The Range and Resonance of 2018’s African-American Films

A response to anyone who thinks 'Sorry to Bother You,' 'Blindspotting,' 'BlacKkKlansman' and 'Black Panther' are the same movie.

BlacKkKlansman Movie Review Spike Lee
Spike Lee directs John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman. Focus Features

Overhearing other people’s movie conversations is a dangerous game. I was at a bar recently and caught a drunken group discussing some recent films. The most verbose of them was an overconfident white guy to whom everyone else deferred because he was a “director” (a career path that turned out to be in its latent stage). His entire take seemed to center around praising the esoteric while expressing his disdain for things that were too “on the nose.” But his observations were largely superficial. He derided the “you know what’s going to happen-ness” of Mission: Impossible – Fallout while singing the praises of Lynn Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (they’re both great, just in very different ways). But then came his coup de grâce: A young woman of color in the group remarked that she couldn’t believe how lucky we were to get Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther all in the last year, to which the “director” said, “I mean, they’re all kind of the same movie.”

I could sense her blood starting to boil. Mine was too. I spend so much time genuinely trying to understand the different ways people empathetically engage with movies; suddenly I was face to face with a person who exists at the ugly nexus of worshipping surface-level texture, fancying himself an expert and exhibiting casual racism. That combination of elements might not be accidental. Because, no, those four movies are not all “the same.” Sure, one could observe that three of them are at least partially set in Oakland and each deal with racism, but the obvious problem is these films all come at their stories with radically different storytelling approaches and make radically different points. To say they are all the same not only misses the widely variant cinematic language on display, but signals a failure to see one’s own narrow viewpoint. It’s outright admitting you’re just grouping a bunch of “black films” together and calling it a matter of intellectual insight, which only reveals one’s own stunning ignorance.

The whole episode couldn’t help but make me think about the endlessly problematic ways that white people talk about black art (this very article might contribute to that theme). I cannot speak to the experience, and thus I could get it all wrong so easily. But I not only accept the consequences of that, but understand it is one of the only ways to really learn. Writing something out so often helps you see that you can be wrong. It’s crucial to continue to engage in this dialogue, because it’s how we forcibly examine the worst of our own behavior. In film criticism, this is revealed in the reductive ways we both classify and discuss African-American cinema.

After all, how many times have you heard white people take one of those films listed above and ask if it were “this year’s Get Out?” How many times have you heard white people make an “objective” opinion about black art without realizing that their statement reveals their own prejudiceHow many times are white people going to take these four amazing films and pit them against each other, declaring which one we like better or which one we think really speaks to the truth of X or Y? Such competition misses the entire point of comparison in the first place. Because to see what makes each of these films so damn special is to see how truly different they are from one another.

Blind Spots

Blindspotting is not the first narrative film about complicated racial tensions, but it might be the first that explores those tensions mostly through the issue of gentrification. Its portrait of 2018 Oakland, Calif., exposes the ugly side of a rapidly evolving America, one where the once predominantly black neighborhood has become the new rich white hot spot of San Francisco. Greasy fast-food joints go the health-food route. Old houses are either dismantled as part of their transformation as “fixer-uppers” or bulldozed completely to make way for new designer homes. One of the film’s producers, Keith Calder, even said on Twitter, “We literally had to not shoot in certain locations because they were gentrified in the weeks between our first location scout and when we showed up for pre-production. If anything, we undersold how extreme the gentrification in Oakland is.” The reason this matters is because rapid gentrification results in two cultures radically clashing against each other, often with the worst tendencies of the rich usurping the identities of the very culture it is destroying.

Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting.
Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting. Lioinsgate

Dramatizing a broad concept like this is an exceptionally difficult thing to do in film, but Blindspotting humanizes the emotion of this core conflict in every direction. The local moving company couldn’t be happier for the growth in business. One character’s mom shrugs her shoulders at the inevitability of it, simply happy her house is worth more money and that they now “finally have good food.” But, of course, there are those who liked the old greasy food. Just as there are those who walk around furious as they watch everything about their neighborhood—their entire lives—disappear at a sudden, sickening pace. The saddest example of this comes as the two movers, played by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, gather a family’s last possessions out of a dilapidated house, its tenants having died. Their entire lives are quietly swept into a pile. The movers try to sell those same possessions before hauling them to the dump; an action  like this can sometimes be an opportunity when your culture is being forced out.

The film’s crux rests in the central relationship between the movers. Collin (Diggs) is a convicted felon on parole, and Miles (Casal) is his best friend since childhood. Diggs and Casal also wrote the film, which is based on their lives. Miles was born and raised in Oakland and, being the white kid, always felt he had to be twice as hard to fit in with the culture of everyone around him—from his cadence, to his tattoos, to the grills in his teeth. But he did it—this is his culture, and everyone he’s grown up with knows him and accepts him. So when white culture comes into Oakland with reckless abandon, he’s the most angry because he’s the one who had to work so hard to feel at home.

Collin, meanwhile, is struggling to put his best foot forward. Still on parole from an assault charge, he just wants to keep his head down and stay out of trouble. But he finds that so hard because he also really cares about his troublemaking friends. He wrestles with it; they’re undeniably the people he loves, but he’s also trying to impress upon others how much he’s changed. In the “melting pot” of his surroundings, this is anything but a smooth sail. Often it leads to friction, specifically the kind that comes from how we’re all seen by the other.

The film’s title is revealed in a moment when a character is studying for a psych exam. Two people are looking at the famous optical illusion where you can see either a witch or a vase, depending on what your mind recognizes first. One of them ends up calling this “blindspotting,” and it becomes a central metaphor for how our estimation of one person at a glance ignores their whole story. Police might look at Collin and see his dreads and see him as just another potential threat, not a person trying to do good. Meanwhile, Miles’ angriest moment comes when a black person assumes he’s another gentrifying white person who just moved in and is trying to co-opt black culture. It is easy to see only the first image we see. And both Collin and Miles struggle deeply with how hard they have to try to be seen as the opposite of what people think they are. It all leads to the question: How much should we have to give up to be seen the way we want? Especially when some people will always see us one way no matter what.

These are remarkably complex questions—the biggest triumph of Blindspotting is its ambition. It’s constantly using hyper-cinematic language to emphasize feeling, which means it’s often trying to find the balance between its “reality” and such stylization. The result is rough-and-tumble, funny and humane. But it’s as if it’s constantly attempting triple backflips of tonal disparity. We could have endless conversations about whether certain moments in the film “work” in terms of the audience’s acceptance. For instance, I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the final rap moment—discussion that I think is less about believability and more about how a traditional standoff would have been more dramatic. But focusing on such moments also makes us miss the significance of those endless scenes that pull off the triple backflip with jaw-dropping acumen.

I think about the endless details of drinks and guns and tattoos and conflict piling up and reversing, then how the direction of commentary switches at a moment’s notice. For instance, I loved the subtle change of cinematography in terms of who was watching “the fight.” And the parking lot scene is not only worth the price of admission, it’s a thematic exploration I’ve been wanting to see expressed in movies for ages. For these two lifelong pals, there is no escape from the reality of how skin color affects their livelihoods and their friendship. In a gentrifying world, no matter how much we think we understand cultures that overlap, no matter how much we think we might be joining something instead of bulldozing it, for even for the most “liberal” and inclusive, there’s always the lingering question of what we see first—and how it affects absolutely everything.

And there is so much more of that story to explore.

Sorry It Bothers You

I kind of resent the fact that the most popular reaction to Sorry to Bother You has been something like, “Wow, that film’s crazy!” Yes, Boots Riley’s directorial debut is certainly off-the-wall, but it’s also a laser-focused satire that cuts to the bone. It is another film set at the center of gentrifying Oakland, but Sorry to Bother You explores the intersectional nature of society through class and economics. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is young, black and struggling to find work. After begging his way into a call center job, he begins learning the basics of blind sales and how to harness the power of of his “white voice,” which in turn leads him into bigger enterprises within the company.

But doing a deep dive into the plot of Sorry to Bother You would belie the core methodology of the film itself (besides, you wouldn’t believe the plot even if I described it). Because this is a movie that revels in absurdism. It constantly pushes the language it uses and sense of reality it displays to put you into the head of its main character—and always with a thematic purpose. When Cassius’s desk literally slams into the living rooms of people he’s calling, it’s not just done for the joke. It highlights the crushing emotion of what it’s like to interrupt someone’s day with a phone call (notice how the device stops when Cassius stops caring about whether or not he’s interrupting a human being and just sees them as a sale). The metaphor fully solidifies when he goes from slinging encyclopedias (i.e., knowledge and wisdom) to high-value merchandise (i.e., weapons, oil, suffering), and it’s not hard to see the inverse measure of monetary “worth” in our society. I not only love the idea of seeing big business as its own kind of call center, but also the way this highlights how the economic need to earn money inherently puts us in conflict with other human beings.

Sorry to Bother You Review
Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You. Annapurna Pictures

While it humanizes Cassius’s journey, this absurdism never steps away from the story’s central metaphors—not just in its portrayal of the stunning gap between the have and have-nots in this country (where 80 percent count as a low -wage earners), but in its understanding of how we get suckered into not seeing the disparity when we’re on top. And there’s an intersectional cost to all this that we often miss. When Cassius steps into “white voice culture,” his race is both erased and used as a prop, depending on what is convenient for others (the rap scene is an all-time dark moment). This all cascades into Sorry to Bother You‘s grand finale, which features a horse metaphor that should be fairly obvious: It’s about how the amoral apex of capitalism is prison labor (which inherently ties back into black labor). From there, everything comes crashing together into discord, because there’s no other possible end to a system so corrupt. While it would be easy to fret about how someone could miss the symbolism of this stuff, Riley’s use of absurdism and metaphor is not just the best way to take on the scope of what he’s trying to tackle here—it’s the only way.

That’s the Truth, Ruth

The horribly opinionated director guy said his problem with BlacKkKlansman was that it was “just so simple and hitting you over the head with the message,” which is an enormously misguided thing to say about a film that is achingly empathetic, looking into the heart of racism with dark humor and finding complex nuances in so many of its characters. Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) quest is anything but simple, as the film completely explores his inner conflict of what it means to be a black police officer. By partnering with a group that has been at the root of his oppression, he questions whether or not he can use his job to do real good. But director Spike Lee doesn’t give an easy answer, just an understanding that the conflict exists, and perhaps hints that society needs both those who will uproot from the inside as well as from the outside. With that, the film’s intersectional heart particularly rests in Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), the white cop who partners with Stallworth to infiltrate the hate group. As he goes in deeper, the secular man slowly comes to understand his own identity. “I never used to think about being Jewish. Now I think about it all the time,” Flip says. But the grim truth is that these subtleties aren’t the part that director guy was complaining about—he was talking about the film’s treatment of the KKK. To which I have only one reply:

There is nothing subtle about the KKK because there is nothing subtle about racism.

Sure, there are more inconspicuous forms of racism that exist. And yes, even the most racist people have interior lives and the capacity for good in other situations, just as all humans do. But to say that depicting these things is necessary in portraying the Klan is to utterly misunderstand the point of what the Klan really is. Because racism itself is an infection of our humanity and of each of these characters—from the achingly dumb, to the paranoid and angry, to even smooth-talking David Duke (Topher Grace). And thus, the most terrifying character in the film is the reasonable, level-headed ringleader of the local chapter, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), a man who by all accounts seems normal, but just happens to support the worst ethos imaginable. The abject racism of the Ku Klux Klan is not subtle; it is written in stone. Their core belief is eugenics. It is oppression, abuse and murder writ large. It is inhumanity incarnated. And there is no way around this.

BlacKkKlansman Interview
John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman. Focus Features

The yearning for subtlety when tackling such an ethos either reveals a deep-seeded agreement or a knee-jerk defense mechanism. It’s no different from when someone views a film like this and asks, apropos of nothing, “But what about black-on-black violence?” As if such a thing would not only justify the racism of the KKK, but somehow have anything to do with this conversation at all. Asking questions like that is merely trying to create a distraction, to throw the horrible spotlight elsewhere and off the horrific reality of white America and its past.

Luckily, BlacKkKlansman sets its uncompromising sights on that history, especially our cinematic one, in the romantic glorification of the South in Gone With the Wind and the endless cheering for the Klan in The Birth of a Nation. Lee juxtaposes the screening of the latter with an anecdote from Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) describing the horrors of a young boy he witnessed being lynched. No, the juxtaposition is not subtle, but it is true. The Birth of a Nation whipped people into a frenzy and resulted in the carnal mutilation of a boy for no other reason than the perverse racism at its core. We constantly deny the dark heart of American racism and fail to reckon with its power. We deny that it is this simple. But that denial is exactly how we slowly slid into a reality where the current president of the United States is able to say that the white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville included some “very fine people,” while that same white America shrugged its shoulders. Blackkklansman gets at the core truth of this story, drawing the line from past to present with total disgust. It is a call to reckon with that which we must. As Lee will often evoke, “That’s the truth, Ruth.”

No subtlety needed.

Panther’s Pride

It’s been months since it came out, and Black Panther feels even more like a miracle in hindsight. I’ve already taken a deep dive on the subject, but it’s not a film that’s going after the pervasive hypocrisies of white America. Instead, it’s showcasing an external array of complex portraits of the black identity within the confines of a big-budget superhero film.

It all starts with a premise: Wakanda is a prosperous African country untouched by colonialism. At the outset, it challenges the accepted idea that the problems of modern Africa can be blamed on its warring nations, an opinion that exposes the insinuation that Africa is composed of an inherently savage people. The concept of Wakanda is based on the reality that Africa’s troubles came not from strife, but from the European and American powers that came in and stole its resources, including its people. It is a portrait of a continent as it should have been. This is a radical idea in its own right, but Black Panther goes one further by using this historical “what if” as a way to talk directly about class, and the way class affects outlook within the dueling heart of the “black identity.”

The core difference is best symbolized in the relationship between the film’s two black panthers, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). On one hand, there is the hero T’Challa: dutiful, kind, respectful of women. But he’s still a man born a king, with endless wealth that he has been taught to protect. In that way, he represents a tradition of black conservatism (at least economically). Then there’s Killmonger. Literally left behind at the start of the film, he reflects the trauma and rage of the American experience. Growing up with poverty and violence, he finds strength in furthering that violence. While much has been made of the Martin Luther King/Malcolm X dynamic between the two, the film goes beyond such simplicity. Both portrayals are achingly human and empathetic. The scene that sticks out is of young Killmonger talking to his father and reverting to his childhood self as he does so. He’s still the young boy who has never healed. There is no room for Killmonger’s violence and vengeance in the world, but there is room for his pain to be understood. And the result is the kind of heartbreaking story where ultimately it is the hero who must learn the most important lesson from the villain, not vice versa.

Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther.
Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther. Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios

The idea that this all happens in a giant Marvel blockbuster is remarkable. Black Panther doesn’t necessarily convey that white people need to combat racism (though the film never shies away from taking opportunities to comment on racism, like the way Andy Serkis’ villain character constantly appropriates black culture), but rather speaks to the spectrum of representation that we could be seeing on screen. And not just within the two dueling panthers, but with Shuri (Letitia Wright), the precocious, internet-savvy scientist. Or Okoye (Danai Gurira), the ever-dutiful but conflicted royal guard. Or M’Baku (Winston Duke), the hulking, honorable vegetarian. The film’s diversity even lies in the fact it is not beyond criticism, as there is much to question with regard to whether it takes too much of a conservative stance or mishandles African politics. But such questions are inherent in understanding that a film cannot be all things, and that all the conversations created by it are so very worth it.

Because complexity and variation are at the heart of growth.

* * *

To call these four films “the same” is its own act of blindspotting, just as so many white people wrote off Black Panther as just another Marvel movie, failing to engage with even the simplest themes it had to offer because they took only a cursory look at its message. Maybe those same people would be more open to Blindspotting’s direct verbalizing of racial intricacies and micro-infractions, but maybe they’d also get hung up on its “changing tone.” Maybe they’d love Sorry to Bother You’s exploration of race and economics via a gonzo absurdist morality play, but maybe they’d also get hung up on the last act being “out of nowhere.” Maybe they’d love the way BlacKkKlansman recounts a true story that drags us to face the harsh reality of the racist timeline of this country, but maybe they’d want something that feels “less manipulative.” The point of all these maybes is that we will find a litany of excuses to write off powerful films that confront something deep within us. These are the kinds of films that a certain type of white critic will pick apart while failing to engage with even the basics of what they do so well. And there is no more dismissive action then the action of lumping them all together.

We see an inherent, vibrant spectrum in these four films—and, of course, contradictions within them, too. Boots Riley can discuss his concerns about Spike Lee making a film where the heroes are police officers, because there’s more than enough room for that conversation (it’s one the film has with itself, too). Furthermore, there are infinitely more stories that would add to the scope of these films. That’s the entire point. It’s about so much more than finding this year’s Get Out. When we think of black film or even films about race as a “genre,” we do not realize the endlessly reductive harm we cause with such grouping. Because in criticism, we must reckon with the conscious and subconscious ways we pigeonhole films and miss their incomparable value. Heck, now I’m even fretting that by grouping these four films into a single piece, I’m not giving each the separate story it deserves. Because they are genuinely four of the best films of the year (P.S. I almost included Uncle Drew in this story, which is fun and wholesome as hell). But ultimately, I hope this stands as a call to celebrate not just the great films that exist in 2018, but all of the amazing films to come. African-American cinema—or rather, cinema across the world—is in a state of constant divergence, spreading outward like a human soul exploding into the cosmos.

The comparisons between these films shouldn’t be what tears them down. It should be what builds them up.

< 3 HULK The Range and Resonance of 2018’s African-American Films