I'm Not Allowed to Review 'BlacKkKlansman'
As I was walking out of the theater this week after seeing Spike Lee's newest film, about a black police detective who goes undercover as a member of the KKK, the friend who I attended the movie with turned to me with a skeptical grin. "So how are you going to review THAT?" he said. The implication was that I would have a really hard time forming any critical opinion of the movie. He was referring not to the quality of the movie, but the content. And he was right. Spike Lee has been called many things, but shy has never been one of them. He does not attempt to hide the political messaging in his movie. In fact, to simply call BlacKkKlansman a "movie," is a lie by omission. It's overt activism. The literal end to the movie, and I don't think this is a spoiler because it's not really part of the narrative, is cut together footage from the racial violence in Charlottesville last year. The final image is an upside-down American flag. Slow fade to black. Roll credits. Whew. To evaluate the merits of this "movie" by conventional means seems petty. To say whether John David Washington and Adam Driver are good or not, or whether the plot is interesting is so trivial. It's not worth it. To address it properly is to address the underlying issues. But that's easier said than done. I think it's fair to say Lee is not trying to bring together the two sides portrayed in this movie. There's White Supremacy and Black Liberation. It's binary, no in between, good guys and bad guys, and the line is drawn pretty rigidly in this film along racial barriers. And frankly, it's the opinion of the movie that those lines haven't changed or moved all that much in the 40 years since the events portrayed in the plot. As a white male, in this supercharged political climate, I'm worried that in writing any sort of commentary on the message of this movie, my words would be dragged towards one of those two poles. Unfortunately, there is no room for nuance or compromise. I'm saddened by that fact. If you want to navigate the complicated waters of racial discourse yourself, go see BlacKkKlansman. Then you can form your own opinions. (Full disclosure, to prove my point, I wrote a much longer version of this review that I then asked a few people to review, the general consensus of which was that it was too controversial to publish. What a world we live in.)
American History X (1998)
Another movie that walks an extremely fine line, it's really impressive that this movie is able to tell the story from the perspective of a devout skinhead without lionizing or sympathizing with the position at all. The constantly-underrated Ed Norton turns in one of the most underrated acting performances in all of film history, and the construction of the plot is a work of art. Rarely if ever do movies execute flashbacks effectively, but this movie is able to weave the past and present action in a way that keeps you hooked from start to finish. It's complicated, it's messy, and it might well be the best racially themed movie of all time.
Inside Man (2006)
You know a take that would make me look really bad? Thinking that the best movie in the Spike Lee catalogue is one of his few that has nothing to do with race whatsoever. But come on! This cat-and-mouse crime drama between Denzel Washington and Clive Owen is gripping and heady, with an awesome supporting cast (Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Plummer, Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a couple of plot twists that will blow your mind. Generally I'm just always in on bank robbery movies, and I love the trope of the super genius criminal who's always one step ahead of the cops. Plus, as opposed to divisive battle lines drawn along racial barriers, we can all agree with uber-rich old dudes being the bad guys in movies.