In a recent Hollywood Reporter discussion on diversity in film, an important point was brought up about narratives featuring minority protagonists. Namely, the fact that these films often have to be about “the most amazing person of that race who’s ever lived” in order to be successful. White protagonists on the other hand, are allowed to be just regular people who “did a thing”. Director Patrick Gilles attempts to challenge this dichotomy however, with his second feature film America is Still The Place, a biopic about a black everyman who fights for his small share of the proverbial American pie.
The subject of the film is Charlie Walker (Mike Colter), a trucker living in post-civil rights era San Francisco. A family man with a wife and two children, he dreams of bigger things for himself than subservient manual labor. One day, a chance opportunity arises when a catastrophic oil spill offers up an unsavory job to clean up the beaches. By his own cunning and sheer determination, Walker finds himself as the foreman leading the contract, with essentially a blank check to carry out the task. But as Walker gets ahead with innovative success, the world around him conspires to bring him down. He refuses to be deterred however, committed to achieve his dream even in the face of open discrimination, intimidation and corruption.
In the lead role, Colter cuts a commanding figure with a performance that brims with effortless confidence. Each time he announces himself, his delivery of “I’m Charlie Walker” has the ring of a catchphrase. And his quick wisecracks instantly clue you in to the character’s shrewd intellect, as we delight in his brazen attitude in “sticking it to the man”.
Colter is easily the standout among the cast, which includes a perfectly slimy Dylan Baker as his new boss, head of the oil company that caused the mess in the first place. But despite the excellent casting throughout the ensemble, the muddled tone of the film never allows the other characters to fully let loose. As such, the film lacks a certain level of dynamism between its key players.
Caught between a serious social drama about race in America and a good old fashioned caper, the script is the film’s main drawback. It’s too laid-back to bring gravitas to the deeper issues (the struggle of being black in America), while it takes itself too seriously to embrace the inherent comedy of the material (i.e. the 1970s and all the hippies, sex, drugs and alcohol that implies). And as a result, the film ultimately feels like only a modest success despite its best intentions.