An action figure/doll proves a godsend for the folks behind the new documentary Damn! This totem of the film’s subject, YouTube sensation and unsuccessful New York gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan, gives the filmmakers a tidy visual representation of the eccentric politician/karate expert/musician’s rapid-fire transformation from complicated, contradictory flesh-and-blood human being into a plastic, disposable commodity to be monetized, then sheepishly discarded. Alas, the doll proves a little too tidy a metaphor, and YouTube clips commenting on McMillan’s ascent do little but pad out the film’s skimpy-yet-padded 74-minute running time.
Damn! focuses on McMillan’s explosion into the media spotlight after he stole a gubernatorial debate with his dramatic proclamation that “The rent is too damn high.” Overnight, a viral media star was born, but McMillan’s sudden fame left him and a coterie of handlers with the simultaneously exciting and vexing question of how best to exploit the sudden ubiquity of the black guy with the eccentric facial hair and rumbling preacher cadences.
Aaron Fisher-Cohen’s film posits McMillan as a cautionary tale about the dangers of too much fame too soon, but it overplays its hand with music and editing so ominous and heavy-handed that at times the film seems headed into gothic horror. The real monster at play here is McMillan’s ever-ballooning ego and the professional vultures who smell money in his strange fame and swoop in for the kill. McMillan proves all-too-willing a camera subject: The parasites around him are understandably reluctant to talk on camera, so the film quickly takes on the claustrophobic, hermetic quality of an impassioned but incoherent monologue delivered in a tiny, cramped space. There’s a sad symbiosis at play here between an exhibitionist who can’t stop talking and voyeuristic filmmakers who find McMillan almost as fascinating as he finds himself, though ultimately much sadder. Damn! would be a more insightful condemnation of the exploitation process if it didn’t reek so strongly of exploitation itself.