This is an African-American Independent film that has received significant support for a début feature. The director Boots Riley appears on IMDb with a smattering of different credits as a writer and performer and he has had a successful musical career through the rapping collective The Coup, but for his first feature he has recruited Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker and Rosario Dawson in small parts and has Tessa Thompson in the lead female role. His protagonist Cassius (Cash) Green is played by Lakeith Stanfield, also an established actor, and Riley finds himself as the cover story for Sight and Sound‘s December issue. Inside, the interview conducted by Kaleem Aftab reveals that Riley comes from a family of left-wing activists in Oakland, that he went to film school and that he was inspired by Spike Lee. His film was also supported by the Sundance festival and is distributed by Focus Features/Universal in the UK.
I found the film interesting throughout, but there were also moments when I thought it wasn’t working. Adam Nayman’s review in Sight and Sound makes a couple of points that seem relevant to me. The first is to compare Sorry to Bother You to a film like Black Panther (which I haven’t seen) and to suggest that whatever the flaws in Boots Riley’s film, it is straightforwardly honest in its attempt to expose several different but connected political issues. This is quite different from the political impact of a ‘branded blockbuster’ which requires critical attention to reveal its possible political discourses. Secondly, Nayman suggests that Sorry to Bother You bears a resemblance to Jordan Peele’s Get Out from 2017 and that certainly did occur to me (Peele was also to be offered the role of Cassius until he had his own big success). These two connections go some way towards explaining why Sorry to Bother You has attracted attention.
In attempting to ‘read’ Sorry to Bother You, I did feel caught between a sense of missing some cultural references (e.g. rap music) but also being sidetracked by other filmic references. Our hero ‘Cash’ starts the film broke and living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist who earns some money as a ‘human billboard’ advertising local businesses. Cash needs a job and is hired by a ‘telemarketing’ company. This explains the title which is the opening line of a standard script for ‘cold calling’. Riley makes the intrusive nature of the business clear by literally throwing Cash into the same frame as the poor unfortunates who answer their phones. Very quickly, Cash learns from an older colleague (played by Danny Glover) that he will be more successful if he uses his ‘white voice’. He also learns that if he shows promise by hitting high sales targets he might be promoted to ‘power caller’ and ascend to the top, exclusive, floor of the building. Meanwhile, references on local TV and billboards to a new social work/housing programme suggest that this is in fact an ‘alternate Oakland’ in which private enterprise is developing a new quasi-fascist system of communal living and working – mostly it seems for African-Americans.
At this point we realise that this isn’t a simple social comedy but some kind of absurdist satire on US capitalism and its dependence on racial divisions. The narrative then has to bring together the telemarketing scam and the work programme and develop Cash’s role as the seeming innocent who will be drawn into the process and will be offered inducements that will persuade him to betray his friends and co-workers. We know that Cash is an intelligent and generally likeable character who could resist, but the lure of riches is strong when you are broke. Riley chooses to develop a plot involving unionisation of the telemarketing drones and Detroit develops a performance piece which savagely critiques the exploitation of African resources and points the finger at US policy and all individuals who buy phones and other technologies dependent on coltan from the Congo (DRC). The stage is set when Cash is promoted and meets the figure behind the work programme (played by Arnie Hammer). At this point the similarity to Get Out becomes apparent.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative but from this brief plot outline it should be clear that Riley is ambitious in his targets and that’s no bad thing. But political satire is very difficult to pull off and the melding of comedy, politics and fantasy is particularly difficult. In the Sight and Sound interview, Riley says that he spent some time with Spike Jonze and Kaleem Aftab the interviewer later suggests that the film is ‘Brechtian’. Pushing together these two sources of ideas about how to present a narrative gives an indication of the problem Riley faces. I’d add a third in that I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s Existenz (Canada 1999) described by some commentators as a ‘science fiction-body horror film’. I might also add that several lesser American independent films flashed briefly across my mind. And for me that is Riley’s biggest problem – a lack of a consistent tone to his film so that it retains its control over an argument. I can see that there is an argument that this very lack of consistency is itself Brechtian, pushing the audience away and making us think about the film’s construction, but I think other elements work against this idea and that overall the narrative is conventional even as it draws on various genre repertoires.
The supporting roles in the film are interesting. The union organiser in the telemarketing company is ‘Squeeze’ played by the Korean-American actor Steven Yeun. I don’t know whether this has any significance in an Oakland context but it does make the multi-racial union of workers a more potent political force. On the other hand, I think that Tessa Thompson as Detroit is under-used apart from her very disturbing performance piece. I thought she was very good in Dear White People (2014) but again under-used in Creed (2015). She’s also featured strongly in a wide range of other major films. Women generally don’t figure strongly in Sorry to Bother You. They are often simply background figures necessary to present a comic sequence (Rosario Dawson is the voice in the lift to the exclusive floor) and that is definitely a weakness. The sense of (in)coherence is my main concern with the film. But perhaps this can be forgiven in a début film? There are enough well-made political points alongside the visual inventiveness and successful comedy scenes plus music performed by the Coup to make this a film to be recommended and to push forward Boots Riley as a filmmaker to look out for in future. It’s an intelligent film and I’ve deliberately not mentioned some of the links to other specific satires to avoid spoilers.
The trailer doesn’t give away everything – which is a relief:
I’ve been prompted by shootings of African-Americans in far too many incidents over the last few years to dig out some notes I used in 2003. The crime investigated in Four Little Girls, the Spike Lee documentary, is also alluded to in Selma, the 2014 film about Martin Luther King. I thought that Spike Lee had lost his way recently with a remake of Oldboy (which I haven’t seen but which seems to have been poorly reviewed) but BlacKkKlansman (US 2018) has confirmed that when he is on form, few American filmmakers have the same power. These notes come from an evening class screening.
Four Little Girls is perhaps a surprising film – a sober and conventional documentary from one of cinema’s angry men with a penchant for stylistically daring feature films. But the concerns of the film are in no way surprising, comprising a powerful argument for a rewriting of American history.
Spike Lee and the history of Black America
By naming his own production company ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks’, Spike Lee set out his mission from his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. The company name refers to the promise made to freed slaves at the end of the Civil War – a promise never kept that Lee wants to remind us about.
Most of Lee’s films have been about the experience of African-Americans in contemporary society. Some have been overtly ‘political’ in attempting to reassess the importance of historical figures such as Malcolm X or to validate contemporary struggles such as the ‘Million Man March’ celebrated in Get on the Bus (1996). Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled is a calculated attempt to tell the story of racism in film and television, linking contemporary debates about African-American culture to the hidden history of exploitation stemming from the minstrel shows of the early nineteenth century. Bamboozled was also notable for its audacious use of digital video and contrasting celluloid stock (to distinguish the ‘real’ life of the performers and their ‘minstrel performances’) and its satirical take on the American television industry. By contrast, in Four Little Girls Lee takes a civil outrage and personal tragedy that happened in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 – the firebombing of a church and the death of four little girls – and uses it to explore the embedded institutional racism that ran through American life, seemingly with impunity, before the struggles of the Civil Rights movement offered hope for a better future.
As a voice for Black America on screen, Spike Lee has been controversial not just as a director but also as cultural critic, not least in his attacks on Steven Spielberg for his ‘black’ projects, the adaptation of The Color Purple and the historical film Amistad. Lee’s anger always creates expectations about how he will tackle his own projects.
The documentary form
Lee used two of his long term collaborators, editor Sam Pollard and composer Terence Blanchard, to achieve the aesthetic he wanted for Four Little Girls. This was his first film with Ellen Kuras as cinematographer and she has since become a regular on Lee’s productions. What this group produced is a documentary film using several familiar sources – archive film footage, rostrum camera work (panning and zooming across still images) and ‘witness interviews’ with both the families of the girls and the representatives of the Birmingham authorities.
The ‘witness documentary’ gained a high profile in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s with notable films such as The Wobblies (US 1979) (about the ‘International Workers of the World’) and Rosie the Riveter (1980) exploring the experiences of women in work during World War II. The use of music and rostrum camera to recreate scenes from American history was particularly successful (i.e. critically and with audiences) in the case of the Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War broadcast on US public service television (PBS) in 1990.
American television has developed a tradition of screening prestigious documentaries ever since the ‘Direct Cinema’ films of Robert Drew and his associates such as D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock in the 1960s demonstrated the attraction of ‘real’ images on the small screen. It is worth noting therefore that Four Little Girls was co-produced and distributed by the cable television giant Home Box Office. Although the film screened briefly in selected cinemas, its main impact has been via television where arguably it will have made more impact in educating Americans about their own social history.
Documentary and representations of social reality
Four Little Girls immediately raises the question – is documentary the most appropriate and effective way in which the ‘real world’ can be represented on the screen? How can documentary be used to create the drama which in Hollywood involves the general audience? Can documentary film really ‘educate’ an audience? These questions must certainly have been at the centre of the discussions between Spike Lee and Sam Pollard. The effectiveness of Four Little Girls in this respect is explored in this review:
There is a defining moment in Spike Lee and Sam Pollard’s Academy Award-nominated 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which ended the lives of four girls. This moment provides a bridge between the legendary and near mythical status of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the intimate and very human reality of the individual men and women who were involved in it: “When young people today ask me, ‘When are we going to be able to get together like you all were in the Sixties?’ – I tell them nobody was together in the Sixties,” says Reverend Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC). “It was a small group of dedicated people who got it all started.”
For Pollard, the co-producer and editor of the film who will be present in Austin to introduce it during its Texas Documentary Tour screening this Wednesday, this represented the bridging approach that he and Lee were adamant on taking toward their subject matter. “It was important, first of all, to make sure the four girls came alive in the telling of the story. And the second thing was to make sure there was a social and political context for their existence. So we decided to use a parallel structure to tell the stories of the girls in juxtaposition to the evolution of the civil rights struggle as was specifically particular to Birmingham.”
And for a younger generation whose knowledge of the civil rights struggle comes primarily from history textbooks, this micro-analysis of the nuts and bolts of the battle-like process is a refreshing revelation, indeed. It is the storytelling strategy and its respect for the engrossing real-life events that gives the film its potency, and this reflects Pollard’s extensive bicameral experience in the film business. A filmmaker for over 25 years, he worked primarily in the documentary field (including serving as producer on the acclaimed PBS series Eyes on the Prize) before becoming Spike Lee’s editor on such narrative features such as Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Clockers, and Girl 6. His expertise in both fields is evidenced by one particularly powerful interview with George Wallace. Using such narrative devices as jump cuts, different film stocks, and varying focal lengths, the scene cuts to the heart of the horror of George Wallace and everything he stood for in a little more than a minute of screen time. It represents a penultimate example of the fusion of high drama and documentary.
Despite the fact that they were conducted 23 years after the fact, the interviews with the four girls’ family members contain a startling immediacy. And each individual reflects back on the events with a remarkable bearing of both internal fortitude and grace that, despite all of the hate and chaotic insanity directed toward them, comes with the self-awareness of their moral certainty and rightness in the face of evil. Unlike the racist forces aligned against them, “They didn’t have a pathology,” explains Pollard. “They didn’t walk around thinking ‘We need to figure out a way to hate white people as much as they hate us.’ They understood the parameters of what their existence was all about and they figured out how to be real human beings and live and struggle within that.” Tommy Wren of the SCLC sums it up best in the film: “I used to be afraid of ‘Bull’ Connor [the malevolent Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham at the time who lead police attacks against marchers] until I discovered he was crazy.”
It was also the family members’ sense of moral rightness that led them to protect their story for as long as they did. Christopher McNair, father of one of the slain girls and something of the keeper of the story, had been approached many times over the years by filmmakers and authors who wanted him to lend his support and input to their projects. “Chris has a great reputation with and the respect of the community, and he was not going to have a filmmaker come there and exploit the family or their story,” says Pollard. “He finally agreed to cooperate with us and with his involvement, although there was some initial reluctance on the part of the other families, they too came around and opened up to Spike and me.” And it is our good fortune they did open up for a film that not only provides a further detailed historical account of events that still have significant relevance today (especially in light of the recent spate of bombings of African- American churches across the South), but also uncovers a gripping drama of human loss, tragedy, and redemption.
Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle, 04-06-98
Roy Stafford, 30 January 2003
Here’s an interview with Spike Lee and journalist Howell Raines about the background to the making of the film. It’s quite long, but I hope worthwhile.
The Vue at Leeds Light refused to sell me a ticket for the film showing I wanted as it had ‘gone from their computer’. Given that they regularly run 20 minutes of ads, I don’t think it was unreasonable to ask for a ticket 20 minutes after the recognised start time. Later I realised that I could have bought a ticket for any screening and then switched auditorium. To be fair the tickets are only £4.99 so I plonked a fiver down for my second choice, Night School. I chose it on the reasonable grounds that I’d enjoyed Girls Trip directed by Malcolm D. Lee and starring Tiffany Haddish and the two are together again in Night School. The real star of the film is, however, Kevin Hart, who I knew much less about – OK, nothing at all. My research reveals that he has been a very busy stand-up and film and TV comedian/comic actor who on this film is also a writer and producer. I don’t watch US TV or mainstream films, otherwise he would be very familiar. Comments on Night School from critics and audiences suggest that most of Hart’s antics in this film have been seen before. The ratings for the film are generally low but it has still made a lot of money – $84 million at the time of writing, with the UK and Australia as major overseas markets.
I enjoyed the film but I feel it has one major weakness – it’s far too long at 111 minutes and could lose 10 to 20 minutes quite easily. The problem is in the opening sequence which takes too long to introduce the narrative disruption – and therefore delays getting into what is essentially the ensemble piece which makes the film work. As various commentators have pointed out the film attempts to meld two different but connected narratives. The first sees Teddy (Kevin Hart) as a successful salesman who has wooed a beautiful and highly successful interior designer to whom he is about to propose, but in the process he has put himself into severe financial difficulties. When disaster strikes Teddy finds himself in debt, with no job and no chance of getting another because he left school without qualifications and now he can’t get the high-powered job he needs without passing a GED test (which employers will accept as an alternative to a high school diploma). To get this he decides to go to night school – at the same high school he attended twenty years earlier. The narrative about his romance and the one about his learning difficulties with formal tests don’t really fit together. The night school introduces Tiffany Haddish as Teddy’s teacher and a varied group of misfits as his classmates. There is even a pantomime villain in the form of the school principal who Teddy insulted when they were high school students together.
The night school story seems to me to be well-written and sometimes very funny. It’s a familiar generic narrative but Hart and Haddish and the others make it work. The ‘second chance’ that night school offers easily fits the Hollywood dream promise. Interestingly, although this is an African-American film, the night school student group comprises three white and three black students and one Latino (the story is set in Atlanta). The students are there for different reasons (including one in prison doing the course via Skype). Tiffany Haddish plays quite a different role from the party girl in Girls Trip, although she does get at least one action sequence.
What struck me most of all was that this film is in many ways quite old-fashioned and draws on decades of similar comedian-led narrative escapades in which the hapless central character works hard and is defeated many times, but eventually succeeds, wins the ‘girl’ and defeats the authority figure (here the school principal). Kevin Hart is short (with a high-pitched voice when his fears are exposed), but he offers a character who is ‘smart’ and attractive on the outside but damaged by a sense of failure beneath. That’s perhaps the modern aspect of the narrative – otherwise it seems to me very familiar from the comedy vehicles of my childhood, the films of Norman Wisdom in the UK in the 1950s and early 1960s that were massively popular.
I was going to add the trailer for the film, but it includes many of the jokes and ‘explains’ the whole film in ways that mean that you may feel that you don’t need to see it. It undersells itself. Why can’t Hollywood make trailers? Still, I think Night School confirms the promise of Girls Trip in showing that African-American cinema can justify a wide release in the UK – and that’s no bad thing.
It’s very exciting to see a Spike Lee film back in wide release in UK cinemas. BlacKkKlansman just scrapes in as a wide release with 217 cinemas but these had the highest average audience numbers of any film in UK cinemas last weekend. I have a great deal of time for Spike Lee as a filmmaker with passion, creativity and political intelligence to go with a deep knowledge of cinema and the skills to make memorable films. Having said that it’s also the case that he makes a wide range of features, shorts, documentaries and other types of moving image work and sometimes he chooses projects that puzzle me. Too often he falls foul of UK distribution companies and their notorious reluctance to release African-American films. All of this means that I hadn’t actually seen a Spike Lee ‘joint’ since I managed to import a US DVD of The Miracle at St. Anna in 2009. After all the build-up to the release of BlacKkKlansman and its Cannes Grand Prix I did worry that it could be a let-down, but it isn’t. This is Spike returning to the form that produced Do the Right Thing (1989) and Bamboozled (2000), the former universally acclaimed, the latter larger ignored – but both important films.
The first point to make about BlacKkKlansman is that it is packed with a great deal of material and ideas and I found that the 135 minutes flew by. I think it will take several more viewings to properly ‘read’ the film and come to any sensible conclusion about what it might mean to different audiences. Spike Lee at his best is always provocative and attempting to build a polemic using humour as well as political insight is often rejected by audiences looking for clear resolutions. My feeling at the moment is that BlacKkKlansman makes important political statements. It certainly made me think about strategies and ways to articulate arguments and it made me question some of my assumptions and ways of thinking about politics in the UK as well as the US and indeed universally. I did also wonder at moments whether Spike gets the balance right and whether his satire works – but in the circumstances I think that is inevitable.
I recommend the Sight and Sound (September) interview with Spike Lee (I have some arguments with the rather negative review of the film in the same print issue but the online piece by Sophie Monks Kaufman is also very good). Queried by Sight and Sound interviewer Kaleem Aftab about how much of the film is actually based on the real events described by Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth, Lee simply re-iterates “[the film] is based on a true story”. It’s a reasonable question – and response. Some aspects of the narrative seem so fantastical that it is hard to believe that they ever happened, but at other moments the narrative seems only too ‘real’. Ron Stallworth (played with bravura by John David Washington, son of Lee regular Denzel Washington) was the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs force in 1972 as a cadet. It wasn’t until several years later that as an undercover cop he answered an advertisement for applications to join the Ku Klux Klan. Establishing himself on the phone as a ‘white supremacist’, it then required a white officer to physically attend KKK meetings posing as ‘Ron Stallworth’. This was ‘Flip’ Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Lee and his co-writers decided to compress the story so that the events seem to take place over a few months in 1973/4. Apart from a familiar strategy to speed up the pace of the narrative, this also allows Lee to highlight questions around black identity at the time of the ‘Blaxpoitation’ cycle of films in the early 1970s alongside the fashions, the music and the ‘Black Power’ iconography.
The wonderful Afros on display, the clothes and the music and the discussion of Shaft and Superfly and Pam Grier (complete with on-screen film posters) provide a rich mise en scène which allows Lee to explore issues within African-American culture. Ron’s first undercover job was to ‘infiltrate’ a student-organised event at which Kwame Ture (aka Stokeley Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins) makes an impassioned plea to the students to prepare for revolution. That evening Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) the student president and begins a relationship. This relationship is an invention which in genre terms allows Lee to explore a romance-thriller narrative thread. We worry about Patrice, although she is generally quite capable of looking after herself and her fellow students. But as Herb Boyd in Cineaste (Fall 2018) points out, we learn relatively little about Patrice and, apart from two or three key moments, the relationship between Ron and Flip is much more important. It is Flip who is in the most danger. The script emphasises how much the Klan are anti-semitic and Flip is someone who has never really thought about his own Jewish identity. This danger (of exposure) is an element of the romance thriller that also generates the possibility of comedy and it is these scenes (i.e. Flip among the Klan members) that test Lee’s ability to balance humour and anger. He’s helped by wonderful performances all round and especially by Jasper Pääkkönen as the most suspicious Klansman and Topher Grace as David Duke, the Klan ‘Grand Wizard’. These two are chilling and completely absurd at the same time.
While much of the film narrative remains within the familiar mode of ‘Hollywood realism’, Spike explores the legacy of racism in Hollywood through extracts from Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). I don’t want to spoil the impact of how he does this, but the appearance of Harry Belafonte is thrilling for anyone old enough to remember one of the great figures of the Civil Rights movement. Alec Baldwin’s appearance might be more puzzling for some audiences outside North America, although I guess his YouTube appearances as ‘Donald Trump’ are easily accessible around the world. The crucial question is how does Spike Lee end his narrative? We know Ron Stallworth survived his involvement with the Klan because he wrote his memoir in 2014. But it would be dangerous to leave us laughing and feeling good about victory. In fact, I think there is a narrative thread running throughout which keeps us querying Ron’s actions and his motivations. When the final section comes I think it works very well and I hope that BlacKkKlansman will become a classic ‘joint’ like Do The Right Thing.
BlacKkKlansman took £1.2 million on its first UK weekend and it looks set to be one of Spike’s biggest hits. I’ve failed to mention the initiative of Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele who initially brought the project to Lee and also Blumhouse Productions the company which made Get Out. Peele and Blumhouse are both part of the production background for BlacKkKlansman, demonstrating that Spike Lee is very much still part of the cutting edge of African-American cinema. Terence Blanchard, Lee’s long-time collaborator is still on board composing a fine score and including an array of great 1970s tracks. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin is new to me but Spike Lee has a strong track record in working with exciting camera people and Irvin’s work contributes a great deal to the look of the film. I want to finish by urging you to see this film. I also want to emphasise that there is much, much more to say about it so I hope some of you will add your comments.