They can’t all be winners, especially when it comes to political dramas. For every classic like “All the President’s Men,” there’s a field of also-rans like “The Front Runner.” Writer-director Eromore’s “88” belongs firmly in the latter category, though it does deserve credit for being so focused on campaign-finance reform that it includes an animated PSA about the dangers of dark money and Citizens United. Despite counting Charlamagne tha God among its executive producers, however, the Tribeca 2022 alum seems destined to make as much impact as a presidential hopeful who drops out after the first primary.
Not that it doesn’t have a compelling premise. Femi Jackson (Brandon Victor Dixon), the financial director for the Harold Roundtree (Orlando Jones) campaign, notices while crunching numbers one day that every single donation the Democratic candidate received from a shadowy super PAC adds up to 88. If you think that figure is a coincidence, an exchange in which Femi’s lawyer friend Ira (Thomas Sadoski) explains its significance will benefit you as well: 88 is code for “Heil Hitler” among white supremacists, “h” being the eighth letter of the alphabet. Femi and Roundtree are both Black, making any connection to such groups especially unlikely, but it wouldn’t be a conspiratorial political thriller if the intrigue ended there.
As the candidate in question, Jones is seen almost entirely via a Charlie Rose-style interview with a journalist played by William Fichtner. He’s put in the hot seat about one subject after another, and does a convincing job of appearing like a smooth, viable contender — but never comes close to being a three-dimensional fictional character. Like so much else in “88,” he mostly serves as a mouthpiece for the film’s thematic underpinnings.
Most of these expository speeches miss, but not all. The earliest and most memorable example occurs at the breakfast table and concerns Femi’s son Ola’s (Jeremiah King) upcoming Wakanda-themed birthday party, to which his mother (Naturi Naughton) strenuously objects. After listing the other Avengers’ main opponents — Captain America fought the Nazis, while Iron Man battled an al Qaeda stand-in — she points out that Black Panther fought fellow Africans rather than helping them. “Wakanda can cure a spinal injury in a day,” she points out, “but can’t help Africans right next to them cure malaria, yellow fever, typhoid fever, sickle cell, HIV?” “It made a billion dollars,” Femi says in defense of the lauded blockbuster. “For who?” she asks.
Others aren’t so subtle. One conversation between Femi and his sponsor (Kenneth Choi), who’s Korean American, quickly turns into a debate about which minority group has it worse; if that exchange isn’t on-the-nose enough, it’s interrupted by a phone call in which Femi is informed by his son’s principal that the boy has gotten in trouble for upsetting his classmates by talking about police brutality and Black Lives Matter. These are worthy topics indeed, but they’re also worthy of more nuanced depictions than they tend to receive here. With how explicit the film can be about its ideas — seemingly every other scene is little more than a mini-history lesson, with one of them even including the line “Have you seen ‘The Matrix’? White supremacy is all around us” — it’s difficult not to wonder why the filmmakers didn’t just opt for a documentary.
It’s tempting to spend a few more paragraphs detailing other subplots that exist solely to unsubtly touch on similar topics; in the interest of brevity, know that one concerns a convicted felon applying for a bank loan and the other is about Ola’s uncle, a white police officer, endeavoring to show the boy that “we aren’t all bad.” An interest in brevity would have likewise helped the film, whose two-hour runtime is thanks largely to these extraneous sequences. At its worst, it feels as interminable as election season.