It’s never a good thing when the postscript to a film based on a true story is more interesting than the actual movie itself. This is unfortunately the case with Patrick Gilles’ “I’m Charlie Walker,” a biopic about an enterprising Black trucker who won a lucrative contract to help clean up the largest oil spill in San Francisco Bay history in 1971 when two Standard Oil tankers collided. As interview footage of the real Charlie Walker plays with text cards just before the credits roll, it’s clear that this film would have been better as a documentary.
“I’m Charlie Walker” has all the makings of an entertaining period piece: a little-known true story, an environmental disaster, a colorful setting and a fascinating subject in Charlie, played by the compelling actor Mike Colter (“Luke Cage”).
Writer/director Gilles does use some techniques from documentary filmmaking, including a voice-over narration that opens the film, provided by the character of Charlie’s wife, Ann (Safiya Fredericks). But what should be a device to help us understand Ann’s inner thoughts on the matter is instead an exceedingly unengaging way to provide the context of Charlie’s predicament as a Black trucker in San Francisco in the early ’70s, facing racism from the truckers’ union bosses.
When the tankers collide, Charlie fights for a contract to help clean up remote Stinson Beach, seizing the opportunity for work. When the winds start to blow his way, literally, depositing the majority of the oil on his beach, he becomes the face of the operation, hiring a crew and developing cleaning methods. His public-facing image as a Black man starts to rankle the racist white “Tower Oil” executives holding the purse strings, who start to undermine him. As he is wont to do, Charlie goes rogue, making sure he secures the bag for himself.
It should be a gripping tale of triumph over adversity set against a unique backdrop and moment in cultural history. But the narrative gets bogged down in questions of permitting and licenses and blackmail, and the script has a bad case of telling us, rather than showing, the problems that Charlie faces. Gilles manages to make every choice that renders this story completely uninteresting.
Plus, in a fumbled attempt to capture the famous free love of the swinging’ ’70s, the film stumbles into some laughably bad sexist stereotypes. It’s not self-aware enough to actually critique the antiquated gender dynamics, and the dialogue and performances are straight out of a bad adult film. The entire production has all the value of a true crime reenactment, with the cops, FBI agents and hippies who have volunteered to clean up the beach outfitted in costumes fit for Halloween.
As “I’m Charlie Walker” rounds home base, it introduces us to the real man and spills reams of text about the rest of his wild life – his legal troubles, a stint in Folsom Prison, a friendship with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown (who makes a cameo), and his hard-fought financial success. The real person is lively and entertaining, but as told by Gilles, this story is muddled and dull. It’s obvious that Charlie Walker has had quite a life. “I’m Charlie Walker” is unfortunately a missed opportunity to do him justice.
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