Season 2: Current Events

Current Events Ep. 13: 2019 Oscar Nominees or, “The Vice Favourite Green Panther Klansman from Bohemian Roma is Born”

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Happy Spring Break! Oh what’s that? You have to go into work over spring break? That sucks. Well, at least you have summer to look forward to. What?! Normal adults just work in July?! That’s unfathomable to me. Well, while teachers around the country are basking in their one week between the school hellscapes that are February and April, just comfort yourself with the knowledge that you don’t get paid to watch kids roll their eyes as you try to make them better humans. And your money. I hear money’s nice.

Every year I set a goal for myself over spring break and it typically involves Ken Burns. One year I remember all of my friends going out to enjoy SXSW while I watched the entire Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. But, really, who had the better spring break? If you’re counting sincere narrations of recolorized images of dead bodies and dramatic readings of 19th century letters then… I think we know who had the better spring break.

Anyway, this spring break I had a revelation. All of the big Oscar movies from the last few months are now out on streaming and I realized that basically every single movie this year had a pretty interesting connection to history. 6 out of the 8 are essentially true stories, if you don’t count Black Panther as a true story which I think we all should. And I figured that some other people out there are probably like me: you haven’t gotten around to seeing most of the Oscar-nominated movies and now that they’re popping up on Amazon Prime and Netflix you’ll be checking them out. So, I took one for the team and sat down and watched this year’s Best Picture nominations. You’re welcome.

Today for your listening pleasure, I’m going to rank the 8 Best Picture nominees from worst to best in an episode I’m calling, “2019 Oscar Movies or, “The Vice Favourite Green Panther Klansman from Bohemian Roma is Born.” And my only consideration for my rankings is what I’m calling historical value. What is historical value, you ask? Well, it’s something I made up so that I can make this list arbitrarily without pissing off film buffs out there. But in general, I asked one question: Did I learn something interesting about history from watching this movie? This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context.

Before we start, let me make a spoiler announcement. I’m not going to go through each movie’s entire plot, but there pretty definitely will be some spoilers.

#8: A Star Is Born

OK. We can just get this one out of the way, right? Let’s be clear: I loved this movie and Lady Gaga was great as a young woman becoming an international pop star. It’s almost like she herself had been a young woman becoming an international pop star. It was an amazing transformation.

But this was really the only movie on the list that had essentially zero historical value, unless you count value to film history, which I don’t. Sure, it was the fourth remake of this movie and that’s, cool? Or does it lack imagination? I have no idea. All I know is that they originally approached Christian Bale, Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Tom Cruise to costar and all of those would have been amazing trainwrecks to watch.

#7: Green Book

This one’s low ranking might surprise you considering its’ one of the movies on the list billed as a completely true story but oh my God, y’all, I hated Green Book. I hated it so much. Look, if you liked that movie, that’s totally fine. It was nice. A white guy taught a black guy how to be black and then they solved racism forever. But this is what I like to call a “Disneyfied” history movie.

In order to create a movie that will be pleasing to audiences and make them not want to sob as they leave the theater, you have to clean up history a lot. As we’ve hopefully learned from this podcast, history is 5% inspiring moments and 95% humans being terrible to each other. Is it bad to make a movie that flips those numbers around? No. But it’s bad to do that and call it historically accurate.

Remember that my one question is “Did I learn something interesting about history from the movie?” If this movie had come out 20 years ago then a lot of people would have probably said, “Yes.” It’s a fine movie that shows a PG-13 version of severe racism. But we don’t need any more of these movies – we could just watch Remember the Titans or Hidden Figures or The Help or… you get the idea.

When I was taking notes watching each movie I had two categories: Good and Problematic. I quickly changed “Problematic” to just “Ugh” in my Google Doc. But let’s start with the good:

Well, Dr. Shirley was friends with Bobby Kennedy and called him when they were thrown in jail and that’s pretty badass. Imagine using the Attorney General/brother of the president as your Get Out Of Jail Free card. And I loved the scene where Tony meets Dr. Shirley for the first time. Mahershala Ali is dressed in African style robes, sitting on a throne, surrounded by elephant tusks and African art. It’s a pretty awesome statement on his pride in his African heritage that gets totally ruined by the rest of the movie turning him into a character who is completely disconnected from the black community. But, that one scene was cool.

Alright, now for the “Ugh.” Well for one, the movie is called Green Book and yet, there is almost nothing about the… well… Green Book. The Negro Motorist Green Book was the most popular travel book for African Americans for decades, helping them avoid “awkward” situations as they traveled through the Jim Crow South. And by “awkward” I mean… life-threatening. This book was vitally important to the lives of black people and is a “seminal item in Black history.” The fact that the only characters who talk about or physically handle the Green Book are white Tony and his white wife is insane. At one point he throws it in the backseat next to Dr. Shirley who just looks at it and turns away. And that’s all we ever hear about the Green Book in the movie Green Book.

Second, let’s talk about the team that made this movie. The movie was created by Tony’s son, so it makes sense that he would be the star. That’s fine, but just market it that way. Don’t call it Green Book and make it look like it’s going to be all about the black experience in the Jim Crow South and then nominate Viggo Mortensen as the Lead Actor. The three men who wrote the movie are all white. Again, fine. But actually no. You’re not going to have any people of color writing a movie about a black man traveling through the Jim Crow South?! That makes no sense!

Well, at least you have Dr. Shirley’s family to consult on the movie about his life, right? Wait… they didn’t consult any members of Dr. Shirley’s family?! Mahershala Ali didn’t even realize the character he was playing still had family alive that he could talk to throughout the whole process of making the movie?! What?!

Seriously. This is the part that kills me. The family of Dr. Shirley was outraged by this movie. One relative called it “a symphony of lies.” In the movie, Dr. Shirley famously says that he has one brother but they are estranged. But when he took this trip in real life, he had three brothers and all of them kept in contact regularly. This is one of those changes that is just outright disrespectful. There is no need to make this change – it doesn’t simplify the plot or shorten the dialogue. In fact, it just makes a fascinating real person even more unlikeable and one-dimensional, without any connections in the world except his white Italian driver.

Now, Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son who made the movie, did know Dr. Shirley. And he approached him while he was alive about the idea of making this story into a movie. Well, that’s nice. Except that Dr. Shirley “flatly refused.” He never wanted a movie made about his life because he was afraid of having no control over his own portrayal. Well, that sucks. Because that’s exactly what happened. It can’t be a coincidence that Nick waited to make this movie until after Dr. Shirley’s death in 2013 and that’s a shame.

Nick wanted so badly to tell his dad’s story, which I get, but he totally disrespected the other – frankly, more historically significant – person in the story in doing so. Now, Nick says that he didn’t include details about Dr. Shirley’s life because he didn’t want to tell this man’s story without his input – he was trying to respect his wishes. Well that’s nice except that his wishes were for you to never make the movie to begin with so…

OK calm down Emily. You’re getting riled up and we’re only 2 movies in. So, what could he have included to make Dr. Shirley more lifelike in the movie? Well, turns out he had a really interesting life outside playing the piano that is completely ignored in the movie. Dr. Shirley studied psychology at the University of Chicago and earned a grant to study the relationship between music and juvenile crime in the city. He played in clubs as psychological experiments with sound to see how the audience responded – that’s fascinating.

Also, Dr. Shirley was deeply embedded in the black community. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement, friends with Duke Ellington, he attended Dr. King’s March on Selma. Oh yeah, he was friends with MLK because Dr. King was a patient of Dr. Shirley’s brother – you know, the one that the movie erased.

So, you can see why creating a movie about a Dr. Shirley who was so disconnected from his community that a white dude had to teach him about Aretha Franklin is insane. OK let’s move on before I lose it.

#6: Vice

So… here’s the problem. Vice isn’t available for rent, yet. And I’m a teacher – I don’t have the money to be buying movies left and right. Vice is the only one of these movies I haven’t watched yet which sucks because it was probably the one I was most interested in, mostly because I loved Adam McKay’s other true story/absurd comedy The Big Short.

So I’ll have to wait on my analysis of this one. Apparently the basic facts of the movie are true but the characterizations are one-sided and slapstick, created more for entertainment than education. According to many many reviews I read, it seems that the movie is great if you’re a liberal who already hated Dick Cheney and otherwise pretty shallow. Apparently there’s no complexity to Cheney that would explain why he made the decisions he did beyond sheer megalomania. So, as far as the question “Did we learn anything new from watching this movie?” The answer seems to be pretty clearly no.

But I want you to notice that I haven’t even seen the movie and I’m still putting it ahead of Green Book.

#6: Bohemian Rhapsody

This movie was fun. Because it’s about Queen, so of course it is. Rami Malek was amazing – you should watch the side-by-side videos people have created comparing his performance to Freddie Mercury’s actual performances. It’s insanely accurate. But, if you’re going to make a movie ostensibly about Freddie Mercury and then rate it PG-13, well, you’re going to have to make some edits. And that’s fine – this movie wasn’t supposed to be the gritty look at the AIDS epidemic; it was a celebration of Freddie Mercury’s genius and Queen’s contribution to music. So it was fun.

There was a silly moment when Mike Myers’s character (who was made up, by the way) says something like “Bohemian Rhapsody will never be the song teenagers bang their heads to in the backseat of the car.” Which is pretty great coming from the guy who did Wayne’s World. I liked it.

But, what I didn’t realize, and I loved, was learning about Freddie Mercury’s heritage. Now, this took a lot of outside research on my part which is why I still ranked this pretty low – they don’t talk much about it in the movie beyond a few mentions but, man, did I go down a rabbit hole on Parsis and Zoroastrianism.

So, Freddie – or Farrokh Bulsara’s – family mentions that they are Parsis. This is a Zoroastrian community descended from the Persians – y’all know how much I love the Persians. After the Arab invasions during the first expansion of the new Islamic Caliphates into Persia, the Parsis fled to India where they stayed, and maintained their culture, for over a thousand years.

Eventually, when India became a British colony, the Parsis joined in the diaspora of Indian people spreading across the British Empire in search of jobs. Many ended up in Africa – remember that Gandhi lived in South Africa for years – and Freddie’s ancestors ended up in Zanzibar. I’ll be honest, my World Geography failed me on this one and I had to shamefully Google, “Where is Zanzibar?” Well, turns out it’s an island off the eastern coast of Africa. So now you know.

In the midst of African decolonization in the wake of WWII, Zanzibar – along with nearby Tanzania – gained independence from Britain in 1963, when Freddie was 17 years old. Just one year later a revolution led by black Africans overthrew the ruling elite that was still mostly Arab or Indian left over from British colonialism. Freddie’s family fled during this bloody Zanzibar Revolution which is how they ended up in England.

Throughout his life, Freddie Mercury’s family still practiced Zoroastrianism – the ancient religion of the Persians. Remember from season 1 that this religion was part of the key to Persia’s success. Cyrus the Great emphasized religious tolerance but many conquered people converted to Zoroastrianism because a) it was a much nicer and simpler religion than many of the “pagan” beliefs of the Middle East and b) it was smart to be the same religion as your King of Kings.

Zoroastrianism is believed to be the first mostly monotheistic religion and all of the Abrahamic religions probably adapted a lot of their beliefs from the Zoroastrians. Its founder, Zarathustra, is the first to promote a concept of one main god – named Ahura Mazda (the car company Mazda is named after the Zoroastrian god.) Apparently when Freddie Mercury died, he was cremated according to the wishes of his family and their faith. Actually, in traditional Zoroastrianism the body is meant to be laid out on a “Tower of Silence” to be exposed to the sun and eaten by birds of prey. But, apparently London frowns on people leaving dead bodies out to be eaten by vultures so most Zoroastrians who live in the West adopted cremation instead. Which is nice, but I have to imagine that Freddie might have preferred the super dramatic Tower of Silence treatment, but who am I to say?

#5: Black Panther

I’ll be honest. I wanted to make this #1 because I love it so much. But y’all know this because I already did an entire episode about Black Panther earlier this season. So really, you should just go listen to that. But, to recap: Black Panther is entirely fictional, yes. But it shows us what could have been. What might have happened if Africa had not been colonized? What if they had control over their own natural resources – sure, vibranium isn’t real but what about uranium, rubber, gold, and diamonds?

And, the debates in Black Panther are amazingly close to real debates amongst black people in history. How to overcome global oppression? Do we fight – like Killmonger and Malcolm X want – or do we work within the world as it is – like T’Challa and Dr. King proposed? The nods to the actual Black Panther Party, founded in Oakland, were great. The whole movie was great. It’s my #1 favorite movie of the last year but as far as historical value I have to put it here just because… well… none of it is actually historical. Ugh.

#4: Roma

Roma is one of those movies that I love philosophically as a historian but not so much as a normal human being. Let’s be clear: it was beautiful, and great, and all of my students who are intense film buffs assure me that it is a phenomenal movie. But it was also slow and in black and white, so the basic half of me was a little bored. But, the half of me who spent years studying Mexican history in grad school was like “Let’s goooooo!!”

Roma is tricky because unless you are well-versed in Mexican history you were probably watching it like, “Wait why is this dude practicing martial arts naked?” and “Why are people shooting at each other all of a sudden? She just wants to buy a crib!” So, allow me to give you some context that makes the whole movie way more interesting.

First, a few basic premises. The social structure of Mexico – and most of Latin America – is still racialized. That’s because it’s a relic of Spanish colonialism when they set up a literal race-based caste system. Peninsulares – or those born on the Iberian Peninsula in Europe – were at the top, mestizos or mixed-race people were in the middle, and people of color (indigenous and African people) at the bottom. Even though that caste system doesn’t exist legally anymore, informally you still see most of the wealth and land in the hands of lighter-skinned Hispanic people and indigenous people much poorer and living in the countryside.

By the late 60s, Mexico had settled in after its Revolution/civil war that ended in the 1920s. The economy was growing thanks to the so-called “Mexican Miracle,” which meant that the national economy was doing well but at the expense of rural small landowners who were getting pushed off their land. Many indigenous people moved to the cities in search of work, and many took up jobs as household staff for the Mexican elites – like we see in the movie.

The late 60s and early 70s in Mexico were also politically tumultuous. The PRI had ruled Mexico for 40 years, using a combination of corruption, patronage, and militant repression. Side note: it wouldn’t be until 2000 that Mexico elected a president from a different party. In general, the party kept violence out of the cities – there was an unspoken agreement that the elites in the city shouldn’t have to see the party’s brutal tactics that were often used to suppress peasant uprisings in the countryside. But, by the late 60s, that violence was making its way to the cities.

The movie is historically bookended by two massacres – one shown in the movie and one not. The first was the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre (not shown in the movie). Mexico City was the first Latin American nation to host the Olympic Games and the PRI wanted everything to go smoothly. This meant that they “cleaned up” the city by forcing homeless people and anyone who looked “too Mexican” to leave the city for the duration of the Games. Seriously. If you’re interested, I did my graduate thesis on the Mexico City Olympics and I’ll post it on my website if anyone wants to really nerd out.

Just a few weeks before the Opening Ceremony, thousands of college students in Mexico City held a protest calling out government corruption. The government responded as most governments do for some reason – they sent the military and fired into the plaza, killing dozens of young people in the Tlatelolco Massacre.

Roma picks up a few years after this event. The climax of the movie is another event known as the Corpus Christi Massacre. In 1971, another group of students led a march protesting government corruption and were attacked by the Halcones (or “Falcons”). This was a group of young-people who had been trained as a paramilitary force meant to make it look as if they were just a rival faction of young people, not associated with the government. This was also why Cleo’s boyfriend was training out in the countryside – he was in one of these rural militias that was secretly being trained by the government to counter the protestors. Dozens of young people were killed – as shown in the movie.

The best part of the whole movie was the revelation that that weird wrestling dude that shows up to train Cleo’s boyfriend was real. His name was Professor Zovek and he was a martial artist/escape artist who was hugely popular on Mexican TV during this time period. We see him pulling a truck with his teeth on TV early in the movie and then he shows up to train Fermin’s group. This was a rumor about him at the time. He died in a helicopter crash at a live gig in 1972 (just one year after the Corpus Christi Massacre) and many believed that the government had him killed because he knew too much thanks to his involvement training their right-wing pro-government militias. Who knows if that’s true? But it’s really interesting so let’s just say it is.

The main reason, historically, why I liked Roma is because it is the film version of a really important historiographical trend. Over the last few decades, historians have slowly been expanding their research to include more voices. Traditionally, history as been the study of leaders and wars, what some call “Great Man” History. So, we learn about George Washington crossing the Delaware and nothing about the other guys in the boat, let alone the women at home who sewed their uniforms. But, with decolonization and the social movements of the 1960s, historians began to look into what we call “subaltern” history. The history of the people that are often overlooked by traditional history. That’s what Alfonso Cuaron did with his own childhood. He made a movie all about his childhood – where traditionally he would have been the “Great Man” and it would have been all about him. Except he didn’t. He’s in the background and the whole movie is from the perspective of someone very often overlooked – his indigenous housekeeper and nanny. It’s really beautiful on a personal note and it’s really important historically. Because the more that we are able to look back at history and events from other perspectives, the more we see that you don’t have to be a “Great Man” to be a part of history. And I’m all for that.

#2: The Favourite

This movie was really great. For one, three strong female leads while all the men around them look ridiculous and act frivolous; I love it. And, it’s historically accurate. Well, mostly. Queen Anne was a real queen – she was the last monarch from the royal House of Stuart since she never had an heir – even though she had 17 pregnancies. That part is true and awful. Also awful is that the rabbits were not true. But it made for a cute part of a weird movie.

Anne became the queen only after her older sister and brother-in-law also didn’t produce any heirs. They were William and Mary – the college in Virginia is named after them – and they were the ones who basically stole the throne from Mary and Anne’s dad, James II. OK. So the House of Stuart (Anne’s house) was the one that took over after Elizabeth I died with no heirs. They came down from Scotland and took over the constitutional monarchy but they didn’t always exactly agree about the whole constitutional part. Stuart rule is characterized by both the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, which solidified Parliament’s power, and greatly reduced the monarch’s power, in England.

So how did we get to Anne? Well her dad James II was a Scottish Catholic king ruling over an English Protestant country. Uh oh. He still believed in the whole “absolute monarch” thing and Parliament was like, “Aw that’s cute. But no.” So they reached out to James’s daughter Mary and her husband and asked them politely to invade and take over, please. And they did. William and Mary were Protestants and, as a result of this “Glorious Revolution,” England would forever more be ruled by a Protestant who shared power with Parliament.

After all of this, Anne was never meant to be queen, since she was just the younger sister. And, even when she became queen it was already clear that she had no heirs and that power would transfer to a new house after she died. So her reign is sort of a “lame duck” monarchy, if that makes sense. Everyone in Parliament was basically just waiting around for her to die so that a new house – what would eventually be the House of Hanover – would take over. So, it’s true that her reign in general was pretty frivolous and inconsequential. Sure, there was a war with France going on, but wasn’t there always a war with France going on? That’s my take on 18th century English history.

Now I know you’re like, “Shut up about politics, get to the ladies!” I hear you, let’s go. So Sarah, or Lady Marlborough, was a very real person. Some of her descendants include Winston Churchill and Princess Diana so, nicely done, Sarah. She was Anne’s closest confidante since childhood and as one historian put it, “While Anne ruled England… Lady Marlborough ruled the queen.” Now, there’s no evidence that they were lovers but let’s not worry about that because that’s no fun.

And, Abigail Hill was also a real person and Sarah’s cousin. She was also related to the head of the Tory Party Robert Harley – the cute guy in the wig who keeps trying to get her to spy for him. Most of her life story in the movie is accurate. Sarah’s family was ruined financially by her father’s gambling problem and she did get a job in the queen’s service thanks to her cousin Sarah. And, she did soon take over as the queen’s favorite – by the way, while I was writing this, it was only at this point that I realized that’s why the movie was called The Favourite. While Sarah and her husband were Whigs – the political party that sided more with Parliament’s power – and they tried to sway Anne in that direction, Abigail encouraged the queen to assert her power more. This is probably one of the reasons why Anne became the last monarch ever to try to veto legislation passed by Parliament. The MPs were like, “Aw, that’s cute Anne. But no.”

So, were they all lovers? There’s no way to know so let’s say yes. But actually probably no. Romantic friendships between women were common in this era, especially since marriages were political and economic arrangements rather than love connections. After being supplanted by Abigail, Sarah did spread rumors that the Queen and Abigail were lovers. She was a huge fan of an R-rated song written about the queen and a “dirty chambermaid.” Apparently, when she was asked later why the Queen and Sarah had fallen out, Anne mentioned her former best friend “saying shocking things” to her and about her.

But, realistically, Anne was known as a prudish Protestant with a strong sense of Christian morality. It seems unlikely that she would have “sexually transgressed” as they would have called it at the time. She also spent most of her life either ill, pregnant, or nursing her husband Prince George of Denmark, who they conveniently left out of the movie because who needs him? And, it’s worth pointing out that calling the monarch gay was a pretty common insult at the time. Every Stuart monarch had some similar story spread about them – probably as a way to point out their “foreign-ness” since their house originated outside of England.

So, is this a movie I’m going to show my students to teach them about 18th century England? Definitely not. For one, I would get fired. And it’s also not historically significant. But, I do love that it expands our understanding of women’s roles in history. Women were queens, women were advisers to the queen, women used their power – through marriage, sex, and persuasion – to advance their own interests in society. And any movie that helps people understand that is good in my book.

#1: BlacKkKlansman

For me, Black Klansman is the clear winner. It does everything I want in a historical movie: it’s accurate; it tells a story we didn’t already know; it teaches us something about our lives today; and it’s actually entertaining. As someone who’s watched a lot of historical movies, that’s really hard to pull off.

For one, the movie is adapted from Ron Stallworth’s own book  and he’s really happy with the way the movie turned out, which is the most important when you’re making a movie about a real person (hear that, Green Book?) And Stallworth also loves the choices that Spike Lee made to very explicitly connect his story with current issues today – namely, the Charlottesville rally. Ron Stallworth said that he hopes that the film shows just how little things have changed, which it does very successfully.

But first, what was not true? Adam Driver’s character was real, but not Jewish and not as heavily involved in the whole operation. He’s actually never been named by Stallworth. But, I do think that making that character Jewish was a purposeful change because it showed that it wasn’t just black people that were threatened by bigots. It made for an interesting dynamic and conversation about the various layers of racism that exist in our country. It’s not all black and white.

Second, the actual operation wasn’t nearly as dramatic as in the movie. Namely, no guns were ever pointed at Stallworth and there were never any explosives or even arrests made (even of the racist cop, who was definitely real). But I get it. Movies need explosions, I guess? It would be hard to make a movie showing that Stallworth prevented multiple cross burnings from actually happening – do you just show an empty field without an 18-foot-cross on fire? It would be a little anticlimactic.

Finally, and this is an issue I do have: Patrice wasn’t real. Now, I like that they included her as a character. Again, Patrice – as the more radical, Black Power character – adds to the complexity of race in our country: there are differences of opinion within the black community. In fact, it’s problematic to even just say “the black community” as if they are all one people. And it added an interesting element to Stallworth’s role as both a black man and a cop. My only issue is, why do they have to fall in love? Why do they always have to fall in love? Just once can’t we have two strong, powerful characters who work together without falling in love? It’s just a pet peeve of mine.

But… now for the fun stuff. What was real? Most of it. Let me just list some of my favorites:

  • Stallworth’s investigation was so successful that he acquired a list of all of the members of the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK. He was told by the organization that two of its members had top-security-clearance in NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command). Stallworth was later informed that those two members had been transferred although this was never confirmed. We do know that two Colorado Springs Klansman were Army Sergeants and both were issued leave after Stallworth’s investigation. Good work, Ron.
  • And how did Stallworth acquire a list of every KKK member in the city? Well, because the organization insisted that Stallworth – a black man – become their new chapter president. This is awesome and true. It was at this point that his bosses insisted he stop the investigation because it would be almost impossible to keep the ruse up as head of the Colorado Springs KKK.
  • And, Stallworth’s conversations and friendship with David Duke were very real. Duke is still alive and he had no issues with his depiction in Stallworth’s memoir but he didn’t like Spike Lee’s portrayal of him as a “buffoon” in the movie. I’m OK with it, for the record. Apparently, Duke did brag to Stallworth over the phone that he could tell a person was black by the way he pronounces “are” (“are-uh”) just like it showed in the movie. And Stallworth says that after that, he made a point to pronounce it “are-uh” in every other conversation they had. So badass.
  • And Stallworth did provide security for David Duke when he visited Colorado Springs to attend the baptism of new members. Just like in the movie, Stallworth requested a photo and put his arm around Duke at the last minute. When Duke reacted violently, Stallworth reminded him that assaulting a police officer could land him in prison. So badass. Sadly, he lost the Polaroid.

My favorite change in the movie was the final conversation between Stallworth and David Duke where Ron tells him who he really is. This did not happen but it’s so satisfying to watch in the movie. In reality, Stallworth’s story didn’t go public until 2006.

So, what’s the historical value of Black Klansman? Well, it’s pretty obvious because Spike Lee did not hold back, because he’s Spike Lee and that’s what he does. The movie is not subtle in its assertion that we’re not “past” the racism we see in the movie. As the KKK chants one of its five founding principles: “America First,” it’s impossible not to draw connections to today. And even though it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a necessary movie. Black Klansman is essentially the opposite of Green Book: while Green Book is Disneyfied, Black Klansman is aggressively in-your-face. And while Green Book attempts to show us moving beyond our racist past – after all, the cop at the end of the movie helped them fix their tire! – Black Klansman asserts that we aren’t nearly as far removed from that era as we should be.

I get it that Green Book is way more pleasant to watch. But as far as historical value, I understand why Spike Lee tried to storm out of the theater when Green Book won the Oscar.


So, there you have it. My completely arbitrary ranking of the historical value of this year’s Oscar nominees. In general, I will say that I actually enjoyed watching every one of these movies. And it’s pretty exciting that filmmakers are finding so much of their material from history. On that note, I have a few proposals, with casting recommendations, for any Hollywood executives listening to this podcast:

  • A Lord of the Rings style trilogy about the Mesopotamian city-states:
    • First, “The Sumerians: The Fellowship of the Wheel”
    • Second, “The Akkadian Empire: The Two Ziggurats”
    • And finally, “Hammurabi: Return of the King”
  • A David Fincher legal drama where China sues Europe for stealing all of its innovations and passing them off as their own, titled “The Silk Road Network”
  • A musical about the South American Revolutions in which Simon Bolivar, played by my love Gael Garcia Bernal obviously, sings Jean Valjean style epics about his dreams for South America? “Who am I? Who are we? Gran Colombiaaaaaa!”
  • An alternative history where Central America doesn’t fall into the Cold War orbit of the United States called “Yes! We have no bananas!”

You’re welcome, Hollywood and movie goers everywhere.


Abraham Riesman, “Roma’s Professor Zovek Was a Real, Completely Bizarre Guy,” Vulture, 12/18/2018

Andy Greene, “Fact-Checking the Queen Biopic, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’,” Rolling Stone, 11/1/2018

Alejandro de la Garza, “The Real History Behind the Movie: Roma,” Time,2/12/2019

Elena Nicolaou, “The Backlash to Green Book, Explained,” Refinery29, 2/24/2019

Franz Cardinal König, “Zarathustra,” Britannica, 2019

“Freddie Mercury’s complex relationship with Zanzibar,” BBC, 11/23/2018

Manuel Tobias, “Fact-check: How true is Green Book?” Politifact, 2/9/2019

Manuel Tobias, “Fact-checking Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman,” Politifact, 8/30/2018

Nate Jones, “Everything You Need to Know About the 18th-Century World of The Favourite”, Vulture, November 27, 2018

Tonja Renée Stidhum, “The Black Cop Behind the White Hood: Ron Stallworth Talks BlacKkKlansman, Unequivocally Supports Black Lives Matter,” The Grapevine, 2/23/19