It is 1980, Queens. As a white Jewish American family watches Ronald Reagan’s election on the television, the father denounces the new president as a “schmuck.” With one word, the father signals the Graff family’s purported disgust with the incoming president’s brand of white Christian racial conservatism, business-friendly trickle-down economics, and attack on postwar liberals’ vision of a robust social-welfare state. Yet the family quickly move on from critiquing Reagan to discussing something that seems, to them, more pressing: New York’s failing public schools. Their talk is polite, but it is only a thinly concealed racist discourse for communicating the bigoted belief that racial integration has made public education worse for white children.
In this and many other scenes, James Gray’s new film Armageddon Time showcases the cruel delusion of the white liberal middle class, who perceive themselves as enlightened and progressive even as their concrete decisions sustain racial inequality. In fact, before this scene pairs critique of Reagan with critique of integrated schools, the Graff family has just reached a consequential decision: to extract the son and protagonist, Paul (played by Banks Repeta), from his local public school, after he had become friends with and created harmless trouble with Johnny, a Black student (played by Jaylin Webb). In response, the Graffs opt to send Paul to an all-white elite private school, Forest Manor Prep: a fictional academy based off the Kew-Forest School, championed by notoriously racist megalandlord and possible KKK sympathizer Fred Trump. In this sense, Armageddon Time is not your standard whitewashed, feel-good racial fantasy. White protagonists are not uncritically lionized for their salvation of a purportedly helpless or transgressive Other, nor are they lauded for their miraculous capacity to see the humanity of Black people.
And yet. Despite spotlighting the hypocrisy and cruelty of this white liberal middle-class family, Armageddon Time refuses to grant Johnny, Paul’s Black friend, any real interiority, context, or depth. This erasure ultimately keeps the film concerned only with white feelings and decisions, however unsavory they may be or how regretful Gray may feel about them. In the end, Johnny is little more than an object lesson for Paul, a plot device through which Paul learns about—and shamefully participates in—the enduring racist architecture of post–civil rights America.
Protest films and novels centered around American racial strife have long offered white liberal consumers a salve to their dirty consciences and, ironically, confirmation of their superiority. In a 1949 essay entitled “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin searingly critiqued “novels of Negro oppression” such as ur-protest novel Uncle tom’s Cabin that “say only: ‘This is perfectly horrible! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” He derides the feelings of “comfort” experienced by white readers of these novels, for whom the very act of consuming such a novel—of bearing a removed witness to Black oppression—fills the putatively liberal reader with “virtue,” and assures them of moral absolution through their “reading such a book at all.” The protest novel was therefore far from a protest. So often defended for its “good intentions,” such flaccid white empathy was unmasked by Baldwin as a vital feature of US racial apartheid.1 Far from launching a meaningful assault on racial inequality, the protest novel, as literary theorist Jodi Melamed argues, actually naturalized racial difference while simultaneously serving as “a vehicle for white redemption.”2
Armageddon Time wishes badly to dodge the pitfalls of Baldwin’s protest novel. It makes a valiant effort. Even so, the film is undercut by the very forces it hopes to expose: white navel-gazing and self-enriching complicity, forged through the exploitation and objectification of Black life. Armageddon Time may seek to educate about what Saidiya Hartman calls the “afterlives of slavery,” or Black Americans’ continued state-sanctioned subjection to premature death. But, instead, the film unfortunately—if all too expectedly—only confirms that “Black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.”3
Armageddon Time is a coming-of-age story about Paul Graff, the youngest child in a tenuously upwardly mobile Jewish American family in 1980s Queens. And this story—for good and for ill—is based heavily on the childhood of the film’s own director, James Gray.
Gray’s film is eager to transcend the slew of cringeworthy (but still often Oscar–winning) films about racism and anti-Blackness that illustrate Baldwin’s critiques of the protest genre all too well. And, in some respects, the film does probe deeper than most mainstream anti-racist art. Armageddon Time refuses to frame racism (or anti-racism, for that matter) as only an issue of the heart, disconnected from the very real and violent structures of state-sanctioned dispossession, brutality, and exploitation. The white liberal viewer—who is clearly the imagined audience of the film—is invited to confront the moral rot and material violence of white liberalism’s foundational anti-Blackness.
This defect in liberalism is rightly made all the more troubling by these same characters’ revulsion against the vulgar racism of Reagan-era conservatives and nominal support for racial tolerance. Malcolm X’s famous critique—that the white liberal is “more deceitful than the conservative” and, most importantly, is working “toward the same goal”—courses through several scenes of the film.4 These remind the viewer that typical presumptions of a red-blue divide, upon closer inspection, collapse. Liberals were not “history’s virtuous losers” against a binary evil of conservatism, as political scientist Naomi Murakawa writes; instead, liberals, like the Graffs, were willful bricklayers of a racially stratified and anti-Black postwar modernity.5
The ubiquity of this white liberal racism in the Northern metropolis is instructively represented in Armageddon Time. The film reveals what few care to remember: how everyday white liberal New Yorkers harbored deeply anti-Black attitudes and fought to structurally entrench racial segregation in a post–civil rights world.
Consider, for example, a history that goes unmentioned in the film. Just under two decades before the events of Armageddon Time—and, presumably, the director’s own childhood—Queens was a central hub of organizing against busing to end school segregation. The organizers were white mothers who advanced a materially anti-integrationist politics, but one cloaked in a deceptively race-neutral opposition to “busing” and claims of their “rights” as taxpayers, homeowners, and parents. In March 1964, this white-supremacist formation organized 15,000 white mothers to take to the streets and make their opposition to busing and school desegregation known. These New York protests, according to historian Matthew Delmont, actually constitute the “origins” of racist anti-busing politics nationwide. Furthermore, Delmont argues that it was these white New York mothers’ agitation that prompted Northern congressmen to push for a specific provision in the Civil Rights Act that limited the federal government’s power to enforce school integration, paving the way for the politics of anti-busing to legally sustain de facto racial segregation.6
Gray’s film does not veer into this history of white Queens mothers organizing for white supremacy. Still, the history’s practical implications—a long legacy of anti-Blackness among supposedly well-meaning white people, many of whom might identify as liberals—come through in the film’s script. Here, at least, the film reveals the farce of liberals’ anti-racism, alongside their ongoing participation in sustaining a racial capitalist status quo.
Unlike some protest films, Gray’s film usefully illustrates the violence of liberal colorblindness rather than presenting it as a salve for the United States’ racism. In fact, he suggests that colorblindness operates more insidiously than outright white supremacy. By framing continued racial inequality and racialized state violence as the product of apparently natural aptitudes or cultural preferences, colorblindness masks the continuation of white-supremacist ideologies and political economy in the post–civil rights United States.
“You’re not to associate with him again,” Paul’s mother Esther (played by Anne Hathaway), admonishes Paul on the school steps after he was caught smoking weed with Johnny in the bathroom. When Paul asks, “What do you mean, why?” she only replies, “I think you know what I mean.” Here, Gray shows—if a little cartoonishly—how the white liberal refuses to publicly and frankly use racist speech, even as she materially holds racist views about Johnny (and insists on her son’s separation from him, based on vague references to Johnny’s presumed transgressiveness). This pairs with prior scenes of Paul and Johnny’s stuffy, old-fashioned white teacher Mr. Turkeltaub, who aggressively targeted and criminalized Johnny despite never uttering an anti-Black slur.
If we consider these scenes together, the film implies that racism is about far more than what one says or feels in one’s heart, and certainly more than one’s stated political allegiances. The same is true, the film makes regrettably clear, when applied to one’s propensity to participate in racial violence; what one calls oneself—even “liberal” or “progressive”—doesn’t stop one from participating.
Despite spotlighting the hypocrisy and cruelty of the white liberal middle-class, “Armageddon Time” refuses to grant Johnny, Paul’s Black friend, any real interiority, context, or depth.
To the Graffs’ morally fraught decision-making is added another layer: their Jewishness, which is a central thread of the film largely because Paul’s grandparents survived the Holocaust. At times, Gray lingers on the complexity of the Graffs’ Jewishness in ways that feel exculpatory. In his own words, Gray contends that the film explores how “you can be both the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time.”7 And certainly there is an element of sympathy, or at least ambivalence, written into Paul’s parents’ hard-nosed pragmatism about ensuring their children have more opportunities than they did, no matter who is crushed or left behind in the process. Can the viewer blame Paul’s parents for welcoming the racialized leg up afforded by whiteness, the film sometimes suggests, especially given their own parents’ varying experiences with struggle and suffering, be it as Holocaust survivors or as working-class Jews trying to make it in America?
Yet, in other ways, Gray’s attention to the Graffs’ Jewishness punctures the myth of white Jewish Americans’ unique and noble support for civil rights, sometimes referred to as the Black-Jewish alliance. The Graffs’ experience with Jewish oppression may lead them to preach racial tolerance and even support anti-discrimination efforts. But the family ultimately refuses to take action that would disrupt their racial privileges and security under US capitalism, rendering this nominal support for anti-racism hollow.
In one scene, for example, Paul’s grandfather Aaron (played by Anthony Hopkins) urges Paul to resist his new peers’ overt racism, which they display to Paul after Johnny visits him at his new school. During Johnny’s visit—where the two are separated by a wire fence between the street and the Forest Manor schoolyard—Paul acts awkward and distant around his one-time friend. Paul is aware, if only subconsciously, of the negative implications of being seen fraternizing with a Black peer by his white and monied classmates. Indeed, afterward, Paul’s prep-school peers interrogate him about his relationship with Johnny and Black people generally; one of them casually uses the N-word.
The discussion takes Paul aback, but he says nothing and instead attempts to minimize his affiliation with Johnny. After the incident, Aaron attempts to give Paul a lesson in white allyship. The grandfather draws an explicit parallel between his experience living through anti-Jewish persecution and violence in Europe and anti-Black racism in the United States. Moreover, he suggests that Paul’s Jewish heritage and the historical memory of the Holocaust should guide him to boldly stand against racism and all forms of oppression.
Yet, although the film does not make this explicit, an attentive viewer will notice that it was Aaron who advocated for and helped monetarily support Paul’s placement at Forest Manor. This was a decision, after all, that sprung from the family’s racist perception of the city’s public schools, and, moreover, that materially sustained racial disparities in education that continue in the city to this day. Indeed, as Lila Corwin Berman argues in her study of white liberal Jews in postwar Detroit, even as liberal Jews paid homage to civil rights and fairness laws, they maintained a “fundamental respect for a capitalist market structure and those policies that would protect it from collapse.”8
Midcentury Jews are today remembered as somehow more progressive than other white ethnics. Even so, as Armageddon Time makes clear—both deliberately and in spite of itself—postwar white metropolitan Jews actually helped crush more radical anti-racist interventions into the postwar political economy. Moreover, following a broader neoliberal turn among the white liberal middle-classes, even Jews increasingly turned to the racially stratified private sector for solutions.
But it is ultimately Johnny’s character that offers the most devastating critique of the film’s own aims. Armageddon Time barely gives Johnny a backstory, offering only a brief glimpse of him saying goodbye to his ailing grandmother, whom he lives with. That is, until child services show up, threatening to put him in foster care. As he remembers the scene, we see Johnny—who is then secretly hiding in a cold shed in Paul’s parents’ backyard to evade the authorities—produce quiet, private tears. The scene is a jarring reminder of how little we actually know about Johnny and his pain, about how he feels growing up navigating the hostile, white-supremacist geography of 1980s New York City, or about his experience being friends with Paul. White people and institutions repeatedly subject Johnny to anti-Black violence. Most notably, in the third act of the film, Paul’s father’s whiteness and connections to a local police officer save him from prosecution for pawning a stolen computer, while Johnny, who assisted with the crime, is left to face untold horrors in police custody. But Johnny is denied a voice in the matter and is written flatly by Gray, who seems almost nervous about telling Johnny’s story, which he suspects (perhaps correctly) he might get wrong.
Given the autobiographical nature of the film, choosing to leave so much of Johnny’s experience a mystery might mirror Gray’s own childhood experience. Perhaps, at that time, the director lacked interest in his Black friend’s circumstances, a product of both childhood naivete and internalized anti-Blackness transmitted to Gray by his parents and white society writ large. And, perhaps, leaving Johnny’s story untold and undeveloped (especially as Gray shows him increasingly subjected to criminalization by the state) may be intended to comment upon the broader dehumanization of Black lives, and especially Black youth, in 1980s New York.
Perhaps. But, ultimately, Johnny’s character feels less like a bold statement and more like a cop-out for Gray. In the end, Johnny’s wooden, fleeting character development ultimately grants emotional, human complexity only to white people. Apparently, the director cannot imagine a world or role for Johnny that does not ultimately become fodder for Paul’s reckoning with whiteness, class, and identity. Baldwin’s devastating critique of the protest novel rears its ugly head once again.
It’s a shame. Gray’s portrayal of Johnny cheapens the occasionally probing insights about white liberals, colorblindness, and complicity that Armageddon Time strives to communicate. In real life, unlike art, Gray as a child might not have known how to act any differently than his character, Paul. But although his film seeks to interrogate his experience as a youth, Gray himself is no longer a child who can claim not to know better.
In the end, Armageddon Time uses Johnny as a mere vessel for Paul’s own racial reckoning. And this, despite its intentions, keeps the film centered on white feelings. Indeed, in the film’s hollowing out of Johnny’s character, Armageddon Time contributes to the ongoing denigration of Black life.
This article was commissioned by Ruby Ray Daily.
- James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Beacon Press, 1955), pp. 14, 18-19. ↩
- Jodi Melamed, Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), p. xii. ↩
- Saidiya Harman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017), p. 6. ↩
- Malcolm X, “God’s Judgement of White America (The Chickens Come Home to Roost,” December 4th, 1963. ↩
- Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 3. ↩
- Matthew Delmont, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (University of California Press, 2016. ↩
- Terry Gross, “Armageddon time director explores how the world is ruined by well-meaning people,” Fresh Air, November 28th, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/11/28/1139404785/armageddon-time-director-explores-how-the-world-is-ruined-by-well-meaning-people. ↩
- Lila Corwin Berman, Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit (University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 7. ↩