Review: ’88’ (2023), starring Brandon Victor Dixon, Naturi Naughton, Thomas Sadoski, Michael Harney, Amy Sloan, Orlando Jones and William Fichtner

June 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Thomas Sadoski and Brandon Victor Dixon in “88” (Photo by Paul De Lumen)

“88” (2023)

Directed by Eromose

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the Los Angeles area, sometime before the primaries of the 2024 U.S. presidential election, the dramatic film “88” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white, with some Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A Super PAC (political action committee), which is raising funds for a Democratic candidate for the 2024 U.S. presidential election, finds itself embroiled in political intrigue and potential scandal when the Super PAC’s financial director finds out the source of the majority of the donations received by the Super PAC. 

Culture Audience: “88” will appeal primarily to people interested in a tension-filled political thrillers that have good acting and realistic discussions of race relations.

Brandon Victor Dixon, Naturi Naughton and Jeremiah King in “88” (Photo by Paul De Lumen)

With compelling performances and an absorbing story, the intriguing drama “88” succeeds in its intention to get viewers to think about how U.S. political campaign fundraising is directly tied to race relations in America. The movie has some minor flaws—the pacing drags in a few sections, and some of the dialogue is a little hokey—but these flaws are far outweighed by the above-average acting, realistic conversations and the riveting direction of the movie, which takes viewers on various twists and turns. “88” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Nigerian British filmmaker Eromose wrote, directed and edited “88,” which packs in a lot of issues without being too overstuffed. Eromose (whose real name is Thomas Ikimi) is also one of the producers of “88,” which takes place in the Los Angeles area sometime before the primaries of the 2024 U.S. presidential election. The movie’s protagonist is the smart, talented and ambitious Femi Jackson (played by Brandon Victor Dixon), who has recently become the financial director of a Super PAC (political action committee) called One USA. At the moment, One USA’s main focus is supporting a Democractic Party candidate named Harold Roundtree (played by Orlando Jones), who is the Democractic Party frontrunner for the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

Femi and his wife Maria Jackson (played by Naturi Naughton) are happily married and live a comfortable, middle-class existence. It’s mentioned briefly in the beginning of the movie that Femi and Maria have applied for a mortgage loan. Maria, who works as a bank loan manager, is about eight or nine months pregnant when the movie begins. Femi and Maria are expecting their second child together and have decided to wait until the birth to find out the child’s gender. Maria and Femi have an adorable 9-year-old son named Ola (played by Jeremiah King), who eventually becomes the center of a disagreement that Femi and Maria have about teaching Ola the realities of being a black male in America.

Femi admires Harold so much, he listens to Harold’s speeches when Femi does workout exercises. It’s shown in the movie’s opening scene when Femi is on his exercise bike at home, while a recording of one of Harold’s speeches that he gave at a factory can be heard playing loudly. Femi isn’t an ardent supporter of Harold just because both men happen to be African American. Femi thinks that Harold (who can be described as a moderate Democrat) has political values that are completely in line with Femi’s political values.

Harold says in the speech that Femi is listening to while on the exercise bike: “I was the first person in my family to go to college. My great-grandfather was a slave.” Harold then goes on to mention that Harold’s father and grandfather worked at the same factory where Harold is giving the speech, However, Harold says that his father and grandfather barely made living wages at the factory because they both lived in the Jim Crow era of legal racial segregation that treated anyone who wasn’t white as second-class citizens.

Harold then says in his speech: “I am the architect of my own destiny! I want to give every American the opportunity to be all they can be, to make a stronger home, to make a stronger America.” The assembled crowd can be heard giving enthusiastic cheers and applause after this speech.

Femi’s hero worship of Harold is not shared by everyone in the Jackson household. Maria has political leanings that are more left-wing and more progressive than Femi’s political beliefs. She doesn’t discourage Femi from working to get Harold elected, but she’s skeptical of Harold as a political candidate. It’s not mentioned which candidate (if any) Maria is supporting in this presidential election, but it’s definitely not Harold. Maria is also worried that Femi might be becoming too much of a workaholic in his campaign work for Harold.

The spouses’ different political views can be heard in a conversation early on in the movie. Femi and Ola are big fans of the blockbuster “Black Panther” franchise, based on the Marvel Comics, about an African king superhero named T’Challa (also known as Black Panther) and his colleagues from the fictional African country of Wakanda. When Femi and Ola say the catch phrase “Wakanda Forever!” (which was made popular in the 2018 “Black Panther” movie) and give the Wakanda handshake, it sets off Maria, who is uncomfortable with Ola and Femi being fans of the “Black Panther” franchise.

Maria has issues with “Black Panther” because she feels the stories in the franchise don’t show enough of the Wakandan leaders helping fellow Africans. Maria and Femi have a spirited debate about the merits of the “Black Panther” franchise and how much (or how little) it can be perceived as empowering to black people. When Femi argues that the franchise has made a fortune worth billions, Maria then counters with this statement: “For whom?” It’s her way of saying that even in entertainment that centers on black people, white people make the most money from it.

If this is the type of conversation that makes you uncomfortable, and you don’t want to watch a movie that has this type of discussion, then you might not like “88” very much. The movie has even more uncomfortable and sometimes disturbing conversations about how white supremacy and racism affect many aspects of everyday life. It’s a very thought-provoking film about how insidious and how deep the poison of racism goes in manipulating the outcomes of political elections.

And on a less frequent level, “88” has some discussion about prejudices within the African American community. Femi and his father were born in the United States, and Femi’s mother is a Nigerian immigrant. Femi tells Maria in one of their debates over race and nationality that he’s not going to consider himself less American, just because he has an immigrant mother and Maria’s ancestors were enslaved people in America. Although “88” doesn’t go into the hot-button topic of U.S. reparations for the descendants of enslaved people in the U.S., this conversation between Maria and Femi brings up the complicated issue of who is a “real American,” and how race and nationality of origin affect people’s definitions of being a “real American.”

Aside from some tensions in his otherwise stable marriage, Femi is dealing with an ongoing health issue: He’s a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for an unspecified period of time. At his job, Femi is visited by his unnamed addiction recovery sponsor (played by Kenneth Choi), who is also a recovering addict. The two men have a candid discussion about race, including how Asians and black people are perceived differently by each other and by racist white people. They both agree that racism can come from people of any race, but not everyone is racist.

Femi thinks his job is going smoothly, and he’s very proud of what One USA has been able to accomplish by raising millions in campaign funds for Harold. It’s shown in the movie that One USA has about 20 people working the phones in its non-descript Los Angeles-area headquarters. Harold’s campaign has recently gotten a haul of $40 million in donations from One USA. And that amount has come under scrutiny in the media.

While driving to work, Femi listens to the radio and hears two talk radio hosts wondering suspiciously if the money came from a secret super PAC. The movie also shows several scenes of Harold being interviewed by a TV journalist named Ron Holt (played by William Fitchner), who has a talk show that looks similar to the self-titled PBS show that used to be hosted by disgraced TV journalist Charlie Rose. Ron digs hard at Harold to try to get Harold to slip up and reveal any flaws. However, slick-talking Harold always seems to have an answer that makes Harold look honest and admirable, but always with a hint that maybe Harold is not revealing everything about himself.

The two biggest donors to Harold’s campaign are the non-profit groups and Future Movement Frontiers. Donations from both of these groups account for about 75% of Harold’s campaign funds that were raised by One USA. As explained in an animated clip shown on Ron’s TV show, big-money donors launder their money through non-profits, which then donate to Super PACs. The non-profit groups don’t have to report these donations to the Federal Elections Committee (FEC) because these particular non-profit groups have 501 (c) (4) tax status.

The big mystery in the movie has to do with Femi discovering how and why 75% of the donations are coming from and Future Movement Frontiers, which are relatively small non-profit groups. Femi has noticed that all of the donation figures, if each digit is added up in different combinations, end up totaling the number 88. It’s an unusual pattern that Femi can’t ignore.

Femi emails some computer files to his friend Ira Goldstein (played by Thomas Sadoski), a former investment management executive who is now a financial investigative blogger. Femi asks Ira for his opinion on what he thinks is going on with these financial figures. Femi says, “Whoever is doing this, they’re masking their donations through the non-profits, packaging them, and then sending them to us as larger sums.”

Femi also takes his concerns to his immediate supervisor: One USA executive director Agatha “Aggie” Frost (played by Amy Sloan), who dismisses Femi’s concerns and rejects Femi’s idea to have this matter investigated further. As far as she is concerned, a Super PAC such as One USA isn’t supposed to care where the donation money comes from and should only care about getting the money. Agatha tells Femi sternly, “I gave you a chance when no one else would. Please don’t make me look like an asshole.” It’s later mentioned in the movie that Agatha’s work background is being the owner of an ad agency, which partially explains why she’s very concerned about One USA’s image.

In a staff meeting, Agatha enthusiastically introduces Femi and two other people who have recently joined the One USA team: deputy executive director Fred Fowlkes (played by Michael Harney) and a committee research director named Sahar (played by Pegah Rashti), who happens to be Agatha’s wife. Fred, who is in his 60s, is a well-respected political campaign veteran with a very impressive track record, because it’s mentioned that all of the candidates that he’s worked with in the past several years have won their elections.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Agatha gives a pep talk to the One USA employees, by saying: “We raised more money faster than any other Democratic Super PAC [in] this election cycle. And we won’t slow down until Harold Roundtree is in the White House … We’re more than suits and ties. We’re a movement.”

During a lunch meeting in a diner, Femi and Ira talk about Femi’s curiosity about why so much of the One USA’s donation money is coming from two small non-profit groups. Femi tells Ira that Femi’s boss Agatha has ordered him not to investigate further, but Ira is eager to look into this mystery. After some coaxing, Ira convinces Femi to give more files to Ira, so that Ira can do some independent research.

And what Ira finds and tells Femi further deepens the mystery: Ira has a mind-blowing theory of what the number 88 means. This theory is spoiler information that won’t be revealed in this review. However, it’s enough to say that it’s a vast conspiracy theory that goes beyond just one presidential election.

The rest of “88” has Femi going further down a proverbial rabbit hole of investigating this conspiracy theory. He ends up crossing paths with an author/conspiracy theorist named Hans Muller (played by Jonathan Weir), an elderly recluse who uses a wheelchair and has to breathe through an oxygen mask. Femi’s meeting with Hans is one of the intentionally creepy scenes in the movie because of what Hans tells Femi.

There’s also a British billionaire named Sam Trask (played by Julian Wadham), who’s vacillating between supporting Harold and supporting Hank McGonville, who is Harold’s main Democratic Party rival in the presidential election. Hank is never seen in the movie, but his TV campaign “attack” ad against Harold triggers some desperate reactions from members of the One USA team. Harold’s campaign manager Tom Woods (played by Jon Tenney) plays an important role as a gatekeeper and decision maker in this story.

And just who is Harold Roundtree, the candidate at the center of all these political schemes and machinations? Harold’s interview scenes with Ron reveal that Harold used to be the CEO of the fictional City District Bank, until the bank went out of business during the bank financial crisis of 2008. But by 2009, Harold had started a non-profit group called the Roundtree Institute with an initial investment of $15 million. In the TV interview, Harold spins his bank failure as being a positive learning experience, and he says that at least his bank didn’t take any bailouts from the U.S. government.

One of the best things about “88” is that it has memorable characters and conversations that are very true-to-life. The dynamic between trusted friends Femi and Ira is entertaining to watch and brings a few moments of comic relief. Some of the movie’s best scenes with Dixon and Sadoski are when Femi and Ira are together.

Dixon (who is one of the “88” producers) gives a fascinating performance as someone who has to come to terms with his political ideals and harsh realities. Jones is quite effective in his portrayal of shrewd politician Harold, who is as calculating as he is charismatic. Harney and Sloan also give believable performances, especially in a scene where Fred and Agatha are in a pivotal meeting together.

The movie tends to wander from the main political story when it shows a subplot involving Maria and her willingness to help an ex-con named Jose Gutierrez (played by Elimu Nelson), who wants a bank loan to start a business selling his hand-carved wooden toys. Jose is having trouble getting a loan because he was a convicted felon. (He was in prison for selling marijuana, before California decriminalized its marijuana laws.) And “88” starts to veer a little into soap opera drama when Maria gives birth, and there are some health issues involved in this birth.

However, Naughton has some standout scenes showing where Maria’s political beliefs and life experiences affect Maria’s view of the world and how she interacts with people. There’s a great scene where Maria has a tense discussion with her supervisor Veronica Verton (played by Kelly McCreary) about Veronica’s decision for Jose’s loan application. This powerful scene speaks to issues that people of color have when it comes to helping other people of color.

What’s admirable about “88” is that the characters are not stereotypes but have complexities that are very authentic to real people. The movie shows how Maria isn’t a shallow cliché of a Black Lives Matter extremist who hates all cops. Maria’s sister is married to a white cop named Harry Quale (played by Jonathan Camp), who is welcome in the Jackson home and who spends some quality time with Ola. Maria and Femi teach Ola that there are good cops and bad cops, just like there are good people and bad people in any profession, but that people can be treated differently because of their race.

“88” writer/director/editor Eromose keeps a mostly taut pace throughout this 122-minute film, which sizzles with an intensity of a political thriller that could be based on real events. The conspiracy theory revealed in “88” is not far-fetched, considering all the wild and crazy facts about politics that have been uncovered in real life. Even though “88” is a fictional drama, it sounds an alarm to voters and other people to pay more attention to the sources of political funding. As the movie’s tag line says: “Follow the money.”

UPDATE: Samuel Goldwyn Films will release “88” in select U.S. cinemas on February 17, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on March 24, 2023.

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