The slate of high-profile films dealing with the African-American experience that will appear throughout the 2018-2019 awards season—primarily “The Green Book,” “Black Panther,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “Widows”—is an interesting reflection of the recent renaissance of black filmmakers. Spike Lee, who pioneered the current path for films about the black experience that are artistically innovative and pedagogical enough to gain widespread appeal, also has a film in contention this year with “BlacKkKlansman.” The question is whether this new wave has surfaced innovations in the way films can spur discourse about race.
When Lee broke through in the late 1980s with “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze,” and especially “Do The Right Thing,” he was stylistically innovative and self-assured in a way that American filmmakers hadn’t been in some time. At the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, another indie filmmaker with a penchant for experimentation, Steven Soderbergh, won the Palm d’Or for the film “Sex Lies and Videotape.” It was the first time in nine years that an American director had won what was arguably cinema’s greatest international prize. Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” boasting that same intimacy of scale as Soderbergh’s film, was a runner-up that year.
Lee’s films were thought-provoking and enlightening. At a time of little visibility for black actors or filmmakers, Lee jump-started the careers of Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, and Lawrence Fishburne and ran an entire production company that gave opportunities. “Do the Right Thing,” a film about racial tension on a hot summer day that culminates into a riot, has been cited in countless studies
Not only are Lee’s views being validated today, but black filmmakers have followed in his footsteps, such as Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Butler”), Ryan Cogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Black Panther”), Ava Duvernay (“Selma”), Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight,” ”If Beale Street Could Talk”). In 2016 alone there were nine films about the black experience—”Queen of Katwe,” “Race,” “Moonlight,” “Fences,” “A United Kingdom,” “Hidden Figures,” “Birth of a Nation,” “Free State of Jones,” and “Loving”—in wide-release.
Overtaken by His Own Success
As a perhaps inevitable consequence, the impact of Lee’s films has been diluted. “BlacKkKlansman” follows the true story of a black undercover cop who infiltrates the Klu Klux Klan. The cop, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), infiltrated the local branch of the Colorado Springs KKK in the 1970s from a phone line and even developed a relationship with David Duke (Topher Grace).
The thing is, he never actually met with them in disguise. Stallworth simply set things up via phone while a different cop (Adam Driver) actually attended the meetings. In other words, it’s a weak premise. While Lee manages to fashion an entertaining cop thriller, the film’s main hook is that it allows Lee to continue to say something about race.
Therein lies the challenge with a such a heavy slate of recent films about the African-American experience. A great number of films in the past few years, like “A United Kingdom,” “Hidden Figures,” “Birth of a Nation,” “Mudbound,” “The Help,” “Race,” “42,” and Lee’s previous film “Miracle,” feature lesser-known chapters of history that highlight African-American heroism. These films also spotlight the obstacles African-Americans faced at various points in history.
The thesis that racism exists is nothing new to audiences today, so the idea that racism existed is even less of a history lesson that’s worth building a film’s entire theme around. Not that there isn’t something to be gained from looking at different chapters of history, but what makes a film innovative now has to be something different.
Barry Jenkins: Assuming Spike Lee’s Mantle?
Jenkins makes the case well as a spiritual successor to Lee with his film “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Steeped in cinematic history and full of experimental flair, the film focuses on a 22-year-old father-to-be whose life is upended when he is accused of rape and has little chance of fighting the charge due to institutionalized poverty, a racist cop, and a harsh justice system.
It’s shot like a period film but so relevant to the present, with incarceration rates now a hot topic, that it could easily read as set in 2018 if the clothing and music were switched. Additionally, “If Beale Street Could Talk” has the pedagogical focus of a Lee film but also moves the viewer emotionally.
Similarly, “Black Panther” changed the way a film can comment on race by testing the ability of a science fiction work to comment on society through a symbolic looking glass. Whether the film’s current Oscar push comes from an authentic place is difficult to discern, however, because the voices acting on racial politics (those who want to see the first black superhero film properly memorialized) and the comic book geeks hoping Marvel Oscar nominations will bestow legitimacy are very loud. They cloud the film’s reception, as Errol Teichert notes.
Another school of thought is that films about the black experience won’t be ghettoized by that genre label. In this sense, a film like McQueen’s “Widows” deserves a lot of praise for assembling such a diverse cast while making the characters’ racial identities a non-issue. In the cast, there are black people and their struggles , but there are also white people and Latin people with their own problems, and no one’s baggage overshadows that of anyone else. While the film is flawed in story and pacing, it is not a racial parable so much as a film about complex characters who happen to be from different races.
Sensitivity Protects These Films from Stronger Criticism
When Lee’s films first came out, his voice was undeniably brave. As evidence of the film’s ability to promote meaningful discourse, Lee has often told a story about how black and white people see the ending of “Do the Right Thing” a different way.
Ten years ago, Clint Eastwood and Lee got into a shouting match over black people’s representation in World War II films, and the media treated Lee as a provocateur. If that argument happened today, Eastwood would be considered public enemy number one, as the definition of racism has been massively lowered. Attacking Lee would now instantly bring up the “r” word.
Not as much previously, however. Go to the YouTube comments on Lee interviews for the films “When the Levees Broke,” “Miracle,” or “Inside Man” (films that came out between 2006 and 2008), and you will see plenty of nasty vitriol. Lee is currently more en vogue, but through it all, he has been a loud and unapologetic voice. Largely it’s the reception that has changed.
In that sense, all of the above-mentioned films are relatively safe because the vast majority of film critics today see their job description as advocating for films by people of color and women. Sure, getting a film about an obscure mathematician in the backroom of NASA or a cop in Colorado Springs greenlit might not be easy, but once you’re past that step, you’re generally welcomed with open arms.
What It Takes to Be Brave about Race in 2018
Instead, I’d argue that a brave film in 2018 is a film that makes its viewers uncomfortable. In that sense, the bravest film about the black experience is “The Green Book.” It tells the true story of the friendship formed between concert pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and club bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) as they embark on a concert tour throughout the Deep South in the 1960s.
The film shows two people who are undeniably off-putting in different ways. The pains of being black in the 1960s despite Shirley’s great accomplishments are never invisible for a second, and he garners admiration for handling it all so gracefully. These qualities coexist with Shirley’s negatives, such as a provincial condescension to his travelling companion.
For his part, Vallelonga is highly unfiltered. He says pretty much whatever comes to his head, and some of it is shocking by today’s standards. Vallelonga’s saving grace is that he’s not malignant, just lacking in social graces.
Not only is this novel, but it’s perhaps the most urgent message: To be able to talk and have a meaningful discussion is what we need, even if it means we have to throw being politically correct out the window. Comedy is partially about the release in tension. To see two people get at each other in a productive way that causes a lifelong friendship is not just hilarious but highly cathartic. This isn’t an advocacy for being rude to an African-American acquaintance, of course, but no two characters in a movie should have to carry proper behavior on their backs.
So there you have it: Many of the films this year are admirable, but the most meaningful one is, ironically, by the man who made “Dumb and Dumber.” It’s a film that might run afoul of critics for a variety of reasons as awards season rolls along (for example, film critics now hold it against a white filmmaker for directing something with black subject matter) but audience love for the film is deservedly strong. This is a film with something to say and the finesse to say it well.