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Often, books or stories about coming-of-age involve a young person—frequently a boy—learning about sex and maybe disappointment. Critics categorize the film ARMAGEDDON TIME as a coming-of-age story, but I thought it showcased a far deeper, more important truth than the realities of puberty. One summary called the film “deeply personal.” Perhaps “universal” would be a more appropriate descriptor. The difference in perception lies in society’s version of what being an adult entails. In this story, being adult entails realizing and dealing with systemic racism and antisemitism.
A boy Paul Graff has acted out in public school because he wants to be an artist, a goal the adults around him find frivolous and impractical. His individualistic rebellion is mirrored in his poor Black friend Johnny, raised by his grandmother who now has dementia. Johnny wants to be an astronaut in spite of the derision he endures and sometimes foments daily. Although Paul’s mother (played by Anne Hathaway) indulges Paul, she doesn’t understand his needs. Only his grandfather (played by Anthony Hopkins) recognizes both Paul’s talent and his integrity. Having witnessed the murder of his Jewish family in Germany when he was a boy, Grandfather cautions Paul not to ever accept or ignore prejudice. However, he’s a realist so he and his wife provide the funds for Paul to attend an exclusive private school where he’ll gain the status he’ll need to succeed. Grandfather knows antisemitism can be a high wall to scale even in the United States. The other wealthier students in the private school are wildly racist and smugly entitled about their privilege. Only the recognition given to him by his art teacher balances Paul’s discomfort with his new situation.
The tragedy of the story lies in Paul’s inability to defend his friend. In fact, he gets him in deep trouble and then must walk away knowing he and not Johnny was most at fault. His protests fall on deaf ears. Johnny reads the situation accurately and passively accepts injustice as familiar. He’s sheltering someone he values and, in spite of his dreams, has always known what his future would inevitably look like. Later, Paul’s father, who has chosen to melt into racist society, tries to explain the cold hopelessness of defying prejudice. Now friendless, Paul realizes he must find ways to be true to himself and his grandfather’s admonition as he matures in a divisive world.
When we talk of white privilege, we often imagine people cruising through life with obvious advantages they take for granted. We don’t often think of the moral sacrifices necessary to ignore those who don’t have privilege. We don’t want to know about the potentials lost. We never wonder what we’ve actually denied ourselves. We don’t want to condemn ourselves in order to defend strangers. Perhaps ARMAGEDDON TIME is deeply personal, after all, for it exposes who we are in the eyes of others.