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-
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I oddly felt fine… which is not a good sign for your apocalyptic movie. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a peculiar thing, all right. It takes place in the last three weeks of the human race. And lest you think the film wimps out on the promise of its title, think again. I was bemused for the first forty minutes, where writer/director Lorene Scafaria indulges in a series of one-scene vignettes of how humanity comes to terms with the certainty of annihilation. There’s an adult party where people joyfully try heroin, a hit man-for-hire service to bring back some of the mystery of death, and a restaurant where all the workers are spaced out on Ecstasy. I found each of these moments to be funny and a well though-out extension of the premise. But then the film’s diversions give way to the rom-com of our main characters, played by Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as your standard manic pixie girl. And the more time I spent with them the more I found myself not getting engaged. My emotional empathy was kept to a minimum; they’re nice people and all but I didn’t find them that interesting. The resulting movie feels like one of the weakest avenues given the premise. I credit Scafaria for not wimping out in the end, but as these characters faced oblivion together, I felt little emotional stirrings in my chest.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The basis for the movie Young Adult sounds like writer Diablo Cody settling a few sore scores. You’d think winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for 2007’s Juno would have sufficed. Reteaming with her Juno director, fellow Oscar-nominee Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), the duo takes aim at the bitchy, stuck-up, popular girl that seemed to rule the school. Young Adult is much more than a vicarious act of vengeance on mean high school adversaries. It’s a revealing, awkward yet compelling dark comedy about the perils and pitfalls of arrested development.
Life hasn’t turned out exactly the way Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) would have thought. The former high school queen bee has left her small town for life in Minneapolis. She’s the ghostwriter for a successful series of young adult books, a series that is coming to an end. She’s divorced form her husband, facing financial ruin, and living alone with her tiny Pomeranian, Dolce, her only friend. Mavis decides to forgo writing the last book in the cancelled series and instead return to her hometown the triumphant mini-celebrity she knows herself to be. She’s determined to find her old boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and win him back. The fact that Buddy is married and has a newborn baby is no real impediment to Mavis’s crazy plan (“Hey, I’ve got baggage too,” she reasons). Once home, she runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) in a bar. Matt and Mavis went to high school together, though she has long forgotten the likes of him. Matt’s claim to fame was that a bunch of jocks in high school savagely beat him thinking he was gay. Matt sees right through Mavis and the two of them become an unlikely pair as Mavis plots and schemes her way to victory.
Young Adult is one of the most enjoyable squirmiest times you can have at the theater. Much of its humor, and it is very funny, is built around the pained awkwardness of Mavis’ self-involved, self-destructive mission. My friend was nervously fidgeting in his seat the entire time (he may have just had to go to the bathroom). The sense of dread is palatable; we’re watching a slow-moving car crash, waiting for the inevitable to hit. Every scene carries the apprehension of, “What is she going to say/do next? Is this it?” And yet Cody’s sharp, pointed writing makes the film compulsively watchable. We dislike Mavis, an irredeemable character who doesn’t even try to be likeable, and yet by the film’s conclusion most audience members will likely feel more pity for Mavis than outright hatred. I’ve had some friends ask me if Young Adult was anything like Bad Teacher, another movie about an abrasive, selfish, unlikeable bad apple. This movie is different. This movie is actually good. Mavis is not some wacky cartoon character, and Reitman has kept his reaction shots to a minimum, abstaining from having to remind us via public reaction how inappropriate Mavis can be. Unlike Bad Teacher, this grown-up meanie feels all too real, and her actions come across as believably threatening. This woman could do some serious damage on her way to massage her damaged ego. The movie never condones her actions, though Reitman and Cody make a point of piling on against Mavis. This woman is an ugly wreck, and Cody’s writing and Theron’s gutsy performance speaks volumes. Cody’s writing isn’t the hyper-literate, stylized dialogue we’re accustomed to from Juno. The dialogue and characters are eerily recognizable, miles away from the cuteness of Juno’s sunny, optimistic fairy tale inhabitants. Young Adult is a more nuanced, droll, mature work that deserves as much recognition as Juno and cements Cody, in my mind, as one of the most thrilling writers today (I can almost forgive her for Jennifer’s Body. Almost).
Along with all the bleak comedy, Young Adult lands a surprising number of poignant dramatic blows. Cody has crafted an exacting character study on a severe case of arrested development. Many of us can relate to knowing that one gal in high school, the pretty, popular one who had everything in life handed to her. In Young Adult, Cody shows the devastating consequences of a lifetime of entitlement and zero introspection. Mavis secretly knows that she’s past her prime, that all the people she left in her Podunk town have moved on to richer lives while she’s stayed in the same holding pattern her whole life. Some part of her has never left high school. She’s an emotionally stunted woman trying to live out the fantasy of one of her undervalued books (her misreading of the end of The Graduate into a love-conquers-all message is rather telling). Mavis’ life is hardly the stuff of Champaign wishes and caviar dreams, but to the people of her hometown, life in the “Mini-apple” is the Big Time. There’s a fabulous scene where Mavis goes into a bookstore and sees her series on a clearance stack. The bookstore employee tells her they don’t sell and will be most likely sent back to the publisher. Mavis takes out her pen and autographs one, informing this minimum-wage peon that she is the fabled author of the series. She’s expecting fawning admiration. The employee flatly tells her, “If you sign them, we can’t send them back to the publisher.” In her disgust, she tries to sign as many as she can as an act of defiance. Later in the movie, Cody sheds light on Mavis’ family life, offering intriguing clues for how this woman became so broken. Her parents just seem to shrug off Mavis’ admission of alcoholism, like they’re used to their daughter acting out, even if she might really be crying out for help. She’s a fascinating character to watch crash and burn.
What gives the film its most potent sense of heart (Grinch-sized though it may be) is the unlikely yet compelling relationship between Mavis and Matt. Unlike Mavis’ perceived slings and arrows, Matt has suffered real trauma from high school. His bones were shattered from that brutal beat down and he’s left to limp with a crutch. He hasn’t been able to mentally leave high school behind completely himself, but then again he has a constant reminder. Mavis is strangely her most open with Matt, possibly because she doesn’t view him as a threat or a credible alternative (the joys of high school revisited – the pretty gal ignoring the existence of the lower classes). He’s portrayed as the film’s voice of reason, voicing concern over Mavis’ kamikaze narcissism. Together they form what could charitably be described as a friendship. She seeks him out to talk at odd hours of the night and he’s straightforward with her. He thinks her plan is nuts, but he’s also secretly enjoying his unexpected friendship with the queen bee of high school, albeit twenty years later. “Guys like me are made to love girls like you,” he confides to Mavis. Oswalt has shown some dramatic skills in the underappreciated sports fanatic flick, Big Fan. With this movie, Oswalt gives an achingly felt performance, the most empathetic character in the whole movie and a joy to watch onscreen in a high-profile role that fits him like a glove.
But the true star of the film is Theron, who gives a fully formed and entrancing performance as someone who is as ugly on the inside as she is beautiful on the outside. Her character could have easily slipped into being an unsympathetic monster; someone the audience wants punished (like Cameron Diaz’ character in Bad Teacher). But the actress finds her own twisted, tricky way to center the character. Every detestable glance, every pained inhalation, every rigorous attempt at seduction, it feels like the character coming alive before our eyes. Theron has dissolved into the abhorrent mess that is Mavis Gary. She’s convinced that Buddy could never be happy with such a mundane life in a mundane town (“There’s a restaurant that’s a Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC in one building” she says incredulously). Her perspective is so deluded that you start to see the manufactured world Mavis has so cautiously built around herself as a defense from reality. She watches wall-to-wall reality TV, the perfect metaphor of our times concerning the idolization of idiocy and self-absorption. She may not be likeable but she’s definitely compelling, and Theron is so good as that-girl-from-high-school all grown up, that she might even win over some slight sympathy by the film’s end. At one point, the inner fear of Mavis reveals itself, and she expresses her confusion about the attainability of happiness. Why can others find happiness with so little, and she cannot find it with everything that she has?
Young Adult is a dark comedy of squirm-inducing, uncomfortable bleakness and a drama of surprising poignancy and depth. It’s the good kind of uncomfortable, the kind where you can’t look away or leave the vicinity of your seat. Theron and Oswalt are fantastic. Cody’s gift with words, teamed up with Reitman’s gift with actors, makes a beautiful combination even when the end product is charting the misery or a miserable person. The measured tone is kept from start ot finish, meaning even when the movie appears on the precipice of life-lessons and Mavis might turn her life around, it pulls back. There will be no hugs and gained wisdom with this movie, a crackling comedy that’s also one of the best pictures of the year. Take that, popular girls who never gave me the time of day.
Nate’s Grade: A
The directorial debut from the screenwriter of The Wrestler follows another down-on-his-luck loser. Patton Oswalt gives a surprisingly dark and affecting performance as Paul, a 35-year-old tollbooth worker that still lives with his mother. Paul’s life is devoted to his favorite sports team, the New York Giants. He spends his evenings meticulously planning his call-in statements to the nightly sports radio show. He’s so devoted to his team that when Paul gets brutally beaten by his favorite Giants player he blames himself. The player gets suspended and the Giants start piling up losses, and Paul can’t deal with the crushing guilt he feels. Big Fan is an intriguing exploration of how absorbed people can get with fandom; I always thought it a bit odd when people refer to a team’s accomplishments with “we” like they had something to do with it. Paul’s fragile world is coming apart and he breaks down with it. Obviously, Paul has a few screws loose in order to make him unpredictable, which gives the last twenty minutes some serious unease. Paul goes undercover as a Philadelphia Eagles fan (his disgust at putting on the enemy jersey is palpable) to hunt out his gloating sports radio nemesis Philadelphia Phil. Big Fan is occasionally funny in an under-your-breath kind of way, but really it’s more of a small-scale psychological study on a hapless individual whose religion is sports and who feels he has sinned before his almighty God. At a mere 86 minutes, the movie doesn’t press too hard into the twisted psychology, nor does Paul leave much of a dent as a character as the film doesn’t make judgment on his obsessive behavior. This isn’t as poignant as The Wrestler, pure and simple. Yet, Big Fan is buoyed by a strong performance by Oswalt and some interesting insights into a flawed fan willing to go all the way for his team.
Nate’s Grade: B
This movie continues to grow on me every day after I saw it. Writer/director Brad Bird yet again impresses with a deceptively simple story that manages to hit big themes in organic ways. The comic possibilities are fully realized with the setup of a man and a rat teaming up to be a great Parisian chef. There is a jubilant spirit alive and well throughout the film, and it’s difficult not to get swept up in the wit, the wonder, and the magnificent visual feast.
Nate’s Grade: A