In Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s sadly-still-relevant 1989 film about escalating racial tensions in Brooklyn; the pizza-making Italian-American character Pino spends the majority of the film complaining about black people and referring to them with a mean word that starts with “N.” Simultaneously, all of his favorite cultural icons are black men. When asked to defend this dissonance, he explains, “They’re black, but they’re not really black. They’re more than black. It’s different.”
Thirty years later, white America is still making the same distinction. We love black musicians, athletes, and comedians because we appreciate—and thus identify with—the exceptional. We love Black Panther because it’s a Marvel movie and not a political party. Yet we still can’t comprehend that “Black Lives Matter” means “Black Lives Matter Too” and not “Black Lives Matter More.” We may not be shouting the N-word in pizzerias, but that doesn’t mean we understand.
You see, the only thing that white people love more than superhero movies is pretending that racism ended with segregation. After all, that’s what cinema keeps telling us. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, several critically-acclaimed films have addressed racism. Hidden Figures, 12 Years a Slave, and Selma were all Best Picture nominees in the last decade that reminded white people that racism is stupid. They were also all period dramas, which allows white people to think, “Racism was bad back then. I’m so glad it’s over.” Green Book and The Help, also Best Picture-nominated, provided us the same safety of removal, additionally allowing us to view racism through the lens of a white protagonist who conquered their own prejudice—as we the white, empathizing viewer, surely also would have done in the 1960s.
Then there’s Crash, a Best Picture winner set in modern times (well, 2005), which absolved white people of their racism by making characters of all ethnicities racist, and by insinuating that we should all probably cut it out and be kind to each other. Crash spends two hours providing sob stories to justify the racism perpetuated by each character, and then ends with its only relatively non-racist character shooting and killing a black man for making a sudden movement. If this character can make a mistake, it must mean that police brutality is just a misunderstanding—definitely not institutionalized racism. It also tells us, through another of its character arcs, that it’s okay to be a bigoted, woman-molesting police officer so long as you save that woman from a car accident towards the end of the film. Great job, Crash.
Still, at least a few newer entries have been tougher to wash off. Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman (2018) takes place in the 1970s, but doesn’t conclude with the tidy proposition that racism is solved. In fact, it ends with a Ku Klux Klan resurgence and then intercuts footage of white supremacist rallies that are still happening today. That made me feel bad. I don’t like feeling bad. Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) let us know how scary white people actually are, although most of us probably missed the subtext. Finally, there’s Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (2013), probably the most effective recent film about race, that reaches out to our hardened white hearts by spending an hour letting us know intimate details about the main black character’s life before he’s brutally slaughtered by the police department for no reason whatsoever. Fruitvale Station checks all the right boxes for cuing in-denial whites that there is something wrong with race in this country. It takes place in modern times, it’s a drama with no comedic elements, and the victim of racial violence is the protagonist – someone the film put in an effort to make us care about before taking him away. And it’s a true story. You’ve got to upset white people with the truth, instead of giving them comedic or historical leeway.
But then again, will white America even watch a film like Fruitvale Station if it’s not on Netflix? There’s certainly only about seven white people who have seen If Beale Street Could Talk. Maybe instead of producing insightful character studies on black Americans, we just need to flood movie screens with more black superheroes. Let’s make Black Panther a six-film series. Give Luke Cage a movie deal. Let’s give Storm her own movie series and reboot Catwoman. Hell, put Halle Berry in everything. White people will watch it all. If we can’t get white Americans to acknowledge the complexities of black individuals through film, we can try to convince them that all black people have superpowers. At the very least, if Hollywood continues to make films about race; let’s advocate for films that highlight the struggles of now, instead of those that let us pretend the struggle is over.