Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer hired in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Based on Stallworth’s memoir Black Klansman, the film follows the young upstart officer through the racial prejudices of the police department. When he is transferred to the undercover investigations department, Stallworth hatches a plan to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Writer-director Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a potent and poignant allegory about modern race relations in suburban America. It is constructed on the skeleton of a slow-burn horror-thriller, with some awkward comedy thrown in for good measure. Satirical to its very core, Get Out ridicules the WASP-y “post-racism” of the middle-upper class, and suggests that despite protestations to the contrary, this racism is just as nefarious as blatant hatred. Through a deft use of genre tropes, Peele develops this allegory to its full potency, and the audience reaps the rewards. As the pieces fall into place, we are eating out of Peele’s hand at every turn and there is only one conclusion: Get Out is a masterpiece, harshly satiric and thoroughly creepy.
In Fences, the titanic talents of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are once again on full display. The two reprise their roles from the 2010 revival of August Wilson’s play of the same name, for which each earned a Tony Award. The film certainly feels like a play, as the performances are very stylized towards the stage. Washington directs the film as well, making it his third feature, and first in nearly ten years. Though peppered with discussions of race relations in the 1950s, the core of the story focuses on the relationships between members of the Maxson family. Within this context, Fences explores the importance of responsibility, the strength and danger of a domineering personality, and the conflict between settling for something and seeking out your own desires in life. It is a small film, but packs quite a punch throughout.
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is a remarkable piece of cinema, especially from a first-timer. Parker controls this entire endeavor as writer, director, producer, and also stars as the slave Nat Turner. This is a powerful but sad film, though there is a kernel of hope at its center that Parker tries to work from. Based on a the real-life slave revolt led by Nat Turner in the early 1830s, the film offers incredible acting, but suffers slightly from narrative issues and some muddled thematic material. Of course, Parker takes some poetic license with the actual history, and while some of these help the story, others are more egregious and unnecessary. The most definitive aspect of the film is its profound spirituality, which Parker leans heavily on for dramatic justification of Turner’s rebellion, and also as the source of his leadership. Indeed, this is a film about not only racial injustice, but spiritual deliverance. Parker is sometimes lost with exactly where to focus the rebellious spirit, but these small mistakes cannot mar the overall poignancy of his message.