"If Beale Street Could Talk," "Green Book" and BlacKkKlansman" may seem like period pieces but they all point to racial flashpoints we still need to resolve.
“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”
The Barry Jenkins film “If Beale Street Could Talk” opens with this startling line, taken from the James Baldwin novel of the same name that it’s based on.
Spoken by a pregnant 19-year-old about her fiancé, a young African-American man in jail for a rape he didn’t commit, it says so much about the power of the justice system over not only those accused of crimes but their families and communities.
The promise of justice, or the lack of it, underpins this tender story about young love sabotaged by a racially biased system that pegs black men as criminals whether or not they’ve done anything wrong.
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I watched the film on a recent weekend when I also saw two other movies that explore the African-American experience in a society dominated by a privileged white majority: “Green Book” and “BlacKkKlansman.”
All three are up for Oscars this year and all three, while set in previous eras and totally different in plot and tone, feature stories that depict America as a nation built for one kind of person at the expense and to the detriment of others — in these three cases African Americans, and in the case of “BlacKkKlansman” Jewish Americans as well.
In the well-acted but problematic “Green Book,” renowned black pianist Don Shirley hires a tough, Italian-American driver named Tony Vallelonga to chauffeur him across the Jim Crow South on a concert tour, during a period when black travelers were forced to eat at separate restaurants, use separate restrooms and sleep in separate hotels — and when the threat of anti-black violence was ever-present.
The story is inspired by real people and events but has drawn criticism from Shirley’s family and other detractors over its accuracy and for making Vallelonga look too much like a white savior to his black counterpart (I agree). The scene in which the thick-accented Vallelonga tries to teach his elegant black employer how to eat fried chicken — supposedly to help the socially aloof pianist connect with his blackness — is cringe-worthy.
To figure out how to accommodate his passenger, Vallelonga refers to his copy of “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” an actual travel guide started by New York City postal worker Victor Hugo Green in 1936 that lists facilities catering to, or accepting of, African Americans.
The guide, published for 30 years, was the true savior for Shirley in the film, and for that whole generation of black travelers cruising America’s highways and byways.
“BlacKkKlansman” is also based on a true story. In this case, Ron Stallworth, an African-American Colorado Springs police officer, infiltrates a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1970s by posing, on the phone at least, as a race-baiting white supremacist. Stallworth’s fellow officer, who’s Jewish in the film but was not in real life, stands in for him in face-to-face meetings with KKK members. Unbelievably, Stallworth meets KKK Grand Wizard (and present-day white supremacist demagogue) David Duke during a white-supremacist gathering.
The film, directed by the always provocative Spike Lee, looks retro, but make no mistake about it. Lee has the racism and anti-Semitism of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally of Trump-era America in mind just as much as he does ’70s-style cultural politics. Duke was a major player then, and the avid Trump supporter showed up decades later in Charlottesville to help white people, who’ve controlled the country for every second of its existence up to and including the Obama years, “take our country back.”
We go to movies in part to escape reality but these three films won’t let you ignore this country’s racial inequities and pressure points any more than today’s news headlines do.
What’s so disturbing to me is that we’re still dealing with flashpoint issues that we should’ve resolved by now — like biased policing, mass incarceration of black men, white supremacy, anti-Semitism and the next-level cultural incompetence of a third of Americans who still think wearing blackface is kind of cool, according to a recent Pew poll.
In each of these films, characters make difficult choices about how to treat people who aren’t like them and more than that, and whether to stick their necks out for them as they face the cold reality of bigotry. Sadly, Hollywood too often makes this risky choice seem complication-free, though that’s almost never the case.
When you watch the Oscars this weekend, think about the people in our own time who struggle on the other side of the glass, metaphorically speaking.
Think about people who rightly expect justice, fairness, opportunity and compassion but who can’t afford to take those things for granted the way those who have access to them do.
And think about what you would do — and wouldn’t do — to correct the wrongs committed against them.
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