As Trump’s rhetoric grows louder, as white supremacists rise up to commit acts of unspeakable violence, as America finds itself up close and personal with its monstrous, racist past, BlackKklansman continues to resonate. Is there any other film this year that holds Trump to account as much as this one? Spike Lee points the finger right at Trump in the final montage, nails him for his “both sides” comment after Charlottesville, and shows us what is happening in our country. Now, generally this is the job of documentarians. Clearly, Fahrenheit 11/9, Active Measures, and others speak truth to power of the unmitigated disaster that is Donald Trump. But Lee’s film is the only narrative film that really drives the point powerfully home because ultimately his film traces it from root to stem.
I haven’t always been sure what to make of BlackKklansman in the race. After all, the Gothams only chose to recognize Adam Driver. And to tell you the truth, no one can ever be sure, even now. The reason being Spike Lee has been too consistently confrontational toward the Academy and the industry. Both his personality and his work. His films are direct, occasionally angry, but also often celebratory. Probably one of the reasons the Academy has continually rejected his films has more to do with guilt among many of its members (like many of the rest of us): white people who don’t know what to do with the mixed feelings we have about being called out repeatedly for being racists when we don’t see ourselves as racists. Academy members prefer films that remove race almost entirely from their storyline as it relates to white people, unless its a film where a significant white character is the hero. Well, in BlackKklansman there are white heroes. And white villains. Some of it is grotesque and might strike some as over the top. But can anyone think of a film that expresses the spectrum of attitudes of 2018 better? I can think of only one other — Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. It, too, is a confrontation directed at us, the tragedy of us. And there is Ben Is Back and Beautiful Boy, about drug addiction and how the drug companies do nothing but facilitate. Boy Erased also seems to have present day resonance.
In an indirect way, Roma is also about 2018. Why? Because it humanizes the very people Trump himself is calling criminals, rapists, and terrorists. Yes, the Mexican people whom Trump wishes to see diminished, disgraced, humiliated, and ejected from this country. What a disgrace. Roma is of course about someone that guys like Trump would simply not even see. That makes it on its own a powerful statement.
There are films about heroism that turn the page from Trump either forwards or backwards. I see First Man as the option to look back and remember how high and how far a president once dreamed for space travel and mankind’s ambition. You could maybe see A Star is Born as a kind of celebration of creativity, especially the creativity of badass female songwriters who finally get a big break. The Front Runner, of course, is a reminder of how the press once savaged a candidate on the rise for a really dumb reason. And then we have Vice, a reminder of the people who took control of the direction of this country at the turn of the century, leading to the deaths of millions in an unjust war and the near-collapse of the global economy.
If Beale Street Could Talk resonates for its stark premonitions of injustice and systemic racism that would only worsen in the decades that followed James Baldwin’s novel. Widows is about the awesome strength unleashed when women are empowered to control their own fates. Green Book shows us how men who grew up in a world of casual racism can have the rough splinters of their bigotry sanded smooth simply by engaging in obliging relationships with people they were raised to disrespect.
The question is: will the Academy still want to look back at America’s mistakes? Or will they want to run from the seriousness and seek to escape from it? Will they choose to vote for something that makes them believe there is a better world we can embrace? I know that will likely depend on how the midterms go. If bright lights like Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams, and Beto O’Rourke win office? Then maybe the wind of optimism will once again be at our backs. If not, how much further will we sink into despair? The Oscar race often exists as an island unto itself, but the line appears to have been erased once Trump was elected.
If history is any clue, we’re entering a dark period for Best Picture winners, not a bright one. That story isn’t yet told and we have two more agonizing years of Trump before a Democrat gets a chance at bat to take him on and maybe win.
I would look very carefully at this year’s Best Picture race (which currently seems to be either lacking in focus or dwelling in an impermeable bubble) and I would think about what stories are going to resonate on an emotional soul-searching level as we head into November, when the critics will start handing out their awards. It all comes down quickly after that. I don’t think many critics will embrace BlackKklansman. Something tells me they won’t go that route. But the industry might. I can think of no more powerful statement than a black man pointing his finger right at the most powerful man in the world.