It's Even Worse than You Think

Thomas Sadoski and Brandon Victor Dixon

88 - Written, Directed, Produced and Edited by Eromose

So on a quiet Sunday morning, along comes this unassuming screener for a film that touts appearances by some of my favorite character actors. As I queue it up, I consider how the great quantity of new streaming "content" has revitalized careers that may have been assumed to have run their course. Orlando Jones, Michael J. Harney, and William Fichtner all appear in the subject line. I settle in and am soon immersed in a tasty little political thriller that seeks to do nothing less than cast all our assumptions about our current world order into doubt.

88 premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Festival. It was written/directed/edited/etc. by a fellow named Eromose, who goes by a single name and identifies as having Nigerian roots, an English upbringing, and an education at Columbia University. Eromose is no stranger to Tribeca: his first feature film, Legacy, was an acclaimed entry in 2010 and his short film Nostradamus premiered there in 2015. His resumé lists him also as a coder and software developer. One of 88's executive producers is the radio host and media activist Charlamagne Tha God. The film's mission, according to press materials, is to "capture the cultural zeitgeist of government mistrust and institutional racism."

That said, Eromose has a number of films in his catalogue, and a finely-honed polemic sense. Straight off, one must admire his sense of proportion: 88 is a diminutive film in its production values, but its ambitions are enormous.

The story centers on Femi, a financial director, new to the Super PAC of a forerunner Black presidential candidate. Femi, who is Black himself, uncovers a chilling pattern in the campaign donations: 75% of them come from a nondescript not-for-profit, but each donation totals an amount of 88. What could it mean? His AA sponsor, who is Jewish and an investment blogger, recognizes it as code for the eighth letter of the alphabet, repeated to "HH," which in White Supremacist circles translates to "Heil Hitler." Femi comes to realize that his candidate might have been groomed since high school with this dark money, and in fact part of a secret movement. Do the man's egalitarian talking points mask a next-phase Nazi agenda? Is the Master Race alive and thriving amongst the 1% who covertly rule the world?

It's heady stuff, Matrix-like in concept (that film is directly referenced), but avoids lapsing into shrill Conspiracy Theory mode, instead calmly offering a plausible alternate history and destiny for the USA. Eromose doesn't have nearly the budget of The Matrix, and veers off more into Manchurian Candidate territory, ultimately opting for a cautionary tale over one steeped in special effects and sensationalism.

Brandon Victor Dixon plays Femi Jackson, the financial director, and has a relaxed Everyman appeal. His family dynamic anchors the scenario: they are Black, suburban, and principled. Femi and his pregnant wife Maria (Naturi Naughton) and nine-year-old son Ola (Jeremiah King) navigate hot-button issues of today, mostly the continued subjugation of Black people. Femi is a recovering alcoholic and a reluctant hero, unsure of his own perceptions or how far he wants to take things. He is advised at one point to "Grow some balls," to which he replies, "I have a wife and kid. Balls are a luxury." Maria is strident and works her bullshit-detector within the system; she's a banker calling out systemic loan rejections of enterprising Black customers. She calls out her husband for wanting to theme Ola's birthday party with Wakanda Forever, seeing its hidden message as promoting Western colonialism. Thomas Sadoski, memorable in HBO's The Newsroom, plays Ira, Femi's sponsor with the right amount of charm, alarm, and cynicism. He and Femi are a shaggy Woodward and Bernstein, and their finely wrought scenes mount narrative tension confidently. The "indirect social engineering" threat they expose grows in sinister dimension, the dots connected deftly by the screenplay and direction.

The production values hover at After School Special level. But Eromose does a lot with a little. His film has heart, and goes easy on the flash, indulging in only a few showy montages. Most of it is played naturally and realistically, as with a subtle hand-on-shoulder motif to portray human contact. The narrative ambitions aren't large, which makes the thematic ones more effective.

Those character actors I anticipated are used sparingly. Orlando Jones plays the candidate Harold Roundtree as man who "knows himself" but may be more complicit in the supremacy plot than he appears. Most of Roundtree's brief scenes are staged as a TV news interview with the always-watchable William Fichtner as a Charlie Rose style newsman. And there's a kick to being with a character inside a car, hear a knock at the passenger side window and who slips in but Jon Tenney. The one who gets the most to do is Michael J. Harney: his gruff, old-school political consultant is integral to the team's workings. Less familiar actors include Amy Sloan as the fundraising director in a state of denial, Brian Norris as a shadowy coffee boy, and Jonathan Weir as the unwitting (?) architect of the White Supremacist plan. All do solid work.

88 is a satisfying exercise in social observation and cultural warning. Its script is sharp and its direction crisp. Scenes are full of everyday conflict that keep them crackling (Femi and Maria, for example, have a white cop as a brother-in-law). The film, by the multitalented Eromose, is accomplished, thoughtful, and serious in a way one wishes would be more evident in today's cinematic landscape.

But Eromose, a word of advice? Lose the score. Or at least pare it down. It's too often trite and manipulative. A patriotic drum tattoo is laid under a rah-rah staff meeting. A tender scene gets a tinkly piano. At best the music is clichéd and conventional, at worst distracting and inappropriate to the emotional tone. It smooths out scenes that could stand to be rougher. That's not to say that some don't benefit from the soundtrack, but a stripped-down score, rather than one so reliant on swelling strings, would better suit the film’s straightforward simplicity.

88 is written, directed, produced, and edited by Eromose. 122 minutes. Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films, Feb. 17, 2023.

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