John David Washington’s turns in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman and this year’s Tenet feel like companion
pieces performances, and the relationship between them can be summarized in modern parlance by this gif:
The Office popularized for my generation the meta-theatrical approach that Washington liminally employs in both movies; he occupies — and, in some cases, creates — each of the movies’ dual realities: the reality of the the movies’ stories, and the reality of the movie itself, and he serves as a guide for the audience to straddle both.
This might sound confusing, but The Office constitutes a simple example to elucidate this dual-reality idea. So the “first reality” of the series is the basic level of the story, AKA the going-ons amongst the employees of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. The show’s “second reality” is provided by the existence of the cameras in that first reality, and the characters’ awareness of them. There are two layers of fiction here: the stories of the Scrantonites’ lives are the first layer, and the second is the mockumentary-like layer where they can see the cameras all around them. The comedy comes from the conflicted interplay between the two, because the presence of cameras always changes our conception of “what’s real” and what only happens by virtue of the players knowing they’re being filmed, and perhaps playing to those lenses.
This concept intersects with performance studies, specifically the inextricability of acting when trying to gauge the truth of someone’s identity. The Office largely circumvents such analytical territory in the name of yucking it up. And though neither BlacKkKlansman nor Tenet tackle this subject head-on, John David Washington’s Jim-like persona in both puts the movies in conversation with these philosophies.
Capital-P Performance is a component of each story. BlacKkKlansman‘s undercover cops obviously revel in performance — it’s their job! And in Tenet, Washington’s name — literally, Protagonist — should get us thinking about role-playing. A crucial distinction here, especially compared with The Office: both of these “performance layers” exist within the reality of their stories. Though BlacKkKlansman‘s Spike Lee loves breaking the fourth wall, both movies predominantly operate within the reality of the story they’re telling. The idea of “Performance” undergirds both stories, but neither explores these ideas explicitly throughout.
Which is where Washington’s Jim-ness comes into play. He manages to feel both fully committed to the story-reality of each movie, while also remaining outside of those realities to subtly comment on them. He IS Ron Stallworth, and he IS Protagonist, yet as both characters, he projects a sense of awareness of the absurdity of the spectacle unfolding around him. Unlike Jim, he never deigns to wink directly at the camera, but his “in it, all while being aware that he’s in it” vibe deepens the number of layers the movie’s operating on. He buys into every moment, yet retains a wry aloofness that should connect him to the audience. Like them, he appears to be conscious of the ludicrous mechanisms he’s somehow found himself in the center of (Jim!). And meeting the audience where they’re living while watching the movie will hopefully act as a sort of Brechtian stopgap to compel the viewer to step outside of the story’s primary reality to contemplate the role of artifice within the story.
Naming his character “Protagonist” in Tenet almost begs the audience to consider how the movie might be a commentary on its own brand of Hollywood storytelling; it can be interpreted as a deconstruction of what comprises the scattered (and scatterbrained? harebrained?) units of Hollywood
nonsense storytelling. How Washington moves through this world becomes a reflection of the audience’s own incredulity. Yet he stays engaged throughout, as — or, maybe, thereby? — we do, because sometimes it’s fun being ridiculous, and knowing we’re being ridiculous doesn’t necessarily dampen that fun. In fact, being “in” on the joke can key the audience into being allowed to laugh. The movie’s line “Don’t try to understand it. Just feel it” has been widely mocked — understandably so — but Washington’s performance lampshades the mockery. He communicates he’s LOLing on the inside, while never dropping the crucial facade of self-important regard that is the bread and butter of a Hollywood protagonist.
And in BlacKkKlansman…well…the amount of realities that a black cop must traverse to topple white supremacy from the inside could be explicated endlessly. Washington’s performance both navigates these multidimensional worlds from the inside, AND nudges the audience outside the movie’s reality to consider the role of artifice in the story, and its real-world consequences.
Is it weird to discuss two of John David Washington’s recent movies, while ignoring the one that just came out last week?
Well, wait a few days.