on the sidelines or front and center. Through Sharpton, several cases in his home of New York were propelled to national prominence. From the assault of black men by whites in Howard Beach in 1986 to the Crown Heights Riots in 1991 to the police shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999, Sharpton was able to catapult the stories into the national dialogue.
“…showcases Sharpton’s ability to be present at pivotal moments in history.”
Of course, he has notoriously hitched his name to more infamous cases as well, most notably that of Tawana Brawley, the 15-year-old girl who claimed she was raped and abused in a racially charged assault that included members of the New York Police Department. After a forensic test found no indication of rape or assault, a grand jury fined Sharpton and others for defamation.
There is certainly no shortage of archival footage of Sharpton’s many colorful comments throughout the years. One wishes that Loudmouth delved more into those orbiting Sharpton’s stratosphere during that time. Unfortunately, the elder statesman is the only one who is invited for any fresh commentary. While hearing about his life directly from the good Reverend is certainly engaging, his public work screams to be heard by those affected by him, both positively and negatively.
Fascinating as it is to see the sheer drive and determination of a man who builds his persona with unwavering dedication, Loudmouth can appear somewhat hagiographical in its approach. Sharpton is too fearless for such a style and has never shied away from confronting those who are angered by his words, for, as Dr. King once said, “In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self.”