(NOTE: A version of this article originally appeared here.)
Green Book: *
Two of last year’s most talked-about films, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, both deal with race relations in America. In the former, a white man named Tony chauffeurs a black pianist named Don on a concert tour through the South. The latter, meanwhile, tells the story of Ron Stallworth, a black detective who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a white, Jewish colleague named Flip Zimmerman.
Despite their overlapping subject matter, these two films met with vastly different receptions during this past awards season. While many critics derided Green Book’s view of race as “simplistic” and “retrograde,” they almost universally characterized Lee’s as “provocative” and “subversive.” Ultimately, perhaps nobody offered a better illustration of this disparity in perception than Lee himself, who angrily tried to leave the Dolby Theatre after Green Book won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.
In these critics’ defense, Green Book and BlacKkKlansman certainly do differ in several important respects. Most significantly, they disagree about whether racism still exists in America. On the one hand, Farrelly’s work suggests that racism is no longer a real issue. While this idea is never expressed directly, the film’s rosy ending – Don has dinner with Tony’s erstwhile racist family – implies that racial reconciliation in the U.S. is largely complete. In a sense, Farrelly turns Tony and Don’s friendship into a symbol, hinting that it represents the mutual understanding that blacks and whites collectively reached during the 1960s.
In contrast to Green Book, meanwhile, BlacKkKlansman emphatically makes the argument that racism remains a problem. Although its narrative is set in the 1970s, the film drops frequent allusions to the present – the KKK antagonists, for instance, repeatedly use the slogan “America first” – and at the very end, there’s even footage of Donald Trump’s comments on the 2017 Charlottesville riots. With such references, Lee’s message proves quite clear: the hatred that characterizes BlacKkKlansman’s antagonists is anything but dead.
Even as Green Book and BlacKkKlansman differ on the persistence of racism, however, they’re similar in that they both advance simplistic conceptions of what racism is. This is fairly obvious to see in the case of Green Book. As many people have pointed out, Farrelly’s depiction of racism is tainted by sentimentality, equating bigotry with angry Southern men who spew insults whenever they get the chance. Under this understanding of racism, racism could be overcome if everyone just realized that “black people are people, too” – a notion that fails to reflect how racism extends beyond individual attitudes to encompass greater, more durable institutions and laws.
The problems with BlacKkKlansman, meanwhile, lie in how it portrays white people. Generally speaking, the film’s white characters fit into a neat dichotomy. On the one hand, some of them – the KKK antagonists, the patrolman who gleefully harasses Ron’s girlfriend – are inveterate, in-your-face racists. As we see, these are the kind of people who unashamedly use the N-word, go out of their way to disparage blacks, and – as evidenced by a late scene in the film – hold D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to be something close to gospel truth.
In contrast to this, however, the other white people in BlacKkKlansman – most of Ron’s police colleagues, minus the aforementioned patrolman – are depicted as redeemable, more sympathetic figures. True, at the film’s start, these people are clearly prejudiced, and they treat Ron with a condescension that’s both insulting and demeaning. Yet over the course of the film, they slowly get to know Ron better. And partially as a result of this, they eventually become fairly woke: a group of them cooperates to arrest said patrolman, and several of them protest when Ron’s investigation into the KKK is shut down due to budget cuts.
Ultimately, this character dichotomy transmits two problematic messages about racism. First, by establishing a contrast between vicious, outspoken bigots (i.e. the KKK) and reformable enemies-turned-allies (i.e. Ron’s colleagues), BlacKkKlansman encourages us to associate racism with the former. Put differently, given the starkness of this dichotomy, it’s as though racism owed its continued existence to the obstinacy of people like the film’s KKK antagonists – namely, extremists who’re so extreme that they just can’t be re-educated or reasoned with.
To understand the limitations of this conception of racism, it might help to briefly compare it with that of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. In Peele’s film, the white characters are affluent, educated liberals (not coincidentally, the kind of people who also frequent movie theaters) who don’t conceal their distaste for the KKK’s brand of white supremacy. Yet as anyone who’s seen Get Out knows well, that hardly means that these characters aren’t racist. Although they ostensibly espouse non-racist views, their ill-informed comments (e.g. “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could”) and brain-transplanting scheme indicate that they still see black people as a kind of exotic “Other.”
Here, the differences between BlacKkKlansman and Get Out prove instructive. Whereas BlacKkKlansman directs its ire at right-wing extremists, Get Out illustrates how prejudice extends beyond these extremists, forcing the viewer to examine how racism afflicts even “respectable,” middle-class America. BlacKkKlansman’s interest in white nationalism certainly isn’t unwarranted. But by focusing on the blatant bigotry of people like Trump and David Duke, it lulls its mainstream audience into complacency, drawing attention away from the “soft bigotry” that has long characterized mainstream, non-KKK America as well.
Beyond its characterization of bigotry’s source, the aforementioned character dichotomy also suggests that racism is always overt. By spotlighting figures like Trump and members of the KKK, in other words, the film associates racism with frank hostility, equating prejudice with loud, openly expressed attempts to demean or hurt minority communities.
This idea isn’t untrue, but it’s incomplete. With his focus on overt hatred, Lee overlooks that many racist ideas are camouflaged as just the opposite. For instance, as many people have argued, policies like voter ID and sentencing laws have a disproportionate, harmful impact on people of color. Yet since they don’t directly incorporate considerations of race into their calculus, they can (and often do) pass as being race-neutral, even if they’re anything but. By linking racism with the KKK, then, BlacKkKlansman doesn’t do justice to these less obvious – but perhaps more insidious – ways by which prejudice shapes American society.
In sum, BlacKkKlansman has often been cast as Green Book’s antithesis. But although BlacKkKlansman is certainly more aware of present-day realities than Green Book, that awareness doesn’t make Lee’s conception of racism more sophisticated than Farrelly’s. On the contrary: in issuing an ardent condemnation of Trump and white nationalism, BlacKkKlansman ironically, inexplicably downplays the subtler and more enduring forms that prejudice has taken in America. In that sense, BlacKkKlansman deserves just as much criticism as Green Book – no matter that Lee would probably react to that idea with complete horror.