Two African-American filmmakers, one making his debut and another in his fourth decade of popular storytelling, have produced two of the most uncompromising, entertaining, provocative, and exacting and relevant movies of this year. Boots Riley’s absurdly comic indie Sorry to Bother You was a festival smash, and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman is being positioned as a summer breakout. Audiences have often looked to the movies as an escape from the woes of our world, and when the news is non-stop catastrophic woe, that’s even more apparent. However, both of these movies, while enormously entertaining and charged with fresh relevancy, are a reminder of the very social ills many may actively try to avoid. Both films, and their respective filmmakers, make cases why ignorance is a privilege we cannot afford. Also, did I mention that the movies are outstanding, daring, and hilarious?
It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He wants to be a detective and taken seriously, and one day he calls the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan pretending to be a white nationalist. He builds a relationship over the phone with the Klan but he can’t meet them in person. Enter fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who stands in as the public Ron Stallworth, avowed white supremacist. Problem is Flip is Jewish, a group the Klan isn’t much more favorable with. The two officers must work together to gather enough actionable evidence to stop the Klan before they kill.
This is Lee’s best film since 2000’s Bamboozled and he feels jolted awake by the material. He doesn’t shy away from the film’s relevance and potent power but also knows how to faithfully execute the suspense sequences and police procedural aspects of the story by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee himself, based upon Stallworth’s book. The story alone is the film’s greatest selling point. It feels like a bizarre recreation of that Dave Chapelle sketch about the blind, and black, Klansman. It’s a story inviting irony and bafflement, and it’s ribald and funny for long stretches, buoyed by Washington’s charismatic and forceful performance (close your eyes and he sounds just like his dad, Denzel). The story is so fascinating that you just want to see where it goes. Stallworth is fighting for respect in a still-racist police force, and he’s pushing Zimmerman to feel more invested in their operation from his own maligned status. “I never thought much about being Jewish,” he shares with Ron, “But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently.” Theirs is a partnership we root for, and each new accomplishment bonds them together and increases their credibility with a wary police chief. It’s a movie that has a steady supply of payoffs and complications, leaving you satisfied by the end but also more than a bit rattled at the uneasy connections to contemporary news.
This is a character-driven suspense film that does so much so well, drawing in thrills and laughs without making either feel cheaper by their inclusion. This is an undercover operation so every scene with the Klan has the electric uncertainty of whether or not Flip will be caught and our heroes doomed. Because you have two Ron Stallworths, we already have a complicated ruse to keep up (though why Flip couldn’t simply also be the voice on the phone is likely just how it happened in real life). Each new piece of information, each new meeting, takes our characters deeper into the Klan infrastructure, including a guided visit from none other than Grand Wizard (a.k.a. head honcho) David Duke (Topher Grace in an outstanding performance). The risk escalates from being caught to thwarting a planned bombing that could kill innocent minority protestors. The movie does a great job of finding new ways to remind you what is at stake, and while the Klansman are set up to be laughed at and ridiculed, they are still seen as dangerous. They still have the direct intent to physically harm others, not just harass and intimidate.
Because of the undercover operation, you’d be right to assume that Stallworth’s personal life and blossoming romance with a collegiate activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), would be the least interesting part of the movie. It’s not poorly written or acted by any means. She serves as a reminder of Stallworth’s split loyalties, working for the police, which many in his community see as a tool of oppression from racists with a badge (and we too see this in action). He is always hiding some part of himself, be it his racial identity, his personal affiliation, or even what he really feels about his corrupt colleagues. Even with her, he cannot relax completely. It shows the more personal side of the Stallworth character and provides something real for him to lose, especially once the local Klan targets Patrice. I understand the role she serves in the larger story but I’d lying if I wasn’t eager to get out of every one of her scenes and back into the action. That’s the problem when you have one superior storyline; the others begin to feel like filler you’d rather leave behind to get back to the good stuff.
BlackkKlansman also can’t help itself with the political parallels to our troublesome 45th president, but I loved every one of them. A superior officer warns Stallworth about his dealings with Duke, specifically that he might make good on the promise to retire as Grand Wizard and go for political office. “Come on, America would never elect a man like David Duke as president,” he says with thinly veiled incredulity. The characters might as well turn and wink to the camera and say, “We’re talking about Trump,” but I laughed all the same. At one Klan dinner, the participants chant, “America first,” which is a Trumpian campaign slogan, if you didn’t know dear reader, derived from the Klan (Trump’s own father was arrested attending a 1927 Klan rally). These parallels are destined to turn off some viewers, though I think the subject matter and Lee’s name should be enough to know exactly what kind of movie you’re electing to watch. Nobody goes to a Lars von Trier film expecting to be uplifted about the state of humanity.
It’s at its very end where the film reminds you just how sadly relevant it still is today (minor spoilers but I don’t think they will ruin anything for you). While Stallworth has bested the local chapter of the KKK, there’s another late night with a sudden alarming noise, Stallworth on his guard, and a cross is burning out in the distance. Just because our characters have foiled a band of racists doesn’t mean racism has been eradicated. Instead, as the film suggests, it evolves, and Lee concludes with an impactful montage of news footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and President Trump contorting to find fault on “both sides” when clearly one side was murderous and racist. You even see real-life David Duke on the premises spewing his re-branded style of hate. The evolution of white supremacy demagoguery has become political, and it has found cover under the guise of a president eager to stoke racial resentments and divisions to his advantage. He’s normalized the abhorrent behavior and given it mainstream cover. It’s a powerful and lasting conclusion (much in the same way as the montage of Hollywood’s harmful depiction of black people in Bamboozled — including the Klan hero worship in Birth of a Nation, also featured here prominently) that should remind people that the threats of racism and Nazis and the KKK are not a thing of the past. It is very much a staple of the present, and how much it is allowed to remain a staple is up to the moral outrage of voters.
Sorry to Bother You is also sharply cutting and topical about being black in America. In present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to make ends meet, move out of his uncle’s garage, and do right by his girlfriend and performance artist, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He gets a job at a telemarketer and discovers a new talent when he turns on his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross) and becomes a power caller, crushing his competition. He moves his way up the chain, losing touch with his base of working-class friends looking to strike to unionize. Once at the top, Cash draws the attention of the CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who has big plans for a man with Cash’s gifts and seeming flexibility when it comes to corporate moral relativism.
Sorry to Bother You is a wild, hilarious movie bursting with things to say with its shotgun approach to satire, or as my pal Ben Bailey termed, a blunderbuss approach, messy and all over the place and, sometimes, maybe missing its intended mark. I thought the movie was simply going to be about the modern-day struggles of being black and poor in America, and the movie covers those aspects with aplomb. It’s also sized up ample room to satirize consumer culture, labor exploitation and worker rights, male and female relationships, art and media, cultural appropriation, and even memes. Because of all the topics, the movie could run the danger of feeling unfocused, but thanks to the remarkably assured vision and handling of writer/director Boots Riley, it all feels connected by its unique voice operating at a risky but exhilarating level.
There are a lot of bizarre dips into the absurd that had me howling and on the edge of my seat wondering where we would go next. The most popular TV show is just watching a person get the stuffing beaten out of them, and it adopts a pretty simplistic name to go along with this transparency. A very Google or Amazon-esque company is offering “lifetime jobs” for employees to live in their factories and have all their cares taken for by a corporate slaver, I mean kindly overlord. There’s an art show that consists of hurling cell phones at a woman’s body. There’s a corporate video with a female caveman narrator where she is, 1) stop-motion animated, and, 2) topless the entire time, complete with animated swinging breasts. There’s an ongoing thread that seems to trace the life cycle of a meme. A woman throws a Coke can at Cash in protest. She gets plucked form obscurity, gains a talk show, gets an endorsement from Coke and her own video complete with dramatic re-enactment and chirpy jingle, and Cash getting hit becomes its own Halloween costume for white people. There are throwaway lines in this movie that any other major comedy would die for. This is a movie that is impossible to fall asleep to because every moment could be different and you won’t want to miss one of them.
There are moments that strike beyond the immediacy of the onscreen absurdity. One of those moments was when Cash was invited to join the big corporate after party. He’s out of his element, surrounded by rich, relatively young privileged white people. They assume, being black, that Cash will instinctively know how to rap, and they insist that he perform a free-style rap for the assorted group. This ignorant assumption is just the start for Riley, because Cash gets up there and struggles to perform, barely able to scrap together the most elementary of rhyme, and the illusion has become dashed with the crowd. He notices they’re losing their interest with him, so in a desperate ploy, he just shouts two words over and over into the microphone with enthusiasm: the N-word and a profanity. He does this for like a minute, and the crowd of privileged white people shouts it back at him, seemingly lying in wait for some tacit permission by “popular music” for them to likewise use the N-word. It was an indictment that went beyond that scene. Another is ultimately what happens to the big bad corporation by the film’s end. It literally made me guffaw because it felt completely in place with the tone of the movie.
All of this zany and funny stuff would feel passing if there weren’t at least some characters worth our time. Cash is an engaging young man trying to get his life on track. He discovers he has a gift when it comes to coding, to blending into a white-majority community in a comfortable and acceptable manner. It’s a survival technique many African-Americans have had to perfect on a daily basis, and soon to be featured in the upcoming adaptation of the best-selling YA novel, The Hate U Give. Even amidst its more bizarre moments and asides, the movie is about a black man trying to get by with limited opportunities in a society that too often devalues him.
Stanfield (Get Out) has been a strong acting presence for some time, first in the remarkably powerful Short Term 12 and most recently on Donald Glover’s Atlanta. He grabs your attention and Stanfield has a gift for comedy, particularly a nervous energy that draws you closer rather than pushing you away. His character goes on the rise-and-fall path, so we still need to be pulling for him to turn away from his newfound egotism, and Stanfield keeps us rooted. Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) is Cash’s conscience and her wardrobe and accessories are amazing, from her declarative “The Future is Female Ejaculation” T-shirt to her large earring messages. Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) is confidently smooth and sleazy as a coked-out, venal CEO that is so blasé about his wrongdoing that it doesn’t even register for him as wrong. I appreciated that even with all the wackiness of this cracked-mirror version of our universe, Riley puts in the time and effort to make the characters count rather than be expendable to the satirical aims.
Now, there is a significant turn in the third act that veers the movie into territory that will test how far audiences are willing to go along with Riley’s raucous ride. I won’t spoil what happens but for several of my friends it was simply a bridge too far. For a select few, they even said this turn ruined the movie for them. It worked for me because it felt like an escalation in the dastardly labor practices of the corporation and was finally a visceral reminder of their cruelty. Beforehand, Cash has been making moral compromises to keep his ascending career, excusing the after effects of his success even when it’s selling weapons to foreign countries. That stuff is over the phone, part of his coded performance, and easier to keep out of mind. This escalation finally is too much to pretend to ignore. It’s too much to excuse his own culpability working for the enemy. It’s what pushes Cash back to his circle of friends he had left behind for the corporate ladder, it’s the thing that politically activates him, and it’s what pushes him to make a difference. I can understand, given the somewhat goofy nature of the plot turn, that several viewers will feel like Riley gave up his artistic high ground to self-indulgence. However, I would counter that the line between self-indulgence and an assured vision can be tenuous. The movie is so alive, so vibrant, and so weird, so having another weird detour felt agreeable.
BlackkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You are each unique and fun but with larger messages to say about the black experience and other fissures within our volatile society. You’ll be thoroughly entertained by either film and you’ll walk away with something to ponder and discuss with friends and family and maybe that one racist uncle at Thanksgiving, the one who uses the term “false flag operation” a little too liberally. BlackkKlansman tells a fascinating, comic, and thrilling story about racism of the past, drawing parallels to the trials of today, in particular under the era of Trump. Sorry to Bother You has many targets, many points, and much to say, exploding with thoughts and cracked comedy. Riley is holding up a mirror to the shortcomings and inanities of our own society and the ease we can all feel to turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of systemic racism, capitalism, and worker rights. Lee is a known firebrand and his polemic doesn’t shy from its political relevancy, but it tells a highly engaging story first and foremost, with top acting performances from its cast. In a summer of studios afraid to take chances, here are two excellent movies that take crazy chances and provide bountiful rewards.
Sorry to Bother You: A-
Be Kind, Rewind is a celebration of the love of movies and moviemaking, but it wants to shoot for a deeper message and stumbles. When the movie concentrates on remaking famous movies like Ghostbusters, Robocop, and Rush Hour 2, the movie has a ramshackle charm and great comedic spirit. When the film strays to tell a tale about community pride is when the movie gets dull and leaden. The concept of cheap, quick, homemade versions of Hollywood movies (the YouTube-ification if you will) is fun and Jack Black and Mos Def are definitely having fun in the process. But the movie has too many other elements that just don’t work together. The history of a local jazz legend feels awkward and bogs down the movie’s enjoyment. Director Michel Gondry can only do so much with his quirky visual sensibilities before you start to get bored. Be Kind, Rewind is occasionally entertaining and works best when it’s ripping off other movies than trying to stand on its own merits.
Nate’s Grade: C+
A passable albeit mediocre action thriller, this humorless tale about an elite sniper framed for a presidential assassination is more interested in the nitty gritty of sharp-shooters than building a credible plot. Mark Wahlberg grumbles through uninspired action sequences but who really draws attention is a villainous Danny Glover. The man has a lisp and carries it until the end of the film, and it is never explained. It’s so weird and distracting and it feels superfluous, like Glover was hard-pressed to make his rote villain interesting, so he thought, “Why not a lisp?” Shooter is more proof to my ongoing assertion that Antoine Fuqua (King Arthur, Tears of the Sun) is a director with little interest in storytelling; he’s studied at the Tony Scott school of Visual Indulgence. The characters are either stock roles or superhuman, and how in the world does a man get pinned for almost taking out the President and then buy mass quantities of weapons with the clever disguise of sunglasses?
Nate’s Grade: C
Saw was pieced together by two first-time filmmakers, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell. They envisioned that old movie favorite, the imaginative serial killer. Their killer would put people in horrific life-or-death situations, testing our will to live even if it meant rummaging around the intestines of a live human being for our key to freedom. With a budget of a mere million dollars, Wan and Whannell have executed a dark, slick, sometimes thrilling, sometimes laughable fright flick. The only question is if audiences are hungry enough for the splashes of blood Saw can deliver, or if they’d rather watch Sara Michelle Gellar turning Japanese.
Adam (Whannell), a private photographer, and Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), a workaholic surgeon, are in a very strange circumstance. They’ve both just awoken and find themselves chained by their feet at opposite ends of a bathroom with a dead body between them. Neither has any idea how they got there. Dr. Gordon theorizes that they’re the culprits of the Jigsaw Killer, a psycho that places his victims in elaborate death traps they must fight to get out of. In the pants pockets of Adam and Dr. Gordon are audio tapes from Jigsaw establishing the rules of this “game.” In eight hours, if Dr. Gordon does not kill Adam, his wife and daughter will be killed. Jigsaw has even left them clues to their escape, most notably a pair of rusty saws not strong enough to cut through their chains, but still plenty strong to slice through their feet if they so choose. Outside this game, Detective Tapp (Danny Glover) is closing in on the identity of the Jigsaw Killer and may be the only hope Adam and Dr. Gordon have.
Saw is a grisly horror movie that hits the right macabre marks. Horror is such a tricky genre, and you can either build tension in an effective what’s-around-the-corner kind of way (The Ring, 28 Days Later), or, if that fails, and it often does (The Grudge anyone?), you can cut your losses by showing the gory goods (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, any slasher film). This isn’t to say one version is inferior to the other; sometimes we just want to be grossed out. Saw is a horror film committed to horror, sometimes to a rather unpleasant and sadistic point. In a way, the fact that Saw goes for broke in its depiction of the grotesque makes it more enjoyable than recent horror fair that tried to hedge their bets on jump scares and nosy cats.
In some manner, Saw is like a dumber, trashier Seven. They both involve serial killers with agendas and they both give the killer the upper hand. While Seven is a masterpiece of the thriller genre, Saw is a mostly entertaining horror entry. Its premise is razor-sharp and really hooks an audience. We know only as much as the characters do, so their discoveries work two-fold. The pacing is tight, the cinematography is exceptional for its budget, and the end had me jump out of my seat. I will say this; Saw reluctantly seems to think that it needs to reveal the identity of the Jigsaw killer, as well as his motives, to satisfy an audience. I think no answer could ever be satisfying; however, the actual reveal of Saw‘s true killer had me wanting to give the filmmakers a standing ovation. There are fleeting moments of greatness here among the misery. Whannell knows when to show which cards, and it makes the story more enticing.
There are glaring issues with Saw. The acting is one of them. Elwes is usually a stable character actor, but chain him to a wall and say,”Go!” and the man will overact as if his real wife and child depended on it. Whannell, a first time actor and the co-writer, goes deliriously over the top in some battle of scenery chewers. Don’t feel too bad if you feel like laughing during certain moments of “emotional turmoil.”
Saw seems to exist in that magical place known as It Could Only Happen in Movies World. For example, a serial killer designing highly elaborate, and personally clever, death traps could only happen in a movie. I love the fact that the film even shows evidence that the Jigsaw Killer builds dioramas of his future death traps. If he entered them in the Third Grade Sadistic Science Fair, I’m fairly certain he?d at least earn a blue ribbon or a gift certificate.
Yes, only in a movie are we expected to believe one man can kidnap people, lug them around, set up his elaborate Rube Goldberg puzzles, and then kick back and elude police capture. The entire premise of Saw is whole-heartedly ludicrous, and the plot turns are heavily contrived, but, as an audience, you must yield such ordinary eye-rolling to enjoy the pleasures of Saw. If you can swallow plot holes and just go with the film’s skewed logic, there is some enjoyment to be had.
Wan can also be his worst enemy. Too often he punctuates chase scenes with pounding heavy metal, which does little more than numb an audience. Wan’s film loses some of its focus in the middle as the audience endures flashback after flashback. To goose up the viewing, Wan shoves in extraneous flashes of gore. Just like The Exorcist prequel, flashes of something horrific do little more than to cause an audience to yelp. They’re immediate. If you want true gut-churning reactions, you have to build, and in the end Saw remembers what it came to do and sprints to the finish line.
Saw also exists in the grimiest possible world. Whether it be parking garage, office, or even personal apartment, the characters of Saw exist in some netherworld of filth crying out for an army of scrubbing bubbles. I’m sure this was intentional, but can’t any place in horror movies afford a coat of paint nowadays?
Saw is a gruesome, twisted, sometimes sadistic horror movie with a knock-out premise, a moderately good ending twist (not the final end, though), and some lag time in between. Wan and Whannel really stretch their budget to impressive ends and imply more blood and guts than are shown. Fans of hardcore gore horror should be pleased with Saw, though they may find themselves giggling at it from time to time. I was hooked by its premise and found myself getting more intrigued as the revelations began to sift. Many will find Saw too ugly, gory, or stupid, but for fans of the genre, it should satisfy the itch recent PG-13 horror couldn’t efficiently scratch. Saw is violent, contrived, ridiculous, but also, in the end, gruesomely entertaining in parts.
Nate’s Grade: B-