The 1971 San Francisco oil spill that dumped more than 800,000 gallons of crude off its coast was an environmental disaster. But for a savvy black trucking entrepreneur named Charlie Walker, it was a golden opportunity to break through the racism in his industry and make some money from a wealthy struggling oil company. As long as the system allows it, of course.
Telling the story of Walker’s shrewd exploits to save a beach and fight discrimination, writer-director Patrick Gilles’ indie “I Am Charlie Walker” is its own amorphous, if not so slick, dump.
It boasts a towering old-school star power turn from Mike Colter (“Luke Cage”) as the hustler and brawler Walker, but its mix of marginalized black history and power fight narrative is too messy to have the impact it should, especially after the handful of memorable Bay Area black-themed stories we’ve had recently (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”, “Blindspotting”, “Sorry to disturb you”).
Archival footage and narration by Safiya Fredericks (as Walker’s wife, Ann) gave us insight into the Bay Area’s racial and political tensions at the height of the Vietnam War, and how a proud independent trucker like Charlie Walker (Colter), trying to support a family with three children, couldn’t get work from white contractors favoring white trucking outfits. Not above a hostile reaction to such open discrimination – he pranks a bigoted dispatcher, only to be thrown in jail for it – Charlie mostly wants this righteous jerk to prove how hard he’ll work.
When two Tower Oil tankers (the fictional name of Standard) collide in the fog-covered bay, Charlie sees his chance to grab one of the fossil fuel giant’s hastily assembled and lucrative beach cleanup jobs. He gladly accepts the job that none of the white union truckers want: Stinson Beach, non-touristy, hard to get to, and furthest from the spill, in Marin County. It becomes fateful, however, when weather and waves send most of the oil Charlie’s way, inadvertently making a black man the most important and public on-site boss of the entire operation.
His resourcefulness and managerial qualities make the difference. But lest you think there’s a clear morality story to Charlie’s struggles to keep his work order when white truckers and an optics-obsessed oil executive (a hammy Dylan Walsh) want him. , the film features a more complicated hero. Soft-spoken Charlie’s equal opportunity crusade also means skimming off the money tap like any twisted white entrepreneur would, and toying with the crowd when needed with his antagonists.
While it creates a compelling multilayered storyline at the intersection of racial injustice, personal integrity, and white-controlled capitalism, “The Wire” or a righteous Spike Lee joint, it’s not the case. A playwright with muscle fists, Gilles too often feeds on the woman’s narrative to explain Charlie to us when acting, dialogue and action should – and yet elsewhere, a lack of clarification hampers our understanding of why. certain events occur. (Also, ironically, his family life is barely depicted.) On top of that, the turn to vice, threat, and blackmail is awkwardly handled, as is the comedic gangster tone of the film’s more confrontational exchanges.
The less said about the actors surrounding Colter, the better. At least the star’s colorful line and powerful physique (especially in the sleek three-piece suits) provide a line of much-needed sneaky charisma – whenever, that is, 78’s running time. minutes gives him a chance to wield it. But its neo-blaxploitation vibes still feel underserved in the convoluted script and cheap direction, with Gilles’ filmmaking style reminiscent of ’70s television, not the vivid anti-hero entertainment of the time. It’s so talkative and non-visual that despite taking place in multiple locations, including the California coastline, it feels like a barely open room for the cameras.
This speech, however, is at times its strong point, articulating with a healthy dose of fire and wisdom the economics of racism that motivated Walker in his brief time to squeeze all he could out of an opportunity before, as the text informs us at the end, his legal troubles began years later. Is “I’m Charlie Walker,” which lists his subject as a producer, a shameless piece that polishes the image? No doubt, and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown’s taxi driver cameo — an old friend from Walker’s trucking days (played in the film by Carl Lumbly) — is here to let us know that ascension and longevity have their rewards.
Ultimately, it’s also the kind of wild, hidden story that might have been better served by an in-depth documentary instead of a muddled docudrama.
“I Am Charlie Walker” opens Friday in U.S. theaters and on demand.