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Jolted by an MSNBC host’s hostile treatment of the late Herman Cain in a 2011 interview, filmmaker Justin Malone set out on a path bucking the media establishment that has led him to directing this year’s surprise hit documentary “Uncle Tom.”
He was just coming out of film school, uncertain of his politics and his future, when he saw MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell accuse then-Republican presidential candidate Cain, who died this month, of civil rights cowardice.
“I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Mr. Malone told The Washington Times. “I was sort of undergoing my own political transformation at the time and the seed was planted right there.”
He remains astonished that an accomplished Black professional could be treated with such boldfaced contempt on a television news program. The notion that conservative thinking could be perceived as hostile or alien to the Black experience captivated him.
“It just seemed silly, to think Black people couldn’t be conservative or couldn’t be Republican,” said Mr. Malone, who is White.
The outlook permeates his film “Uncle Tom,” a black-and-white documentary that showcases several Black conservatives.
The movie proved a smash hit, raking in $400,000 its opening weekend to top the documentary charts. What’s more, the viewers love it. The people who have paid to download “Uncle Tom” have given it 98% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes while, over on IMDb, more than 2,500 people have scored it 9.4 out of 10.
The film has attracted scant attention from film critics.
“It’s been ignored more than bashed,” Mr. Malone said of the film, for which he shares writing and producing credits with conservative media personality Larry Elder. “I knew we were doing something good, but it’s all been a lot of fun, I gotta admit.”
The success of “Uncle Tom” has surprised Mr. Malone, 37, a divorced father of two daughters.
Although “Uncle Tom” was released in an election year, and Black support for Mr. Trump is a theme, Mr. Malone insisted he had no partisan goal. He wound up deleting a scene in which presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden talks about his deep friendship and admiration for former Sen. Strom Thurmond, the only Democrat who voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and who later switched to the Republican Party.
“I didn’t want it to be a hit piece on Biden,” Mr. Malone said.
While Mr. Malone said he did not vote for then-Sen. Barack Obama, he supported his presidency.
“This cult-like worship of Obama kind of scares me,” he said. “But I kept my mouth shut. I rooted for him. I wanted him to succeed.”
“Uncle Tom” doesn’t feature stars, or at least not of the celluloid variety. The centerpiece is Chad Jackson, a 30-year-old contractor from Texas and former Democrat, who describes his astonishment at discovering that the Republican Party platform aligned with his thinking much more than what was then his Democratic Party.
Familiar conservative figures such as Candace Owens, Allen West, Jesse Lee Peterson and others join Mr. Elder in telling their stories in the film.
But it is Mr. Jackson who provides “Uncle Tom” with its eloquent authenticity and illustrates how Black conservative thinking in America runs from the lumber yard to the Ivory Tower.
“You can’t just start with Thomas Sowell,” Mr. Malone said of the noted Black economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Foundation whose brainpower Mr. Malone confessed intimidated him. “You could make a 100-minute film just on Thomas Sowell.”
The high-voltage intellectual firepower of conservative Black thinkers such as Mr. Sowell isn’t absent from “Uncle Tom.” He appears in it, as does Dr. Ben Carson, a noted brain surgeon from Johns Hopkins Hospital turned politician who currently serves in President Trump’s Cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
The documentary rests partly on the framework provided by famous Black thinkers, with Mr. Malone citing Booker T. Washington and Clarence Thomas, the second Black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, as two who have had a profound influence on his outlook.
Mr. Thomas declined an interview in the film, and Mr. Malone said he was too young to follow the contentious confirmation hearings Mr. Thomas denounced as “a high-tech lynching” when it unfolded.
While the movie takes its title from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, it wasn’t that book that sparked his interest in the subject of Black conservative thought, but rather the contempt Mr. Malone sees much of the White and Black community holding for it.
“‘Uncle Tom’ is kind of the Cliff notes of conservative Black thinking, which really could be a 20-part Ken Burns kind of thing,” he said.
Cain, whose career and aplomb when dealing with hostile media Mr. Malone admires, became something of a mentor to Mr. Malone, and Cain’s recent funeral, limited by the coronavirus pandemic, “was really hard for me.”
“He was funny, smart; just every time I talked with him I found myself thinking, ‘this is so cool,’” Mr. Malone said of their frequent encounters while making “Uncle Tom.” “I knew I was going to like him when, the first time we met, he said right away, ‘let’s hurry up with this because I want to take you to lunch.’”
Mr. Elder and his syndicated show also proved invaluable, Mr. Malone said. Since the movie’s premiere, Mr. Elder has been the documentary’s most high-profile booster.
Whether liberal Hollywood is ready to support Mr. Malone is not clear. That “Uncle Tom” has made more than $2.5 million and is still going strong has attracted some interest, he said, though he declined to discuss potential deals.
“I thought, ‘Oh, God, they’re going to kill you for this,’” he said of the anticipated Hollywood reaction. “But actually a lot of Hollywood people have reached out and said thank you. I honestly didn’t think we would make $40,000 a month, but if ‘Uncle Tom’ is this successful, I think it shows people are hungry for good movies.”