In Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK,” Donald Sutherland played a character only identified as “X,” the “explainer” who downloads most of the suspect government and government officials’ actions in the days surrounding the Kennedy Assassination in 1963.
It’s a strange and in retrospect amusing way of throwing everything behind Stone’s thesis in the film at the wall at once in a single mesmerizing third action monologue.
Imagine a whole movie of such monologues, with more than one version of such a connect-the-dots character.
“88” is a political thriller by the one-named Nigerian/British/American filmmaker Eromose (“Legacy”), a two hour sermon on white supremacy and dark money and how America got to where it is today. It’s never less than interesting, even as its dramatic urgency wanes due to the monotony of its message and the over-the-top “thrills” this thriller never bothers to provide.
Brandon Victor Jackson plays Femi, a numbers guy who works in accounting in the fundraising office of candidate Harold Roundtree, a pre-Iowa (oopsie) “front-runner” for the 2024 presidential nomination, mainly thanks to huge infusions of cash from assorted non-profit political action committees.
Femi spots an odd thing about these donations, their bizarre numeric amounts that add up to some incarnation of the number “88.”
As he passes this info on to his senior campaign staff bosses (Amy Sloan, Michael Harney), he continues to dig and brings in a Jewish pal (Thomas Sadoski) whose “investigative” skills he can tap into. And Ira sees something straight away. Those numbers, “88?” That’s white supremacist code for the eighth letter of the alphabet, repeated.
“88” takes these two, and Femi’s pregnant activist/wife Maria (Naturi Naughton) and that campaign through a round of digging and soul-searching over the latest “chosen one” candidate, a great communicator with all the right education and background and a sketchy tie to one big non-profit PAC, the one he ran right up to the day he announced, “One USA.”
We meet the candidate who inspires Femi and convinces the veteran political operatives on the staff that he’s a winner via a long interview Roundtree has with a tough-minded, challenging journalist.
Our writer-director lets us know how to write “names” into your low-budget film’s cast, by putting the movie’s two most famous actors onto basically a single TV interview set (no background, just darkness behind them) for a series of scenes intercut into the action, scenes that might have taken just a couple of days to shoot.
Orlando Jones (“Drumline”) is surprisingly affecting and Obama-esque as Roundtree, and William Fichtner (TV’s “Mom,” “The Perfect Storm”) gets to ask the uncomfortable questions as a bulldog TV interrogator who brings up “race,” a topic our candidate dodges, Big Money in politics and white supremacy, including Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on the matter.
Femi’s quest takes on “Marathon Man” intrigues (without violence), “follow the money” “All the President’s Men” plotting and “JFK” warning phone calls and “visits” from those who either want to expose the truth, or want to ensure Femi doesn’t reveal it.
“There’s a storm coming, Mister Jackson! Stay out of the way!”
Eromose gives us primers on lynching and global racist politics and even an animated “Schoolhouse Rock” style explainer on how “rich people buy elections” thanks to the infamous Citizen’s United case.
“88” is informatively watchable, thanks to all these in-story tutorials. What it lacks is high drama and a sense of the stakes, which never feel as murderous as you might expect. All this backstory about Femi’s AA membership and wife Maria’s boycott-armed activism against her own bank’s lending policies and the “plantation owners” of the National Football League and debating Black Lives Matter vs. Stop Asian Hate clutters up the film and ignores the very basic lessons of “All the President’s Men.”
“Follow the money,” and “What did the (candidate for) President know, and when did he know it?”
It’s possible to be a bit awed by the “JFK” ambition of “88,” even if the execution waters down Eromose’s message to the point where we wonder if he’s simply lost his nerve.
Rating: unrated, profanity
Cast: Brandon Victor Jackson, Naturi Naughton, Amy Sloan, Michael Harney, Thomas Sadoski, William Fichtner and Orlando Jones
Credits: Scripted and directed by Eromose. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 2:01