‘Seberg’ Explores the Power of Celebrity and Activism

The story of the American actor who was immortalized in the French new wave film “Breathless” comes to life in “Seberg.” Kristen Stewart stars as Jean Seberg in this biopic that focuses not so much on the actor’s work with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Otto Preminger, but on the latter part of her career, when the glitz and glamour of being a movie star faded and she turned her focus to political activism. 

When “Seberg” begins in 1968, we find Jean living in Paris with her older French husband, Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), and their young son, Diego (Gabriel Sky). They have an arrangement that is quite modern for the time, as Jean, presumably the breadwinner in her marriage, as the story begins with her leaving Diego behind with his father while she goes to work in Los Angeles. It is on the plane there that she first encounters Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), an African-American activist who is traveling with the widow of Malcolm X. Denied first class seats because of a racist policy, Hakim argues with a flight attendant, and his words movie Jean to give up her seat. Once at LAX, she is photographed with her fist raised in a Black Power salute, an effective way to make a political statement decades before Twitter.

Despite the fact that they are both married, Jean and Hakim almost immediately commence a sexual relationship. Although drawn to Hakim, her interest in civil rights is sincere, and she is soon visiting a community center for African-American youth and hosting Black Panthers in her home. But the activism storyline takes a backseat as the FBI’s interest in her, which began when she was photographed at LAX, becomes more intense, and Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), the young agent tasked with spying on her, begins to question if it is all worth it as the his bosses resort to more and more unethical tactics in their attempts to ruin Jean’s reputation and squash the Panthers. Vince Vaughn plays against type here as Jack’s reactionary supervisor who barks at his family and resents Jean’s influence, which reaches close to home for him. 

“Seberg” explores some interesting topics that are rather timely, particularly the power of celebrity and activism. However, it fails in making the viewer invested in Jean and Hakim, although this has less to do with Stewart and Mackie’s performances as it does with the uninspired screenplay. Seberg’s activism here is portrayed as something she does suddenly almost as if she is trying to fill a void in her life, when in reality she was interested in civil rights as early as her teen years in Iowa. 

The character who comes across the most sympathetic is Dorothy Jamal (Zazie Beetz), Hakim’s wife who works at the youth center. Like so many female activists, she does a lion’s share of the work for a fraction of the credit. Adding to her stress is the fact that she’s stuck home alone with her kids while her husband carries on with Jean. Another wife, Linette (Margaret Qualley), Jack’s spouse who is studying to be a doctor, starts off as an intriguing character, but her storyline ends up falling flat. 

Seberg” opens Feb. 21 in select theaters.