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James Gray’s Armageddon Time is not just a white guilt movie

The director returns this month with his anti-capitalist new memoir film, Armageddon Time – his first feature since 2019’s Ad Astra

When astronauts return to Earth, they perceive life through new eyes. After Ad Astra, a $100 million blockbuster about a trip to Neptune, James Gray felt similarly. “I was physically tired,” the 53-year-old director tells me in early November. “I wanted to reconnect with what I love about movies: this dreamlike state of looking inside myself, and communicating something that’s honest and not always so pretty.”

Gray’s eighth feature, Armageddon Time, is thus an anti-nostalgic, inner-space odyssey that’s transported him back to New York City in 1980. 12-year-old Paul (Banks Repeta), a stand-in for Gray, enjoys mischief alongside his best friend, Johnny (Jaylin Webb). However, it’s Johnny, who’s Black, that receives sterner, more humiliating punishments from teachers. After being caught with weed, Paul is then sent by his parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) to a private school also attended by the Trumps. I won’t ruin the surprise: a recent Oscar winner makes a monstrous cameo.

Gray was so dedicated to autobiographical accuracy, he recreated the wallpaper from his childhood. Paul’s house, though, was down the road from where he grew up: the current owner refused filming permission. “When I went [to my house], there was no evidence I’d lived there,” Gray says. “A tremendous melancholy overcame me. I was trying to communicate this idea that our stay on this planet is ephemeral. I have trouble remembering my mother in a healthy state. The film became a ghost story.”

Gray’s previous films, four of which starred Joaquin Phoenix, often slipped in personal details. His mother’s brain cancer informed Vanessa Redgrave’s arc in Little Odessa; his father’s involvement with a corruption scandal inspired The Yards. Armageddon Time, I posit, is Gray’s The 400 Blows. “I tried to give a more panoramic idea of identity than Truffaut,” Gray responds. “This was my life in the backdrop of what I see as planting the seeds politically and economically for where we are now.”

Paul, like Gray did, lives in a working-class, Jewish household in Queens, and his school fees are paid for by his grandparents (Tovah Feldshuh and Anthony Hopkins), both refugees who fled Ukraine due to antisemitism. Paul is told he’s lucky their new surname is Graff, as it won’t attract attention. (Gray’s original family name was Greyzerstein.) Less fortunate is Johnny, who ends up secretly living in Paul’s shed; when the pair steal a computer, Johnny is arrested while Paul escapes punishment due to family connections.

As Armageddon Time is almost entirely from Paul’s perspective, Johnny receives less screen time. I tell Gray it’s a tricky balance: too much of Johnny means it’s a white man telling a Black character’s story; too little will relegate Johnny to a non-character. “That’s down to taste,” says Gray. “I’m sure there are people who’ll say I didn’t do enough.” In the writing process, Gray ensured enough of Johnny was established to sense his internal and external struggles. “I felt there was a real character there. But I also wanted the film to acknowledge that regardless of how much I could try, I would never be able to see his side.

“That’s why in the film, he directly says, ‘You don’t care, and you’re never going to care. The only one who’s going to stick up for me is me.’ The story he has, needs to be told by him…. The need to hear from a whole range of voices, which is absolutely essential, is not the same thing as having all voices included in one work, which means the thing would be a mess. You speak with your voice, what you have to contribute, and your look on the world. That’s enough for some people, and not enough for others. And if it’s not enough for others, then fuck ‘em. You can’t really solve the world’s problems in a movie.”

Gray wrote Armageddon Time in 2019, before the George Floyd protests, and Johnny was based on his real childhood best friend. To me, Johnny comes across as real, especially in scenes that would understandably be lodged in Paul’s memory, such as the guilt Paul endures when avoiding Johnny in front of his new, racist white classmates. The same doesn’t apply to, for instance, Sam Mendes’ upcoming Empire of Light, in which a Black character’s suffering feels like a last-minute rewrite to teach a white protagonist a lesson. I share this opinion with Gray – minus referencing Empire of Light specifically.

“I hope the movie acknowledges Johnny’s struggle as valid and real to him,” Gray says. “If the film does that, I think it goes a long way. In my country, race is such a major issue – maybe it needs more than that at this moment. But I think in the long run, that’s the only thing that matters: have we extended our sympathies to the soul of this person, and acknowledged their complexities and humanity?”

Gray’s already working on his next film, a drama about John F. Kennedy that will cover the “conflict between the ‘Great Man Theory of History’ and a more complex view of what makes up a person”. In terms of Joaquin Phoenix, a fifth collaboration is planned – but there are scheduling conflicts. “[Phoenix] and I talk a lot about something, and we may have something in the hopper pretty soon… I’m very close to him and I love him to pieces.”

“My own view is that when people boil the film down to ‘a white guilt movie’ – that I take offence to. It’s avoiding anything in the film about antisemitism or the other layers of oppression and the oppressed that exist. That’s a grotesque oversimplification of what’s in the film.” – James Gray

Any future projects will, presumably, avoid Neptune. Gray lamented to Vulture that Brad Pitt’s “stupid voiceover” in Ad Astra wasn’t his decision. In 2020, Charlie Kaufman also told me he did “fixes” in postproduction. “My cut had voiceover,” Gray clarifies, “but it had much less of it, and it was also different. I was using stuff by Tracy K. Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro. A lot of people worked on it, and myself. When you’re the director of a film for a studio with a major star in it, your voice is not the most important voice if you don’t have final cut. Where the voiceover was used, and how it’s used, and how often it’s used, the language, the different takes – they weren’t my choices.”

After The Immigrant’s premiere at Cannes, Gray famously called The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw “a failure of a critic”. He tells me that for Armageddon Time, he’s tried to avoid reviews. Before the interview ends, though, I quote him the closing line of a rave from Screen International: “Gray indicts not just a family, but the viewer as well – we are all to blame.” Unless I’ve misinterpreted it, the critic imagines the audience is also white and privileged.

“It’s not an indictment of everybody,” Gray says. “If everybody’s to blame, then really nobody’s to blame. You’re right, [the review] is written totally from a white person’s perspective. But I’m resistant to blaming anybody. Most people are not Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin… We need to bring people in, not push them away and act like we’re smarter than they are.”

However, Gray notes, “My own view is that when people boil the film down to ‘a white guilt movie’ – that I take offence to. It’s avoiding anything in the film about antisemitism or the other layers of oppression and the oppressed that exist. That’s a grotesque oversimplification of what’s in the film.”

Armageddon Time is out in UK cinemas on November 18