‘Sorry to Bother You’ to ‘BlacKkKlansman': Black Auteurs Provide Surreal Takes on Race in America

“You find humor in the heartache and that’s part of the African-American condition,” says “BlacKkKlansman” writer Kevin Willmott

Last Updated: July 19, 2018 @ 10:25 PM

When director Spike Lee and writer Kevin Willmott came on board to work on “BlacKkKlansman,” the only note from producer Jordan Peele was that it needed to make people laugh.

“He just said, ‘Make it funny,'” Willmott told TheWrap. “But we never wrote jokes. Where you find the humor is in the seriousness and absurdity of the story.”

There was plenty of innate humor in the true but unlikely story of Ron Stallworth, a black police detective in 1970s Colorado who infiltrated the ranks of and investigated the Ku Klux Klan. (It’s based on Stallworth’s book of the same name.)

But there’s an albatross clinging to the entire thing: The film is about the rise of the KKK, an organization known for violent bigotry. The film deals with racism as it was back then, and how little has changed.

“It’s dark humor, for sure,” Willmott said. “But it goes back to that old saying, ‘You have to laugh to keep from crying.’ People have a hard time dealing with this stuff, and lightening it up with humor gives them a way in. It’s a really entertaining film, but we don’t pull any punches or let the audience off the hook.”

“BlacKkKlansman” won the Grand Prix at Cannes when it premiered at the festival earlier this year. The film hits theaters Aug. 10 and will add to a recent slew of surreal, hilarious or otherwise absurd films observing race in America.

One of the most surreal and absurd is “Sorry to Bother You,” the directorial debut of The Coup frontman Boots Riley.

“Sorry to Bother You” is a magical realist science-fiction film that explores race and power in America. It follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a broker-than-broke telemarketer striving for the cachet and money that come with success. (TheWrap’s film critic, Alonso Duralde, called it an “outrageous satire that swings for the fences” and “something provocative, funny, impolite, meaningful and aimed squarely at the 2018 zeitgeist.”)

One way Riley portrays the idea of success in the film is by having Green and certain black characters speak in a “white voice.”

“The white voice is merely an idea that everything is taken care of. That voice, that whiteness, is a performance for white people as well,” Riley told TheWrap. “But often, what is studied is blackness and black culture as a performance, as if to say, ‘Oh, these people are acting macho, they don’t have the culture that’s sufficient to survive, and that’s why they’re poor or have a broken family.’

“Blackness is often studied as a performance and talked [about] in terms of proving that those in poverty are completely responsible for their own poverty,” Riley added. “Yet, we live in an economic system where, regardless of your own feelings on it, there has to be poverty. You wouldn’t be able to get people to work for 10 bucks an hour if there wasn’t poverty.”

It’s only after utilizing his “white voice” that Green is able to achieve success. Meanwhile, his friends organize to protest the people in power, and he finds his loyalties torn.

“Sorry to Bother You” goes in very unexpected directions from there.

“Blindspotting” co-star and co-writer Rafael Casal has called the film a comedy in a world that won’t let it be one. He told TheWrap that the humor is an important ingredient in “Blindspotting,” but not the only one. In fact, it helps bring out the flavor in other ingredients.

“The beauty of showing the duality of comedy and drama — that’s the currency of people in any sort of struggle and people in an oppressed group in this country — is to find the coping mechanism so that you can drive off into the sunset at the end of a story,” Casal said.

The door has been opened to tell stories that nestle social issue storytelling inside genre tropes, in part thanks to the success of Peele’s “Get Out.”

His directorial debut was clever and funny genre-bending thriller that garnered critical praise, a best picture nomination at the Academy Awards and, most importantly, $255.5 million in worldwide box office. It had just $4.5 million in production costs.

The surprise success of “Get Out,” which has elements of horror, comedy and absurdism, helped prove the box office potential of films like “BlacKkKlansman,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “Blindspotting.”

“I think lots of companies are trying to emulate the success of ‘Get Out,’ but most don’t really know what that’s means, what it is that made that film work,” said a person familiar with the film financing process. “Certainly the idea of layering social issue storytelling with genre tropes. But it’s not clear what else, exactly.”

Whether these films ultimately end up being deemed successes for their studios, it’s a step that black auteurs are getting more opportunity to tell stories from their unique point of view.

“I hesitate to say only a black person could make this film,” Willmott said. “Certainly there’s something we bring to the story that others without that point of view and understanding would. You find humor in the heartache and that’s part of the African-American condition, so I think we’re freer to express these stories.”

Jeremy Fuster contributed to this reporting.