Set in New York City in 1980, Armageddon Time is a coming-of-age story highlighting African-American and Jewish experiences. And it’s the vehicle to propel two bright young actors onto the world stage.
Fourteen year-old Banks Repeta plays sixth-grader Paul Graff, a boy from a middle class Jewish family. Jaylin Webb, 16, portrays Johnny Davis, a Black student whose start to life has been far than ideal. Both characters have their problems. Paul is different to other students in his class. His goals don’t align with those of his parents, but he’s close to his grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz, a role filled by Anthony Hopkins. From a broken home, Johnny – who’s repeating sixth grade – is living with his grandmother who is increasingly ailing, suffering from dementia. He’s treated shamefully by his teacher and his aspiration to be an astronaut appears a forlorn hope. Against the odds, Johnny and Paul become firm friends.
Armageddon Time is a deeply personal story for writer and director James Gray (Ad Astra). He revisited his own upbringing to create characters from his formative years.
Banks Repeta and Jaylin Webb say that in casting them Gray was keen to see what they could bring to the table in their respective roles. The pair bonded in the short time they had to get to know each other before filming began and that is immediately evident by what we see on screen. Banks grew up in the film industry. His father is a motion picture camera operator and his mother an actor. Jaylin was a born entertainer who acted in plays during his middle school years and decided to transition to film during COVID-19 quarantine.
Banks says it was the dinner scenes in Armageddon Time that got him closest to what it was like being in a Jewish family. Apart from Anthony Hopkins as grandad, Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables) and Jeremy Strong (The Big Short) are cast as Paul’s mother Esther and father Irving. “We were so comfortable with each other. We were able to be so tight and have real conversations, even when we weren’t filming.” “That was really nice because a lot of the dinner conversations (in the film) were improv (improvised),” Banks says.
Jaylin says while he is fortunate not to be able to relate firsthand to what Johnny experiences, he has family members who do. He says he talked to them before he appeared in the film. “They just told me about their experiences. They told me about how it affected them mentally. “I really tried to channel that throughout those (troubling) scenes,” Jaylin says. He would like the film to attract a broad audience “so everyone is aware of the discrimination that Black people and Jewish people had to undergo”.
For his part, Banks hopes Armageddon Time reaches people that haven’t experienced the oppression the movie portrays “so they can know what it was like”.
Armageddon Time is playing in Australian cinemas now.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Armageddon Time – movie review
- Shahn Devendran interview – Unheard
- Timothy Spall (Mrs Lowry and Son) – interview
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.