At first glance, Armageddon Time seems like a rare instance of the right film coming out at just the right time.
This coming-of-age story about a Jewish family was released during a resurgence of anti-Jewish sentiment in America. Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving was recently suspended for his promotion of the controversial film Hebrew to Negroes, a “documentary” laden with antisemitic tropes and misinformation about Black and Jewish history.
But right in the midst of the Irving drama, Armageddon Time dropped the ball. Its flawed creative vision squandered a golden opportunity to add value to today’s discourse on race. Instead of empowering marginalized groups in the U.S., Armageddon Time makes viewers question if the filmmakers should have taken control of these narratives in the first place.
The struggles of Black Americans are an accessory to the plot of the film. Writer and director James Gray cheapens the film’s commentary on bigotry by monopolizing the stories of the very people it seeks to represent.
Gray is Armageddon Time’s writer and director as well as the basis for the film’s central character. Inspired by the story of Gray’s adolescence, the film begins with fictionalized Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) starting the sixth grade at a New York City public school. As a descendant of Holocaust survivors, Graff grapples with his family history that is seemingly forgotten.
Along the way, he befriends Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), the only Black student in his class. Over time, the dysfunction in their families tests their budding friendship. The film juxtaposed the struggles of working Jewish immigrants and the obstacles the African American community faces as the two cross paths.
Armageddon Time shows its technical prowess in the dichotomy between entitled Paul and disadvantaged Johnny. The Graff family is portrayed with warm and inviting scenes of birthday presents and family dinners lit up on the screen through saturated oranges and browns.
By contrast, Johnny’s community is eerily lit, its life drained by faint greens and grays.
Photography director Darius Khondji encapsulates the powerlessness the characters feel through the repeated usage of high angles. When Paul suffers a beating from his abusive father, the height of the camera puts his vulnerability on full display.
In a scathing critique of meritocracy, Armageddon Time challenges the ideal of the “American Dream.” At the Jewish private school that Paul’s brother attends, middle schoolers outfitted in three-piece suits are told time and time again that only hard work earned them their opportunities.
Kids like Johnny can only work so hard when battling homelessness and structural racism.
The same students who denounce the Holocaust perpetuate racist tropes of African Americans, despite both groups suffering from systemic injustice. Gray generalizes the Black experience in his portrayal of Johnny as a one-dimensional character.
Gray spearheads a project whose themes stretch a mile wide but an inch deep. Just as the artistically inclined Paul struggles to find his place in a stratified nation, the grown-up, real-life Gray produced a film that fails to navigate the sensitivity of identity politics.