In a darkened Manhattan movie theater, the Rev. Al Sharpton, his immense frame squeezed into a molded-plastic seat is getting restless. As Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis ride the subway on-screen in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Sheraton takes his cellular phone from a bodyguard seated behind him and calls the office.
''It's Rev,'' he says, barely lowering his gravelly voice. ''Any messages?''
When Entertainmen Weekly invited Sharpton to see Brian De Palma's movie version of Tom Wolfe's best-seller, the assumption was that the movie would at least hold the black activist's attention. After all, the novel in which a white Wall Street bond trader gets involved in a hit-and-run accident that leaves a black teenager in a coma was a scathing critique of New York's racial polarization. Moreover, Sharpton has a personal interest. He is widely thought to be the model for the story's self-important preacher-cum-activist, the Rev. Reginald Bacon. Wolfe has never confirmed that, but the similarities are striking. Bacon is the media-hungry spokesman for the comatose teen's family. Sharpton himself shot to fame with the case of Tawana Brawley, the young black woman whose 1987 claim she'd been raped by a group of white men loudly repeated by Sharpton caused national outrage until proved a hoax.
But while Bacon in the novel was a canny, powerful, albeit crooked civic leader, De Palma's Bacon, played by John Hancock, comes across as a blustery buffoon sporting the velour running suit that is Sharpton's trademark. ''On Judgment Day,'' Bacon bellows, ''I'll be your safety valve. The one nigger who can control the steam.''
Sharpton, who has been sitting in the audience chewing on the string of his running jacket, comes to life. ''This is insulting,'' he says, with calm indignation. ''So far, there's not a civilized black in the whole movie. They're thieves, crooks, gangsters. David Duke should have directed this movie,'' he adds, referring to the Louisiana politician and ex-Ku Klux Klan leader.
At a café afterward, Sharpton expounds on the film's transgressions over cappuccino and banana cream pie. ''First of all, I don't wear Jeri Curl,'' Sharpton laughs, and of the thick gold chains and neon silk shirts Bacon also favors, he says, ''They give me this flashy image. I just wear a hundred-dollar running suit and a Martin Luther King medallion. Bacon looked more like a rap singer than he did like me.''
Far worse, he feels, the movie ''makes a mockery out of me and the movement I represent.'' He is incensed that Bacon becomes the pawn of a wealthy white lawyer who uses him for publicity while representing the teen's family in a suit against a city hospital. ''It's offensive to me that (the movie implies) I don't have enough sense to do the larceny myself,'' says Sharpton. ''It's really degrading that Bacon lets a white guy use him.''
Sharpton's final verdict on Bonfire was delivered earlier. As he and his three-person entourage hurried out of the theater, a young white man waiting in line yelled, ''Yo, Al! How was it?''
''Go see The Godfather,'' Sharpton replied.