Film Review: Damn!

One more viral Internet sensation—read: basic fool—given the documentary spotlight by a subject-starved filmmaker.

Jimmy McMillan’s 15 minutes of fame gets a 73-minute film treatment in Aaron Fisher-Cohen’s documentary Damn!, which unfortunately proves to be 58 minutes too long. You all remember McMillan, or do you? He was that bizarrely hirsuit African-American gent who ran for New York governor in 2010 with a single-issue platform: his mantra, “The rent is too damn high.”

McMillan appeared in a gubernatorial debate with the other candidates which went viral on the Internet, with over two million views in 24 hours, and launched himself on a campaign of self-promotion that was water-cooler fodder in offices everywhere, predictably leading to an impersonation of him by Kenan Thompson on “Saturday Night Live.” Thompson easily captured McMillan’s thunderously one-note oratory, as well as his meta-Colonel Sanders look. I say “easily,” because, well, that’s about all there is.

Although McMillan’s basic address to the economically strapped in this country—particularly targeted at minorities—was admirably clear-cut in the usual political climate of hedgingly touching all bases with an end result satisfying to none, there really was very little else to him besides his endlessly repeated catchphrase. It really was the “Here come de judge/Where’s the beef?” moment for a decade-old millennium. What was surprising—and somewhat dismaying—is what incredible legs it proved to have in our instant-celebrity-crazed, LCD, entertainment-starved world. Unlike the perpetrators of those earlier quotes—the late Sammy Davis, Jr. and Clara Peller—some people actually took this buffoon seriously enough to cast a vote for his leadership.

Rookie director Fisher-Cohen’s film does absolutely nothing to add depth to the man and indeed rather demolishes him. We see his burgeoning ego (which admittedly didn’t need any expansion to begin with) as his campaign catches fire, as well as his utter cluelessness, like his refusal to take an important call because “I’m tryin’ on clothes!” The sincerity of his supporters is even called into question, as various jocose white yuppies in bars and “common men on the street” are interviewed, all of whom seem to view it all as one huge shared joke. (“I like him because he looks like Mr. Peanut!” one fan enthuses.) And, for all his monotone raving, not once does McMillan come up with any actual answers to the problem he obsesses over, being too busy himself avoiding all media questions about what kind of rent he indeed does pay.

“I’m a Vietnam veteran and get assistance” is the most McMillan will offer, sounding very much like the type of waffling politico he supposedly reviles. To hear him tell it, he’s also been homeless, a stripper, a postman, a black belt in karate and a 1970s soul singer. Few of these former occupations are gone into with much depth, for Fisher-Cohen seems far more shallowly interested in the media storm surrounding the man. By the end, after his gubernatorial loss, when you see McMillan in a commercial for a car dealership and filming a hopeful audition endorsement tape for either Coke or Pepsi, still predictably crowing about the rent, he sadly seems like nothing more than a very desperate whore.