The Unreality of Racial Justice Cinema

There never was an Officer Andy Landers, but, as conceived by Spike Lee, he’s crudely functional, a villain with a destiny as awful as it is seductive. In “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee’s summer hit based loosely on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado in the 1970s, Landers is the cretin within, an unreformed racist among Stallworth’s own ranks.

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Reggie Ugwu
, New York Times

There never was an Officer Andy Landers, but, as conceived by Spike Lee, he’s crudely functional, a villain with a destiny as awful as it is seductive. In “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee’s summer hit based loosely on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado in the 1970s, Landers is the cretin within, an unreformed racist among Stallworth’s own ranks.

In the movie’s final act, the cretin gets his comeuppance. Stallworth and his girlfriend, Patrice Dumas, a black power activist who had been groped by Landers, secretly record him in a bar boasting of his misdeeds. Moments later he’s carried away in handcuffs while Stallworth, Dumas and two right-minded white colleagues (on hand as corroborating witnesses) toast to justice well served.

The scene is meant as a chaser of racial harmony after what is essentially two hours of high-proof bigotry and recrimination. As Hollywood endings go, it’s standard issue. What’s notable is the fact that it’s Lee behind the camera — a man whose signature early films, including his landmark, “Do the Right Thing,” so often eschewed such tidy suturing of America’s most persistent wound.

But that was then. Among several films that have reckoned with the story of racial justice in America in 2018, “BlacKkKlansman” is far from alone in extracting a hopeful resolution from the jaws of despair.

“The Hate U Give,” “Blindspotting,” “Monsters and Men” and “Black Panther” all answered the long-overdue demand for movies about the black experience by boldly grappling with one of its most pressing and painful dramas. But the films’ common dependence on the tropes of superhero stories and revenge fantasies, whether explicit or in disguise, suggests the difficulty of making reality-based cinema out of the history we’re currently living through.

The superheroes in “The Hate U Give” and “Monsters and Men,” both released this fall, don’t fight aliens or killer robots; they’re simply young and black in present-day America, a condition we understand to entail sufficient dramatic tension. Indeed, both films serve up the kind of self-mixing cocktail — unarmed black man, white police officer, the awful weight of history — that audiences are primed to recognize from years of similar-sounding news reports. On screen, our heroes are accidental witnesses, innocents for whom the contagion of state violence triggers an extraordinary metamorphosis.

Just as in comic books, the transformation makes them stronger.

In “The Hate U Give,” directed by George Tillman Jr., we follow Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a gifted black student navigating a largely white high school who is present when a random traffic stop ends in a police officer killing her childhood friend. A familiar ballet ensues: the victim’s history of drug infractions preoccupy the media, an aggrieved community marches in protest and a grand jury declines to indict the officer, which leads to more and more fervent agitation.

In the middle of it all, Starr is bereaved, angry and disoriented but also uncommonly resilient. She summons the inner strength to lead a climactic, Ferguson-like demonstration against officers who are armed with tear gas, a conflict filmed to look like a war zone. By the end of the story, she emerges grazed but triumphant, a newly forged activist who vows to venture forth and “light up the darkness.”

Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the young black man at the center of one story line in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Monsters and Men,” is also radicalized by proximity to a viral police shooting. He is a promising baseball prospect in his final year of high school, mere days away from an exhibition game that will determine his future. But he’s haunted by images, captured on shaky cellphone video, of the police killing a black man from his neighborhood outside a convenience store.

After Zyrick narrowly escapes his own experience with racial profiling, he falls in with a local activist who makes him question his commitment to sports. He joins a mass protest against police brutality (it also looks like Ferguson) the night before the big game, despite his father’s distress and a recruiter’s ominous warning. In the final scene, a dramatic reveal shows the birth of a conscientious objector: Zyrick takes the field of his exhibition game, but, in a provocative act of defiance, his jersey is emblazoned with a protest symbol.

It’s possible — and, the framing implies, appropriate — to read both of these endings optimistically. They’re social justice versions of the archetypal superhero origin story, ones that feature self-possessed black protagonists in a medium in which those have been too rare for too long.

But in the films’ efforts to imply a satisfying arc to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s moral universe, they end up endorsing nearly as much magical thinking as Marvel’s cinematic one.

They ask that we view the conscription of young bodies into ancient conflict as a point of hope instead of shame; that the oppressed aspire to be superhumans rather than the normal kind; that we not dwell on what ultimately happened to King, or, for that matter, even to Kaepernick. It’s noble for a person, in full knowledge of the terrifying odds, to commit her life to the enduring cause of racial justice. But we can be sure we’ve lost the plot when that commitment substitutes for the thing itself.

When he released “Do the Right Thing” in 1989, Lee was addressing virtually the same basic social problem but within a radically different cultural context. In New York five years earlier, Eleanor Bumpurs had died from being shot twice with a 12-gauge shotgun by police officers responding to an eviction dispute. The year before that, Michael Stewart was pronounced brain-dead shortly after being arrested under murky circumstances. These incidents had yet to congeal in the popular — white — imagination. In Hollywood, racial conflict was still most often a historical matter, a distant starting line for the great march of progress.

Lee wasn’t interested in progress, nor resolution. His project was to sound the alarm — to force people to recognize that the past wasn’t really past. And so he ended his story where today’s dramas begin: unarmed black man, white police officer, the awful weight of history.

In the movie’s famous climax, “the riot after the death of Radio Raheem feels earned,” said Justin Gomer, a film scholar and assistant professor of American studies at California State University, Long Beach. “The movie never sacrifices the intensity of the emotions that the community is experiencing — it validates them. It says, ‘You know, if we’re being honest, there is no Hollywood ending available here.’ And Spike was willing to just put that on screen and convince you.”

Nearly 30 years later, in the age of the dashcam video, the status quo isn’t a lack of awareness of systemic racism; it’s indifference to it. Alarms resound and the ears are weary. Some, of course, were never open in the first place, and any film that would uncork them now must suppose itself more forceful than the unfathomable medley that already claims Eric Garner and Philando Castile.

It’s no wonder, then, that a new generation of filmmakers has chosen a different — and, in some ways, more perilous — task than Lee’s in 1989, or that Lee himself would alter his tune. The new project is not simply to illuminate recent events but to marshal the alchemy of the silver screen to meaningfully amend them.

If the noble heroes of “The Hate U Give” and “Monsters and Men” represent one such amendment, this summer’s “Blindspotting,” directed by Carlos López Estrada using a script by its lead actors, typifies another.

It tells the story of Collin (Daveed Diggs), a repentant felon on his last few days of probation who is rattled after witnessing a white police officer shoot and kill a fleeing black man. During a chance encounter with the officer later in the film, Collin gets revenge by turning the officer’s gun on him and delivering an adrenaline-fueled cri de coeur. The speech (written in rhyming verse) is really a testament on behalf of all black humanity. And it leaves the killer in tears. Like the barroom sting in “BlacKkKlansman,” such revenge fantasies offer belated corrections to apparent typos and omissions on the cosmic balance sheet. They aim to provide catharsis where reality has missed the mark. The problem is that those accustomed to the short end of the racial justice ledger are naturally wary of counterfeits.

“These are not just historical traumas, they’re still fresh,” said Wesley Lowery, a national correspondent for The Washington Post and the author of “They Can’t Kill Us All,” a book about the birth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement that is being adapted for television by AMC.

“So I understand the feeling of, ‘If I’m going to ask you to relitigate this experience with me, I need to give you something back,'” he continued. “But what’s hard for me as a viewer is that it can feel empty to then receive what feels like a cheap emotional payoff.”

In a broad critique of “BlacKkKlansman” and its politics, posted on Twitter in August, director Boots Riley (“Sorry to Bother You”) called out the racist Landers character and his expedient downfall.

He argued that Lee had concocted the story line as part of a deeper conspiracy, one intended to “make Ron and the rest of the police look like they were interested in fighting racism,” despite what Riley characterized as evidence to the contrary.

But Lee disputed the charge. “Look at my films: They’ve been very critical of the police,” he told The Times of London. “But on the other hand I’m never going to say all police are corrupt, that all police hate people of color. I’m not going to say that. I mean, we need police.” On the surface, this seemed an awkward hill for the director to die on, akin to Huey Newton going out of his way to defend J. Edgar Hoover. But his point was less about the ethics of police officers than his own intuition of the greater good. Look at my films, he said. And the implication was: Let me have this.

The more far-flung the fantasy, the more natural it may be for audiences to suspend disbelief.

Killmonger’s crusade for violent retribution in Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” (a racial justice film that features both revenge and bona fide superheroes), and Chris’ bloody rampage at the end of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” bid for our sympathies from a parallel universe, free from the meddlesome gravity of our own inequitable one.

In that context, the movies’ resolutions, however contrived, may feel less cheap and more like a bargain. In lieu of either factually representing or making sense of the world, they invite us to escape it.

Whatever the utility of the Landers plot in “BlacKkKlansman,” it’s worth considering in contrast with a coda Lee appends to the very end of the film — a noisy echo of the director’s 20th-century ire.

The movie’s final three minutes consist of documentary footage of last year’s white supremacist melee in Charlottesville, Virginia (an actual riot to match the fictional one in “Do the Right Thing”), subverting the earlier ostensible nods to racial diplomacy and closing the circle between 1970s Colorado, 1980s New York and the present day.

In a season of merciful illusions, the sequence is an unsettling and chaotic break from the narrative — a vision of a society as likely to eat itself as to heal, in which true justice is forever a hypothetical endpoint on a receding horizon.

In other words: It feels real.

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