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For a long time, if you said the name “the Reverend Al Sharpton,” you were guaranteed to get a response that seemed to erupt from the very gut fauna of mass-media outrage. “Loudmouth,” the fascinating new documentary about Sharpton, makes a convincing case that most of that moral high dudgeon was fatally overblown. In the ’80s and ’90s, Sharpton was at the molten center of every race-based news event in the greater New York area. Some would say, quite reasonably, that this made him a devoted activist. (No one ever pilloried the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for showing up too much.) At rallies, at protest marches, on the courthouse steps, Sharpton spoke with a prickly ferocity and power, giving voice to those who didn’t have it.
Was he a new version of King or Gandhi? Of course not. And he didn’t need to be. He was his own creation — the Civil Rights agitator in a track suit who bridged the activist idealism of the ’60s with something ruder, more brazen, and (in hindsight) completely necessary: the showboat tactics of the contemporary media age. With his pouffy hair and mustache and a gleam that was at once doe-eyed and reptilian, he looked like Prince’s doughy brother, and a lot of people — almost all of them white commentators — viewed him with deep suspicion. Early on in “Loudmouth,” we see a clip of Lesley Stahl, on “60 Minutes,” interviewing Sharpton for a segment and suggesting, with a smirk, that there’s a clear contradiction between his activism and the fact that he lives in “a fancy place.” You listen to that and think: Really? Is that a contradiction, or is it a white double standard?
But Sharpton endured this sort of thing every day. In the documentary, there’s footage from a protest march he led in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to throw light on the murder of Yusef Hawkins, the teenager who was shot to death after he and his brother and two friends were attacked by a white mob. We see footage of neighborhood kids at the march grinning and shouting “White power!” into the news camera, and one young man says, “It’s all the media’s fault! These things should be kept quiet! Al Sharpton, go home!” The self-righteousness and, indeed, the virtual acknowledgement of gu
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