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► The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is available to stream on Apple TV+ now.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey was created by the novelist Walter Mosley, and for all its gentleness, also harkens back to the noirish atmosphere of the detective stories he wrote starring Easy Rawlins (a character brought to cinematic life by Denzel Washington in Carl Franklin’s superb Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995 ). But even with certain signifiers – a revolver, whisky, trilby hats – Ptolemy Grey shifts things significantly by journeying through memory rather than mean streets.
The series begins with the dementia-stricken, 93-year-old Grey languishing in his cluttered, decrepit apartment building. This deeply sad if unremarkable scenario is injected with a small dose of magic realism when an untrustworthy doctor (Walton Goggins, a blessing for any television show) offers him an experimental dementia treatment that bestows on him an almost superhuman memory.
It’s at this point The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey shows why it invested in Samuel L. Jackson as the lead: with his newfound lucidity and access to his memories, Ptolemy becomes a variety of different past versions of himself. Jackson begins the show with a more vulnerable performance than has been seen from him in some time – something more akin to his frenzied turn in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991) – before seamlessly transforming into a wizened smooth-talker, or a youthful, idealistic Ptolemy.
Jackson’s handling of these variations on the same man stitches together the myriad ideas at play in Mosley’s writing; he starts with the emotional struggle of being a caregiver, the exploitation of the elderly, patriarchal structures within families and intergenerational traumas, and expands from there. In combination with the show’s intentionally slippery structure, this all feels burdensome in the first episode. But the show finds focus with the introduction of the teenage orphan Robyn (Dominique Fishback, best known for playing Deborah Johnson in Judas and the Black Messiah), who ends up as Ptolemy’s carer.
Oscillating between Ptolemy’s moments of lucidity and his usual disorientation, Jackson has a tricky line to walk, but he negotiates it beautifully. His lyrical delivery hits hard as ever but, more importantly, he’s able to differentiate substantially between each version of Ptolemy, making him feel like a distinct person at each stage in his life, even as he repeats the same lines and flashes the same twinkle in his eye. There’s no true or more complete version of Ptolemy: they’re all him; time and experience may have shaped him into someone else, but he has to live with the decisions made by all these different men.
As Robyn, Fishback captivates in every scene, whether she’s dressing people down for bullshitting her or caring for the new parental figure she’s found in Ptolemy. It’s enough just to see these characters caring for each other, though it’s never as saccharine as that sounds – we’re forced to reckon with some painful ideas about people’s worst natures, and why they might be driven to exploitation and violence against those with whom they share a struggle.
The dialogue between Ptolemy and Robyn is so charmingly composed that it quickly becomes the show’s main pleasure, while the filmmaking reflects a deep interest in simply watching the performers interact. The show has four directors (Ramin Bahrani of 2021’s The White Tiger among them): all keenly observe the details of Jackson’s and Fishback’s faces, and every face that comes to represent the different stages of Ptolemy’s life – those who guided him in his childhood, those he fell in love with in adulthood, those who cared from him in old age.
Though Ptolemy’s apartment is shabby and cramped, scenes between Robyn, Ptolemy and their friends are bathed in warm colours. As the show homes in on the two main characters, the roles of carer and caregiver continually switch between them. This back-and-forth dynamic becomes the most enthralling part of the show, which remains a patient and mostly down-tempo affair, despite its combination of mystery and vaguely Sci-Fi premise.
The series unfolds like Daniel Keyes’ novel Flowers for Algernon written via Mosley’s ruminations on ties to family and land and America’s poisonous history. With new, unprecedented access to his entire memory Ptolemy seeks to leave two positive changes in the world before he passes: setting up Robyn to be independent, and untangling the murder of his nephew Reggie.
The chemistry between Robyn and Ptolemy and Mosley’s hypnotic prose make the premise of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey surprisingly light – easygoing and kind without being cloying or naive. Like memory itself, the show is a frequently messy and subjective sprawl, where it’s never clear what thoughts or feelings it might be dragged up next.
Spotlight: Dominique Fishback
After a string of consistently heartfelt and thoughtfully studied roles, Dominique Fishback is not an actor you’ll easily forget. The sensitivity that the New Yorker brings to every one of her characters can be seen in her television breakout, a regular part in David Simon and George Pelecanos’s 70s-set The Deuce (2017-19) as Darlene, a young sex-worker. In her best-known role, as Fred Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson in last year’s Judas and the Black Messiah, she elevated a part that could easily have been reduced to generic support. Instead of merely bearing witness to the film’s events, her performance offered a thoughtful exploration into the character’s perspective and desires.
It’s not the only time Fishback has so empathetically performed as a real-life figure – she briefly played a younger version of Jay Z’s mother Gloria Carter in the video for his track ‘Smile’. At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of realism and running-time, she has a major role in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, directed by Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II, 2018) and scheduled for release in 2023.
As Robyn in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, Fishback is a magnetic presence –even in the limited screentime she has, she presents a fully realised character whose inner life is always in sight. Fishback has had a run of supporting performances, but her turn as Robyn, rich as it is with charm and nuance, shows that she could easily command the screen as a lead.
Sight and Sound June 2022
In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.Find out more and get a copy