The movie’s tagline is “based on a true friendship.” But the transactional nature of it makes the friendship seem less true than sponsored. So what does the money do, exactly? The white characters — the biological ones and somebody supposedly not black enough, like fictional Don — are lonely people in these pay-a-pal movies. The money is ostensibly for legitimate assistance, but it also seems to paper over all that’s potentially fraught about race. The relationship is entirely conscripted as service and bound by capitalism and the fantastically presumptive leap is, The money doesn’t matter because I like working for you. And if you’re the racist in the relationship: I can’t be horrible because we’re friends now. That’s why the hug Sandra Bullock gives Yomi Perry, the actor playing her maid, Maria, at the end of “Crash,” remains the single most disturbing gesture of its kind. It’s not friendship. Friendship is mutual. That hug is cannibalism.
Money buys Don a chauffeur and, apparently, an education in black folkways and culture. (Little Richard? He’s never heard him play.) Shirley’s real-life family has objected to the portrait. Their complaints include that he was estranged from neither black people nor blackness. Even without that thumbs-down, you can sense what a particularly perverse fantasy this is: that absolution resides in a neutered black man needing a white guy not only to protect and serve him, but to love him, too. Even if that guy and his Italian-American family and mob associates refer to Don and other black people as eggplant and coal. In the movie’s estimation, their racism is preferable to its nasty, blunter southern cousin because their racism is often spoken in Italian. And, hey, at least Tony never asks Don to eat his fancy dinner in a supply closet.
Mahershala Ali is acting Shirley’s isolation and glumness, but the movie determines that dining with racists is better than dining alone. The money buys Don relative safety, friendship, transportation and a walking-talking black college. What the money can’t buy him is more of the plot in his own movie. It can’t allow him to bask in his own unique, uniquely dreamy artistry. It can’t free him from a movie that sits him where Miss Daisy sat, yet treats him worse than Hoke. He’s a literal passenger on this white man’s trip. Tony learns he really likes black people. And thanks to Tony, now so does Don.
Lately, the black version of these interracial relationships tends to head in the opposite direction. In the black version, for one thing, they’re not about money or a job but about the actual emotional, psychological work of being black among white people. Here, the proximity to whiteness is toxic, a danger, a threat. That’s the thrust of Jeremy O. Harris’s stage drama “Slave Play,” in which the traumatic legacy of plantation life pollutes the black half of the show’s interracial relationships. That’s a particularly explicit, ingenious example. But scarcely any of the work I’ve seen in the last year by black artists — not Jackie Sibblies Drury’s equally audacious play “Fairview,” not Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” not “Blindspotting,” which Daveed Diggs co-wrote and stars in, not Barry Jenkins’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” or Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” — emphasizes the smoothness and joys of interracial friendship and certainly not through employment. The health of these connections is iffy, at best.
In 1989, Lee was pretty much on his own as a voice of black racial reality. His rankled pragmatism now has company and, at the Academy Awards, it’s also got stiff competition. He helped plant the seeds for an environment in which black artists can look askance at race. But a lot of us still need the sense of fantastical racial contentment that movies like “The Upside” and “Green Book” are slinging. I’ve seen “Green Book” with paying audiences, and it cracks people up the way any of Farrelly’s comedies do. The kind of closure it offers is like a drug that Lee’s never dealt. The Charlottesville-riot footage that he includes as an epilogue in “BlacKkKlansman” might bury the loose, essentially comedic movie it’s attached to in furious lava. Lee knows the past too well to ever let the present off the hook. The volcanoes in this country have never been dormant.
The Academy’s embrace of Lee at this stage of his career (this is his first best director nomination) suggests that it’s come around to what rankles him. Of course, “BlacKkKlansman” is taking on the unmistakable villainy of the KKK in the 1970s. But what put Lee on the map 30 years ago was his fearlessness about calling out the universal casual bigotry of the moment, like Daisy’s and Tony’s. It’s hot as hell in “Do the Right Thing,” and in the heat, almost everybody has a problem with who somebody is. The pizzeria owned by Sal (Danny Aiello) comes to resemble a house of hate. Eventually Sal’s delivery guy, Mookie (played by Lee), incites a melee by hurling a trash can through the store window. He’d already endured a conversation with Pino (John Turturro), Sal’s racist son, in which he tells Mookie that famous black people are “more than black.”
Closure is impossible because the blood is too bad, too historically American. Lee had conjured a social environment that’s the opposite of what “The Upside,” “Green Book,” and “Driving Miss Daisy” believe. In one of the very last scenes, after Sal’s place is destroyed, Mookie still demands to be paid. To this day, Sal’s tossing balled-up bills at Mookie, one by one, shocks me. He’s mortally offended. Mookie’s unmoved. They’re at a harsh, anti-romantic impasse. We’d all been reared on racial-reconciliation fantasies. Why can’t Mookie and Sal be friends? The answer’s too long and too raw. Sal can pay Mookie to deliver pizzas ‘til kingdom come. But he could never pay him enough to be his friend.