Prior to seeing BlacKkKlansman, I thought about comparing and contrasting it with another somewhat widely released movie from earlier this summer, Sorry To Bother You. But, as basically every Compare/Contrast has, it felt a little reductive to compare two movies so full of social complexities. But then I saw BlacKkKlansman, and remembered that it does share one big plot similarity with Sorry To Bother You – in that it is also about a black male trying to do his job, and then attempts to get ahead in his job by using his “white voice” while talking into a telephone. Then there’s also the fact that Sorry To Bother You director Boots Riley got into a bit of a kerfuffle with Spike Lee about BlacKkKlansman on Twitter. So here I am, talking about two of the more memorable movies of the summer in the same light.
I probably don’t need to talk about the plots of BlacKkKlansman or Sorry To Bother You, since they’ve both been out for a while. So if you’ve wanted to see them, you’ve probably seen them. But to speak of their plot similarities, Sorry To Bother You stars Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius, who has just gotten a job at a telemarketing company. Cassius then finds himself experiencing unrelenting success at the company after he starts calling prospective customers while using his “white voice” (which happens to be that of David Cross).
BlacKkKlansman, on the other hand, revolves around the true(ish) story of Colorado Springs’ first black cop, Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), who goes undercover by enrolling over telephone in the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In the process, his Jewish partner (Adam Driver) plays Ron’s body double, in order to convince the morons in the KKK that he’s just another upstanding hateful white Christian.
Obviously, the “white voice” plot device is an odd coincidence, but makes sense considering both of these movies are about the way black people must act in the presence of white men in order to get ahead. It also speaks to the sometimes stagnant nature of racial equality that Ron Stallworth has to resort to the same kind of kissassery in an early ’70s police precinct that Cassius has to resort to in the context of corporate America in present day. And as both films seem to allude to in their final acts, these kinds of old world formalities don’t necessarily go away, they just evolve into different kinds of injustices.
But… perhaps I should get away from the social themes of these movies, since as a (very) white guy, I can’t really speak to them with much authority. Nor can I really speak to Boots Riley’s assertion that BlacKkKlansman paints a troubling picture of cops in regards to black people. But I can speak to how these two films go about trying to get a rise out of their audience, which both films do to varying degrees. In fact, I had kind of a similar reaction to both films. On first viewings of both of them, they both felt a little uneven and messy, but are also clearly filled with enough thought-provoking ideas, that they’ve lingered in my brain long after.
That said, Sorry To Bother You has done a better job of lingering, considering I saw it over a month ago and am still thinking about everything that was chocked into it. Considering Boots Riley has been expressing himself for years through his band The Coup as well as various performance art and activist endeavors, the dude loves to create and also has a lot on his mind. In this debut feature film, he seems to be jamming all of that creativity and thoughtfulness into a movie that’s so brimming with energy that I can’t wait to see it again.
BlacKkKlansman, on the other hand, isn’t quite as unruly in terms of its tone or where it goes, because it is owed the courtesy of being a based on a true story, or as the film’s pretext states “based upon some fo’ real fo’ real shit”. Though from what I’ve read, the film plays pretty fast and loose with the actual details of Stallworth’s undercover work. Still, I’m not sure there’s quite enough believably over-the-top details in this story for the film to add up to something quite as harrowing as it’s trying to be.
I probably should’ve mentioned earlier that BlacKkKlansman, unsurprisingly, is a lot more about race-related issues than Sorry To Bother You. And a lot of the time, it deals with these issues in the kinds of provocative ways that Spike Lee does when he’s at his best. Much of it comes from the scenes of the KKK members expressing their altogether shitty views, while Adam Driver, working undercover, has to just nod and go along with it. But also, the film’s occasional potency lies in the technique Lee employs, especially in crosscutting the vitriol of the KKK against the passion of the Black Panter-era radicals featured in the film.
Meanwhile, race is only a small part of the beautifully jumbled puzzle that is Sorry To Bother You. The film is probably more about capitalism than anything, and how seemingly good people can sell their souls in order to permeate the evils of capitalism. Some of it has to do with the phony idealism of Silicon Valley, and some of it has to do with the decreasing power of Unions in the workplace. But all of it is embodied by the swaggering CEO played by Armie Hammer.
Yet for all of its anger towards the establishment, somehow Sorry To Bother You always retains an air of absurdity and humor. BlacKkKlansman similarly has plenty of comic moments to go along with its moments of militancy. Maybe this is just a smart tactic for getting audiences to accept films that have more than their share of radical concepts. But whatever the case is, it works, though probably more effectively in Sorry To Bother You. And in these times, I’d say anyone fighting on the side of justice has to try just about whatever way they can to get their message across to anyone who will pick up a phone and listen to it.