Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman dramatizes an amazing true story from American history. In the 1970s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African American detective on the Colorado Springs Police Department, infiltrated the KKK. With the assistance of a white detective (Adam Driver), Stallworth not only got close to the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), but became the Klan’s first black member. However compelling the story is, “It cannot be just a history lesson,” Lee told The New York Times. “It has to be contemporary.” Skillfully playing off news stories and events, “Lee never takes his eye off the connecting thread between the events of 1978 and the present,” notes New York Magazine. “The result is one of his most flat-out entertaining films in years, and also one of his most uncompromising.”
With BlacKkKlansman coming to theaters on August 10, we look back at other films that connect their dramas to the current national zeitgeist. From a 70s San Francisco politician with hope to a 90s investigative reporter fighting to tell the truth, these real-life dramas seem to get more relevant each year.
Milk | The audacity of hope
While Gus Van Sant’s Milk took place in the 70s, its message of anger and hope plugged into the feelings of many who had just voted in 2008. The Academy Award®-nominated film dramatizes the life and times of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) as he rises from a community organizer to become the first openly gay man elected to office in California, an achievement tragically cut short when Dan White (Josh Brolin) assassinated him in 1978. In 2008, many were recoiling from California’s recently passed Proposition 8, which effectively banned gay marriage. ArtForum suggests that Milk’s “fight in the streets” speech might answer the question, “What would Harvey have done if he had failed at the ballot box as we did?” Slate went even further in linking the film to the election, exclaiming that “Few reviewers will miss the opportunity to point out—the parallels are hard to ignore—that Harvey Milk was the Barack Obama of his day, a minority candidate who represented change…and preached a gospel of hope.”
Loving | The evolution of equality
When Jeff Nichols’ Loving opened in 2016, its story of a real-life interracial couple seeking justice drew comparisons with another Supreme Court fight over marriage, that being Obergefell v. Hodges. In the film, soon after Richard and Mildred Loving (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) were married in 1958, there were arrested in Virginia which still enforced anti-miscegenation laws. It would take another nine years and a Supreme Court decision to overturn their conviction. Explaining how the Lovings’ case connects to the recent fight for same-sex marriage, Nichols tells People Magazine that “it shows us how to have these conversations by keeping the focus on the real people at the center.” Indeed the American Bar Association Journal acknowledges “personal stories such as the Lovings’ played a…role in persuading the Supreme Court justices who decided Obergefell v. Hodges.”
Kill The Messenger | Making the press great again
In a time when serious journalism can be dismissed as “fake news,” Michael Cuesta’s 2014 real-life thriller Kill the Messenger feels especially resonant. In 1996, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, lands what appears to be the story of a lifetime: a link between the money being funneled to the Nicaraguan contras and the explosion of crack cocaine on the streets of Los Angeles. Rather than attacking the facts of the story, corporate and government forces went after Webb himself, discrediting his name until, unemployable and hopeless, he had nowhere to go. Rolling Stone’s summary that “Kill the Messenger inspires a moral outrage that feels disconcertingly timely” has become only more relevant as the press is openly labeled an enemy of the people today.
The Constant Gardener | The emergence of Big Pharma
When Fernando Meirelles brought to the screen John le Carré’s novel The Constant Gardener, exposés of malfeasance by pharmaceutical companies, especially in developing countries, were showing up in newspapers around the world. Le Carré’s afterword in the novel hints that the worst is yet to come. His journey through “the pharmaceutical jungle” showed him that his fictional tale is “by comparison with the reality… as tame as a holiday postcard.” In the film, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a mid-level British diplomat working in Kenya, attempts to uncover the truth about the mysterious death of his activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz). What he discovers is a web of conspiracies connecting drug testing, international corporations, and governmental agencies across Africa. Noting the film's power to raise awareness, The Independent suggested that “The behavior of Big Pharma will come under renewed scrutiny thanks to The Constant Gardener."
Suffragette | The long march to women’s rights
The moving story of women fighting for their equality in Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette rings especially true in the age of the women’s march and the #MeToo movement. In the film, a working mother named Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) risks everything to demand the right to vote. For Gavron, this political drama is not an isolated historical tale. “Many of the issues the suffragettes were dealing with are still issues today across the globe: equal pay, parental rights, sexual abuse, etc.,” she told Indiewire. Over the film’s credits Gavron spells out the connection by giving a timeline of suffragette movements, with women in many countries only getting the right to vote in recent years. For The Observer, the film “preserves the pulse and passion of a past era, yet strengthens the vibrant urgency of a cause that continues to inform the future.”