Infrequently, and not for quite some time, have I walked out of a theatre feeling viscerally shaken by what I just watched, forlorn tears filling my eyes while a seething righteous rage filled my gut, unable to talk about the film for fear that I might either cry or scream, or maybe both. Here is a film that pulls no punches, and lands every apoplectic jab one after another, right on the nose and right in the stomach, calculated to make anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear leave the theater feeling a double consciousness, equally outraged and hopeful, despondent and invigorated. And all this after a movie that for the vast majority of its run time is straight up hilarious, finding nuances of gallows humor and black comedy and social satire in truly bleak, hate-filled history.
Although the movie has near universal acclaim at this point—and I imagine that history will be kind to it, even if the film itself is unkind to history—there are a few common critical tropes I think worth briefly dissecting, including one that touches on the overwhelming affective mélange just mentioned. Some already have called the movie’s tone “inconsistent,” likely preferring the tonal blandness (as easy to swallow as mayonnaise) of the usual, vapid, insipid blockbuster fair. But what these critics miss is precisely the split, complicated, mixed nature of the black experience—explicitly mentioned in the movie by way of reference to Du Bois and the divided-against-itself quality of blaxploitation cinema. To have made a film with a simple, single tone is to betray the difficult experience of people of color for a false smoothness mythologized by white Americans. These critics want a cleaner affective experience, one that is easier to swallow with fewer jagged edges, one less politically urgent and more entertaining, one reduced to the black-and-white, clear-cut morality that Lee has refused ever since DO THE RIGHT THING, where answers don’t come easy and the fury of his community is mixed inexorably with the joy of their art.
Another common critique emerging, and one that the film shares with the similarly exigent and provocative and exasperated SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, is that the movie is “too on the nose,” not “subtle” enough, and to direct in the line it draws between the events of the narrative and the political situation today—and connection powerfully made explicit in the film’s coda, one of the finest endings to a film I have ever seen. This point makes absolutely no sense to me: So you want a political film, one that is trying to articulate a nuanced and complicated position, that is trying to imagine a morality beyond the binary configuration of black-and-white or cop-versus-villain, to be less clear, less pointed, and in effect, less political?
For me, this is the film’s greatest strength and its raison d’être: The modern tactics of white supremacists, first emerging in the early 1970s—when simultaneously the first films targeting black audiences and staring black actors are being made, and often are as bombastic as the earliest films made for a white audience and the white house—have reached their culmination in the Trump era. There is a direct line to draw between the work of the Klan under David Duke and the state brutality of the GOP under Trump, and this is a point that we are morally obliged to not shy away from or mince words about, nor should we criticize those, like Lee or Kwame Ture, who speak truth to power clearly and explicitly.
And on that front, there are also those critics who, while certainly celebrating the film, have cheered the “return” of Spike Lee, who is “necessary once more.” Well intentioned as such a sentiment is, it betrays how these critics miss the larger point of the work: Lee has never been anywhere else but right here, in the heart of America, making incisive and intransigent and important films about the racial hell that is this nation’s racist ideology from its birth (in land, in art, in economy, etc). Spike Lee has always been necessary, no more today than he was a few years ago when he made the riotous CHI-RAQ or when he made the razor-sharp BAMBOOZLED.
But then again, as Lee has said time and again, industry (and especially white) critics, bred and supported by the same politico-economic institutions that Lee’s movies take aim at, never have understood his work. As he so famously said near the beginning of his career, white audiences don’t and won’t get his films, which aren’t made to submit to the dominant white gaze. Those white viewers who think that the movie is supposed to be a clear history lesson, an anti-racist pill easy to swallow, who think that just seeing this movie is enough to make them “woke,” who think that they are supposed to identify with the main character (like David Duke does, because his voice can pass as white), who think that this film, like the rest of America, is *for them*—well, I think they have missed the point, even if they have heard the call. For here is a movie that offers no easy conclusion or tightly tied final bow, but which, in its final frames, demands action, a movie that exists outside the theater even more than it does on the screen itself.
Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.