The American in the Theater

(Spoilers for The Post and BlacKkKlansman)

On this day a year ago, I arrived in Israel as a brand new citizen. My last act before leaving Los Angeles was to go to as many midnight screenings as I could, and I tried to keep the pace in this new country.

But then something changed. In January, I went to see The Post with my then-girlfriend, a newspaper cartoonist who obviously sympathized with the film’s message; and realizing I was the only American in the theater, I thought to myself “I am probably the only person who knows what’s going on.”

For those unaware, The Post is a Steven Spielberg movie about the Washington Post and its legal efforts to publish the Pentagon Papers, a leaked report on the Vietnam War revealing that the US government considered the war unwinnable from an early point but continued fighting out of embarrassment. In the film, this is depicted by having the papers’ original author Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) visit the battlefield for a hot second and which almost certainly baffled the majority of my audience, for whom the Vietnam War is but a vague footnote in someone else’s story.

Instead, the film assumes that viewers will just get it, that cultural memory alone will impart the agony that this war killed millions and nearly tore apart a global superpower, and passes over this emotional weight to dedicate a questionable amount of effort dubiously reimagining the Post’s owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) as a legendary feminist icon and angsting over the future of her chummy relationship with the war’s architect Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). This is additionally strange because the film is at its best when following the actual journalists who uncover the story.

With all this in mind, I asked my girlfriend what she thought about the story. As I feared, her response amounted to little more than a principled endorsement of journalistic freedom, an appreciation for Spielberg’s visual style, and a general enjoyment of Bob Odenkirk’s performance as journalist Ben Bagdikian. I wondered if I would have recognized these flaws in an American theater with an American audience.

BlackKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s retelling of black police detective Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan, gave me an answer.

Despite being one of my most anticipated movies of this year, I ended up seeing Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman in a tiny discount mall theater out of deference to a friend who was too sick to leave her neighborhood, and I will fully admit that this may have unfairly colored my experience of the movie, because I found myself wanting something bigger. Mind you, the crowd was itself unusually restless, especially for a Tuesday afternoon, with the elderly woman next to me loudly playing with her dentures while two middle school-aged boys behind me asked their mom questions about what was going on in the movie at full volume. But most of the audience was also audibly engaged with what they were seeing onscreen, and it offered a fascinating window into what they knew– and didn’t know– about America.

Whereas my friend and I were born in and raised in the United States, and were subsequently unfazed by the various words and actions of the Ku Klux Klan as depicted in the film. We’d heard it all before. Apparently, nobody else in the room had, as every hateful utterance or misdeed provoked audible shock and revulsion. And nowhere moreso than the “revelation” at the film’s end that these things continue. How strange it must be to discover Donald Trump, the US President with a 67% approval rating in the Jewish state, embracing an organization that either denies or celebrates the Holocaust. And these were Tel Avivis, the westernized elites decried as apostates and traitors by our own right-wing government! What response was it getting in Jerusalem?

And what does an upside-down American flag, the symbol of national emergency, mean in a country whose flag literally can’t be turned upside-down?

The Israeli flag, upside-down

As for my own feelings about BlacKkKlansman’s ending– or more properly its many endings– whatever charge I got out of that moment is almost certain sure to age poorly. Over the past decade, true crime has proven an unexpectedly fecund source for comedy, but Lee, who has often tried too hard to tie his films up in a nice bow at the end, is perpetually torn between showing a stranger-than-fiction true story or reimagining these real events as a wish-fulfillment fantasy. But however this ends up looking in retrospect, I’m pleased that he was able to find a genuine message of unity and hope in a story of so much hatred.

This much is certain: however much of The Post was lost on Israeli moviegoers was gained by BlacKkKlansman. And that has to be a good thing.