I’m Charlie Walker, but my movie could have been better

C Historical drama
Written & directed by Patrick Gilles

Here’s an interesting San Francisco story, involving oil slicks, the environment, racism, hippies, prostitutes, and an oil company executive who worries that working with a black man could hurt his company’s image. This all takes in 1971, when a black man in the boardroom wasn’t rare – it was impossible.

But it happened, briefly, when ecological disaster hit the Bay, and no one knew what to do. In the chaos, an industrious African American named Charlie Walker managed to squeeze through the corporate hole intended only for white men. Mike Colter plays Walker without the charisma and power the part needs. Dylan Baker plays the racist, evil, corporate executive.

Like all movies where actors speak written dialog, it’s a work of fiction. I don’t know how close the film is to the actual history, and I don’t really care. According to the closing credits, Charlie Walker is still alive.

With considerable audacity, the film’s Walker gets a lucrative contract to clean up Stinson Beach. He stepped on a lot of toes – white toes – to get that contract. Even after he got the contract, there was a lot of pressure to get him out of the way. It gets to the point where police search Walker’s home, hoping to find anything illegal (They found nothing).

With all his shenanigans, Walker is shown as a loving husband and father. Safiya Fredericks plays his wife. She also does the narration, in the character of Mrs. Walker.

It’s a good story, but writer/director Patrick Gilles couldn’t make the film believable – even though it’s based on a true story. By 1971, corporate executives had to at least pretend that they’re not racist. Occasional helicopter shots of the city catch skyscrapers that didn’t exist yet. I assume that the budget didn’t allow large numbers of extras or the special effects needed to create an oil slick. Worst of all are the hippies. They’re ridiculously clean – especially since they were supposed to have been scrubbing oil off rocks for hours.

The film is set in the immediate aftermath of the 1971 San Francisco Bay oil spill, when 800,000 gallons oozed into the water. This was, at the time, the largest Bay Area environmental disaster in history. While Walker’s own story is an interesting one, the bigger story is the one about the environmental disaster. In the movie, it’s just background.

The true story of the oil spill is fascinating, and judging by Gilles’ film, Charlie Walker’s story is also worth showing. But I think this story would have worked better as a documentary.

I’m Charlie Walker opens June 10 at the Roxie and the Rafael.