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Could BlacKkKlansman finally snag Spike Lee the Oscar he deserves?

Our roundtable discusses the Oscar chances for Lee’s searing indictment of white supremacy.

John David Washington and Laura Harrier in BlacKkKlansman.
John David Washington and Laura Harrier in BlacKkKlansman.
Focus Features

Each year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominates between five and 10 movies to compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy — its most prestigious award, and the one given out at the very end of the ceremony. There’s no strict definition for what makes a “best” picture; it’s easiest to think about it as an honor given to the film that Hollywood thinks best represents the year in movies.

So whatever film wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its role in driving culture, as well as its capabilities and aspirations, at a specific point in time.

Every year’s nominee slate, then, is a rough approximation of the options from which the industry will choose as it attempts to characterize its past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the eight Best Picture nominees from 2018 is that they exhibit a lot of variety.

There’s a superhero film, two political satires (one set in an 18th-century royal court and one set in the White House), a movie about infiltrating the KKK, a classic Hollywood remake, a classic Hollywood feel-good buddy comedy, a rocker biopic, and a sweeping domestic drama. And thinking about what the Academy voters — as well as audiences and critics — found enticing about them can help us better understand both the state of Hollywood and, broadly speaking, what we were looking for at the movies this year.

In the run-up to the Oscars on February 24, Vox’s staff is looking at each of the eight Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Here, we talk about BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning movie about a black police officer (played by John David Washington) who infiltrates the KKK with the help of a Jewish colleague (played by Adam Driver, who is nominated for his performance). Joining the conversation are Vox critics Todd VanDerWerff and Alissa Wilkinson, senior politics and policy correspondent Zack Beauchamp, and race and identities reporter P.R. Lockhart.

Why BlacKkKlansman matters

Alissa Wilkinson: BlacKkKlansman is one of those films that provokes a strong reaction among everyone who sees it. I attending its Cannes premiere last May, and the (mostly European) audience was laughing uproariously throughout. I was wincing the whole way through, and went back to my hotel room and wrote a somewhat scathing review of the film, which I still fault largely for taking easy pot shots at racists and white supremacists, thereby allowing the audience to do so too, without acknowledging that there’s something much more insidious to white supremacy than hicks and white hoods.

I still stand by that review, and I haven’t changed my mind about the film. But I’ve enjoyed talking to people about it, because it’s a good example of how differently many people think what a film should be and do — something that’s true of a lot of this year’s Best Picture nominees, whether it’s Vice or Green Book or Bohemian Rhapsody.

The best arguments I’ve heard in favor of BlacKkKlansman have been from people who see the film as not an argument or a depiction but a cry for justice and, in some cases, revenge. (The film’s best scene is absolutely the one which cuts between the Ku Klux Klan watching The Birth of a Nation and an elder civil rights activist, played by Harry Belafonte, talking with a group of young activists about a lynching he witnessed in 1916; the way the film is edited to mimic the innovations that The Birth of a Nation director D.W. Griffith brought to cinema while also propagating racism is a brilliant rebuttal of Griffith’s film.)

Since I published that review, I’ve received emails from people who strongly agree with my feeling and from people who strongly disagree with it, with good points to back up their opinions. (Also, there are occasional messages from the inevitable bad-faith readers who think I’m saying white people should all die, but that’s the internet for you.) I’m not surprised to see BlacKkKlansman show up among the year’s Best Picture nominees.

This is the sort of film the Academy often responds to — it’s funny, it’s searing, it’s powerful, it’s tragic, and it has some great performances. Plus, Spike Lee has never been nominated for Best Director, let alone won the prize. The Academy may decide he’s way overdue.

What did you think of BlacKkKlansman when you first saw it? What function do you think it should serve? And how successful do you think it is?

P.R. Lockhart: I remember reading your review, and it initially lowered my expectations of the movie. I’ve written about how white Americans often tend to rely on depictions of racism that are glaringly obvious — the sort of mustache-twirling, hood-wearing, slur-spouting racism — and how that reliance can make it harder to address subtle forms of racism and systemic injustice.

Still, there have been and continue to be people who engage in this more obvious racism, so I wasn’t all that bothered by how Lee handles the KKK members in BlacKkKlansman.

Take chapter member Felix, for example: He’s cartoonishly racist, and his wife is about as outlandish as he is. But put them next to Walter, the KKK chapter president, or even Topher Grace’s grand wizard David Duke (who presents a more genteel “polished” image), and they each come off as different characters despite all being in the KKK.

So I think the film actually showed that these people are different, and that the only reason they’re all in a room together is that they’re white men and women united by a strong belief in white supremacy. If those similarities made them all seem stupid it’s because honestly, the very core of racism relies on a set of very nonsensical ideas. The issue is that even though racism is stupid, it is also powerful.

Topher Grace as David Duke in BlacKkKlansman.
Topher Grace as David Duke in BlacKkKlansman.
Focus Features

But honestly, I actually don’t care that much about the white KKK members in BlacKkKlansman. They certainly matter, and I think Lee adding the Charlottesville, Virginia, footage at the end as an epilogue, showing the movie’s connection to present events, was a clear effort to show how the core attitudes of racism haven’t changed. But I still felt like the KKK characters were just the racists both versions of Ron Stallworth have to overcome. I see how this would be disappointing for someone who went into the film expecting a more complicated indictment of racism in America.

For me though, the real story of BlacKkKlansman lies in its examination of language, ideology, and code-switching, both in how John David Washington’s Ron Stallworth deals with navigating his identity as a black man who is a cop and in how Stallworth handles stacking the impersonation of a KKK member on top of that identity.

BlacKkKlansman’s depiction of how the black cop Stallworth (as well as Flip, the Jewish cop who’s forced to play a racist anti-Semite while working undercover with Stallworth) is basically code-switching in every scene, how that switching is believed and disbelieved by different characters, and how hard these ideological shifts can be on the person performing them is where the movie was most successful for me.

Todd VanDerWerff: I loved BlacKkKlansman, and it sits comfortably on my top 10 list for last year. That said: I suspect I would have hated it if I sat in an audience that treated it as a wild comedy instead of one that treated it as something slightly more sobering.

This is not to say the film doesn’t contain funny moments, but in the second half of the movie, it becomes clear that Lee is crafting a kind of treatise on the ways that entertainment inures us to darker things in the world, by making problems like racism seem easy to solve. A lot of the criticism of the movie has centered on the way that it seemingly turns law enforcement agents into heroes and the way that it ends with a (completely fabricated) scene where Ron and his friends arrest a racist cop.

But here’s the thing: It doesn’t end with that. It ends with the justifiably acclaimed sequence that cuts from Ron and his activist girlfriend Patrice, armed and at the ready, in Lee’s signature dolly zoom (where characters seem to float in mid-air, tugged along by the camera), to the Klan, still out there, still menacing, to our present-day white nationalist horrors and the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017.

It’s extremely on the nose, but by that point, the movie has earned the right to be on the nose. All of the conversations that Ron and Patrice have about the ways that fiction sells us the idea that bad cops are a few rotten apples among a sea of noble cops turn out to be foreshadowing for the reveal that you’ve been watching a Spike Lee film all along (which may be why he saves the dolly zoom for so late). All of the fabrication and escalation and police procedural entertainment was a distraction. The problem has never really gone away, and defeating it takes more than arresting a few bad apples.

Adam Driver, Michael Buscemi, and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman.
Adam Driver, Michael Buscemi, and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman.
Focus Features

I think this works because Spike Lee has always been great at dipping into genre filmmaking when he’s so inclined (see 2006’s Inside Man for a terrific example). And he’ll occasionally try to blend his genre mode with his political essay mode, but rarely as well as he does in BlacKkKlansman, where the two sides of his filmmaking personality keep devouring each other. The power of white nationalism lies in the power of the stories that white nationalism tells about America. And maybe the only way to destroy it is to dismantle those stories, brick by brick.

Zack Beauchamp: Like Todd, BlacKkKlansman was one of my favorite films of the year. And like P.R., I wasn’t troubled by the fact that the racists in the movie are of the overtly grotesque kind that you see only on the fringe right today. Indeed, I kind of felt like that was the point.

Todd mentioned the montage of clips from Charlottesville at the end. To me, it’s impossible to separate the actual memory of the events in Charlottesville from the way that President Donald Trump reacted. His “very fine people on both sides” line, his unwillingness to seriously condemn the alt-right and David Dukes of the world, show how the attitudes of the film’s Klansmen have infiltrated the mainstream today. This is a theme that runs throughout the movie, where Trump is a kind of specter not-so-subtly haunting the proceedings. Sure, making one of the Klansmen yell “make America great again” isn’t exactly artful, but it does get the point across.

That’s not to say BlacKkKlansman is incapable of subtlety. There’s a scene where Flip talks to Ron about the experience of being a Jew forced to attend all these Klan meetings that — and I’m speaking as a Jew here — nailed something really important about the Jewish experience today.

“I was just another white kid. And now I’m in some basement denying it [my Judaism] out loud,” Flip tells Ron. “I never thought much about it; now I’m thinking about it all the time.”

So many Jews have had the same conversation with their friends and loved ones in the past few years, and especially since last year’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Many secular Jews have seen themselves as fully white members of America’s ethnic majority, only to have their illusions shatter as anti-Semitic politics became more prominent and more deadly. So many “just another white kids” have started to think about their Judaism all the time.

And that’s just an offhand line in a movie that isn’t really about Jewishness! To me, this illustrates the depth of BlacKkKlansman, the thoughtfulness that’s so easy to miss amid all the bombast and hit-you-over-the-head Trump references.

Why does BlacKkKlansman deserve to win Best Picture?

Alissa: I think what I respect about this film, despite my criticisms — especially in contrast to some of the other Best Picture nominees that are far less certain about what they’re trying to do — is that it has made space for these kinds of discussions about movies. And its topic, of course, seems freshly relevant.

I’m curious what you all think about a film like BlacKkKlansman in contrast to, say, Black Panther, especially if you try to put yourself in the mind of an Oscar voter. I recognize that the two movies aren’t really similar at all, but long-time Oscar observers know that for better or worse, they’ll occupy similar space in the minds of many Academy members. If you were trying to convince an Academy member that BlacKkKlansman is the film of the year, what would you say about it? Or if you’d argue against the film, why?

Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman
Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman.
Focus Features

Todd: One great thing about the movies of 2018 (and the last few years, honestly) is the way they’ve presented all of these different visions of the black experience in America. As a white critic, it’s so wonderful to have black directors who are taken seriously beyond Spike Lee, who can provide a whole bunch of different takes on what it means to be black in this country, at this point in history. (And, yes, I know that Black Panther is technically set in Wakanda, but Wakanda has ... a lot of similarities with America, at least in a funhouse mirror version of that movie.)

In a way, though, I think BlacKkKlansman is in conversation with Black Panther, which edges up to questioning the power structure of Wakanda and the ways that Wakanda’s actions sometimes make the world worse, before mostly shoving all of those complications back in the box. BlacKkKlansman is interested in onscreen representations of black people, and it’s also interested in what happens when the only two real avenues for that representation have traditionally come via criminals and authority figures who prosecute those criminals.

This is a legacy we’re only just now starting to really deconstruct, and it’s one that Lee’s film is so invested in poking at from every angle. BlacKkKlansman understands what’s so fun about characters like Shaft or like the fictionalized Ron Stallworth, who can serve as figures who hold all of the power that’s denied to too many black moviegoers.

But it also understands what makes those characters complicit in propping up a racist society by making it subconsciously easier for us to write off, say, the problems with racism within police departments. When BlacKkKlansman stages these arguments between Ron and Patrice, it takes neither’s side, because elements of both of their arguments are correct. Seeing a character like Shaft is important. But it’s also part of some deeper, more pernicious problem within society.

Obviously Black Panther has so many different visions of what it means to be black in the world in the 2010s. But it’s not hard to imagine Ron and Patrice seeing the movie and arguing about whether T’Challa did the right thing at the end, whether Wakanda was right to conceal itself for so long with so many black people suffering across the planet. Black Panther, eventually, offers something like an answer to this question. BlacKkKlansman never does, and that is why I find it a better movie on the whole (though I love both of these films dearly).

(A sidebar: I’m thrilled that Lee received his first Oscar nomination for Best Directing this year, but it is nuts that in a year when both Ryan Coogler and Barry Jenkins directed movies with some Oscar success — Coogler’s film is a Best Picture nominee! — we still have never had a year with more than one black director nominated in that category. It’s really awful!)

Zack: I think the case for BlacKkKlansman as the film of the year is straightforwardly political. And I don’t mean that at all in a bad way.

A lot of my reporting focuses on the question of, basically, “What the hell is going on with the world?” How did Donald Trump happen, and why is it that so many similar far-right politicians are enjoying success in Western countries? And what I’ve found is that a lot of the most popular answers — the ones that blame economic anxiety or frustration with the Washington elite — are wrong.

The overwhelming bulk of the evidence suggests that the rise of Trump and similar far-right politicians centers on white cultural anxieties about race and cultural change caused by migration from non-white countries. In the United States, that first one is especially important: Trump is the culmination of a racialized backlash to the gains of the civil rights movement in general and the Obama presidency specifically.

The Klan meeting in BlacKkKlansman.
The Klan meeting in BlacKkKlansman.
Focus Features

The statistical evidence on this point is overwhelming, to my mind. But charts and lectures from people like me only go so far in helping people understand this story. To really get it, you need to be able to grasp the connections between our current political moment and the more naked racism of the past on a more visceral level. And it really helps to see that through the lens of marginalized groups, particularly African Americans, who know through their own experiences that things haven’t changed as much as many in the white majority like to think.

That’s what BlacKkKlansman is so strong on. I get the critique of the movie as being didactically anti-Trump, but I think that’s missing the educational function of drawing those connections so clearly. It’s not simply “Trump is bad,” but rather “Here are the ways Trump and Trumpism connect to America’s particular history of racism.” That is an important truth, one that’s too often buried or obscured in popular discourse. BlacKkKlansman surfaces it, and it’s hard to think of a message that’s more important to convey in our current moment.

P.R.: I want to go back to the part about black movies, because it’s really true: In 2018 there were several films from black directors (including this one, Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, and Coogler’s Black Panther) that centered black people, but deviated from what the Oscars tend to reward — the movies that either tell very specific parts of black history, or present a “post-racial” message about interracial friendships and really neat reconciliations. And these were good films, so good that I agree with Todd: There should have been more black directors nominated this year.

I also agree that there’s a conversation between BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther. But I see it a bit differently. To me, BlacKkKlansman’s story of white supremacy and racism’s violent past being directly connected to its violent present not only explains part of what made Black Panther’s Killmonger so hungry to take over Wakanda, it also explains part of what made Black Panther such a big deal for black audiences.

To make up for the fact that I backed out of answering Alissa’s actual question, I want to talk a bit about BlacKkKlansman and Green Book because I actually think those are the two nominated films most in conversation with one another this year. And on one hand it’s kind of obvious: BlacKkKlansman is a film that shows how America actually is, Green Book shows what Academy voters often wish America would be.

There’s more to the connection though, both are also based on true stories, but they deal with their source material differently. BlacKkKlansman is willing to fudge the timeline to make its points. Green Book tries to be super true to Nick Vallelonga’s memories of his dad, which helps the film in some ways and hurts it in others. Both films openly show black characters being exposed to racism, but BlacKkKlansman cleverly doesn’t overuse its openly racist KKK members for these scenes. Instead, it has the white cop Landers say and do racist things to the film’s black characters.

I won’t go so far as to say that Green Book absolves the North of racism, because it doesn’t, but it certainly points to where it thinks the “worst” racism was. BlacKkKlansman does the opposite, showing how racism and white supremacy, even if it happens behind closed doors in all-white rooms.

Even if the movie’s setting lacks the Jim Crow laws of previous decades, even if it’s set in Colorado Springs and not Birmingham, its topic is still a very dangerous thing that continues to be weaponized now. It’s very in your face with its message that racism isn’t just about the past but about the present, that for all of the talk about racial progress, in many ways America is still stuck in place. And in driving home that point, BlacKkKlansman makes a case for why it deserves an Oscar.

But I’m personally rooting for Black Panther to deliver an upset.

Alissa: I’m pretty sure BlacKkKlansman is just a bit too “edgy” to win, especially when Green Book is an option for some of its potential voters — but I’ve thought that in the past, and maybe the Academy will surprise us. And even if it doesn’t, maybe these Oscars will at least deliver the first Best Director win to Spike Lee, who I think we can all agree is long, long overdue for the honor. No matter what, though, I suspect BlacKkKlansman will always be considered a valuable and revealing artifact from this very specific moment in time; no matter where you (or I) land on the film itself, it’s certainly anything but forgettable.

Check out what our roundtable participants had to say about all eight Best Picture nominees:

Black Panther | BlacKkKlansman | Bohemian Rhapsody | The Favourite | Green Book | Roma | A Star Is Born | Vice

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