Sunday, August 12, 2018

All power to all the people


BlacKkKlansman may be responsible for the most feelings I've had in a theater this year, yet none of them conflicted.  Thank you, Spike Lee.

Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Kevin Wilmott, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Spike Lee (based on Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth)
With John David Washington (Det. Ron Stallworth), Adam Driver (Det. Flip Zimmerman), Laura Harrier (Patrice Dumas), Ken Garito (Sgt. Trapp), Michael Buscemi (Jimmy Creek), Corey Hawkins (Kwame "Stokely Carmichael" Ture), Harry Belafonte (Jerome Turner), Alec Baldwin (Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard), Jasper Paakkonen (Felix Kendrickson), Ryan Eggold (Walter Breachway), Paul Walter Hauser (Ivanhoe), and Topher Grace (Grand Wizard David Duke)

Spoiler alert: moderate

"All power to all the people" is not the Black Panther slogan.  It's "all power to the people," and while there's not much daylight between those two phrases, I can't imagine this particular movie changed it for nothing.  So I don't think it's a mistake that it pokes at the anti-anti-racist slogan of "all lives matter," which sounds perfectly fine until you realize 1)who's saying it, and why, and 2)that it was only what "black lives matter" meant all along.  As such, I reckon this tiny little anachronism (in a film full of them, all equally deliberate) to be important to understanding what Spike Lee's doing with his newest film, BlacKkKlansman, or at least what I think he's doing with it, although most of it (it's a Spike Lee film) is so hammer-to-the-balls obvious I don't believe it's open to anything you'd call "interpretation."

Obviousness is neutral, though.  The wrong, droning kind of obvious can be bad; but the right kind of obvious can be really good, and BlacKkKlansman is really, really good.  Good enough to be Lee's best film in years (I say vaguely, hoping nobody catches on that my experience with Lee's been shamefully spotty), and it comes part-and-parcel with possibly the single smartest deployment of filmmaking craft of the year, too.  It's even good enough that I'm pretty sure the worst thing about it has to be its name.  Not Black Klansman, the title of the book it's based on.  Or BlacKKKlansman, which at least looks cool.  No, BlacKkKlansman, upper-case K, lower-case k, upper-case K.  That shit is annoying.  It makes for an ugly logo, too.  Anyway, it's about the black klansman, the Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth.  His story sounds made up, and even his name sounds like a screenwriting conceit ("your hero's name is 'stalwart'?  really?"), but both, it turns out, are true.

Sure, it makes more sense in real life, and it's only mostly true, but that's just the movies: in 1972, Stallworth joins the CSPD as its first black officer, and, for this sin, is sent to languish in the file room; but Stallworth won't stay there long, as he's tapped by the chief to gather "intelligence" on the local black student union which is feared to be on the brink of radicalizing.  Maybe all this does is wake Stallworth up—though to what extent this is thanks to Kwame Ture's speech, rather than to his burgeoning crush on the student union's hot cop-hating president, Patrice Dumas, is perhaps a little hard to say.  Either way, soon enough Stallworth's putting together his own operation, by means of what almost amounts to a prank phone call, when he dials up the number on a Ku Klux Klan recruitment ad he finds right there in a Colorado Springs newspaper (something which makes the Klan's membership's shrill insistence on being referred to as "the Organization" all the funnier, though somehow this is never stressed).  Now that he's got entree into the KKK, he convinces his superiors to open an investigation into their subversive activities for a change.  There's only one problem.  Refer back to the title of the film.  And so, in Stallworth's stead, goes fellow detective Flip Zimmerman, who's white, or at least white enough, and down into the klavern they fall, and obviously that's no place anybody wants to be, especially once they realize that the Klan is a lot less of the social club for the common clay of the new West that David Duke wants to paint it as, and a lot more like the domestic terrorist organization it is.

Now, this rendition of Stallworth's tale is a little incoherent in really unimportant ways—I have no idea when Stallworth, the file clerk, made detective, and I have no idea, based on this movie alone (supplementary reading helps), why Stallworth did not hand off the telephone to Zimmerman instead of continuing to operate for months as the disembodied voice of a white racist (for whatever reason, the two best films by black filmmakers so far in 2018 both start out being about black men pretending to be white over the phone, and, oddly, given Sorry To Bother You's marketing, I'm pretty sure BlacKkKlansman has significantly more of it than Sorry does)—but these are the definition of "piddly-ass problems."

Otherwise, it is a movie largely absent of anything you'd readily describe as flaws, and the ones you could identify are arguably even more minor: a questionable editing choice as we barrel toward the third act that makes it look like the film's taking a turn towards Clarice-knocking-on-Bill's-door territory, but it isn't; in the same vein, being an undercover cop thriller that could probably be somewhat more white-knuckled than it is (though even then, it does eventually get there, and BlacKkKlansman has a climax I think Hitchcock would approve of); a fascination with using splitscreen techniques that are impeccably designed for the 'Scope frame, and still makes you wish that somebody, Lee or anybody in the world, would do something more interesting with splitscreen than conversations on a telephone.  (Brian De Palma, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.)  BlacKkKlansman's a movie where you wait for the cross-burning, too, because you know Lee's not going to let an image that potent go to waste.  You almost think he did; but of course he didn't.

And the film's strengths hit you like a—fuck, a Dodge Challenger, I guess, for why should I be coy when Lee isn't?  Being a Spike Lee Joint, BlacKkKlansman is also a tour through cinematic history, and can be compared, profitably, with Lee's riff on Network, Bamboozled, though it can be differentiated from Bamboozled in a lot of ways, too(BlacKkKlansman is, for example, funnier—in fact, it's tremendously funny for a race-in-America chronicle that, based on its content, you'd be wary of describing as a "comedy," but a comedy is kind of what you get anyway, including a tremendous gag to close out the narrative proper, as well as one of the best spittakes I ever saw.  BlacKkKlansman is also a well-made, good-looking movie, that has a blast playing with its 70s aesthetic, rather than a monstrously-failed experiment in turn-of-the-century digital cinematography.)

But the biggest difference between the two is that you never get the feeling that BlacKkKlansman was an art installation that happened to grow a narrative film out in front of it for support.  Yet both are metacinema, at turns.  BlacKkKlansman likewise bookends itself with effectively nondiegetic material.  Its prologue is the blooper reel of a fake white supremacist propaganda reel starring "Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard," and it begins, itself, with the most famous shot of Gone With the Wind. I think Spike Lee also has a conflicted relationship with blaxploitation cinema; who knew?  So: both Bamboozled and BlacKkKlansman are deeply, deeply concerned with the way racism has manifested in the moving image throughout time, and while Bamboozled took its aim at Hollywood's legacy of racist humiliation (and damned if that art installation Lee put together at the end isn't chilling), BlacKkKlansman turns its eye toward racist violence.

It takes on Birth of a Nation, explicitly—and almost inevitably given its subject matter, though the single most eyebrow-raising thing about BlacKkKlansman might come directly from Lee's faith in the power of cinema, even evil cinema, when we find a bunch of rednecks positively stoked to watch a three-hour-long silent film.  And let's just say, for the moment, that this picture's "art installation" ending was even more upsetting to sit through than Bamboozled's.  Yet I felt it was good for me, and good for everybody, which is never one's expected reaction to a snuff film.  BlacKkKlansman reminds you that, instead of watching a mostly-fun movie on this anniversary weekend, you probably ought to have been in Washington hanging a Nazi from a tree—again, for a change—and "Nazi," only because "Republican" is more cumbersome to shout, though they are effectively synonyms.  But it steels you for the next time, and that's awfully valuable.

So the most compelling thing Lee does throughout his movie is the way he ties it to our time (he does so through out-and-out bird-flipping, too, and this is less compelling, though he does it often enough that it becomes part of the texture of the film, rather than the jarring, purely-performative political "engagement" of bullshit like Jurassic World 2).  It actually comes off weird at first, and the main way you know he's on the up-and-up is that he's Spike Lee, with his mirrored scenes of black detective Stallworth downplaying the Black Panthers' capacity for violence, and white detective Zimmerman doing the exact same thing with the Klan.  And it's a theme Lee rides throughout the picture, until ultimately we arrive at a stunning cross-cut sequence between a klavern ceremony and a black student union meeting, each respectively ending with chants of "white power" and "black power," and it is the most powerful refutation of the false equivalence between those two things that I imagine I'll ever see.  (Meanwhile, it doesn't forget that Stallworth is a cop: the film is blatant about every conclusion it makes, but when it asks whether participating in the racist superstructure of society makes you part of the problem, that one it lets you answer on your own.)

I won't say BlacKkKlansman never degenerates into a lecture; hell, this movie has two lectures, though, thankfully, Lee makes them cinematically enticing, one through advanced Zardoz technology, the other through that aforementioned crosscutting, and they're difficult to bear only in the sense that it's depressing that lectures being given in 1972 still have relevance today.  But BlacKkKlansman wants to include you—and by "you" I obviously mean "me, the white guy."  It is, by definition, a diverse ensemble piece, and it's acted with wall-to-wall good-to-great performances, with every principal threatening to carry the movie away from everybody else at least once: this is particularly true for Adam Driver, whose line about Zimmerman's skin, "I never used to think about it, now I think about it all the time," probably means something different for the Jewish character, but is clearly directed at the white portion of the audience by its white stand-in, and it's something raw being revealed right there; but it's also true for Steve Buscemi's brother Michael (whom I misidentified as Steve, but that's a compliment), for Laura Harrier's Patrice, for Ken Garito's righteous walking mustache Sgt. Trapp, for Paul Walter Hauser's stupidest Klansman, and for Topher Grace, whom I have always, always liked, here representing unnervingly perfect physical casting for David Duke, even before you get to the squirrelly, insecure "Southern gentility" of his performance.

(Still, ensemble or not, I do not wish to say it is "only" anchored by John David Washington, though he absolutely does anchor it.  I'd never have recognized the man as Denzel's son if people didn't make a thing about it.  He neither looks like him nor performs like him: he's vastly more reserved—why, even his kung fu tantrums are somehow emotionally restrained—and he has a wonderful way of conveying surprise or disgust through his eyes without changing the cast of his face at all.  But they are both ridiculously charismatic, so there's that, and Washington's Stallworth winds up a star turn even inside a movie that doesn't seem entirely designed for one.)

Through its cast, and through its flourishes, it's a film that reminds you that we're all in this together; that, nuances aside, there's good, and evil, and that one of the privileges of white people in America we don't usually talk about is that we get to make a real moral choice about which we want to be.  Just enough of us choose to be evil to make America worse again; but it was, and remains, a near-run thing.  So it's what I needed right this second, anyway, in a time when the antagonistic spillover onto (straight) white (cis)(male) allies, in the name of satire and punching-up, has been a constant buzzing noise for at least the past two years; and while I'll never say "fuck you" and go home (that's not how this shit works, Bari Weiss), because I appreciate where it's coming from and what it means, I do sometimes have to bite my tongue for the first thing, because it's alienating and wearying coming from friends.  "Fuck your feelings" is the uniform the other team wears, after all.  So it may or may not mean anything that the writing team behind BlacKkKlansman reflects the racial make-up of the heroes; it may or may not mean anything that Jordan Peele, whose Get Out was too close to being Temple of Doom With White So-Called Liberals for my personal comfort, helped produce.  And it is, perhaps, a surprising invitation from Lee.  But I'm gratified by his generosity, and fascinated by his choice of metacinematic martyr: the pretty white lady who, in our real life, as opposed to the racist fantasy of Birth of a Nation, was killed by a white man in pursuit of white supremacy.  Lee reminds us we've got skin in this game.  He reminds me that I don't want Heather Heyer to rest in peace.  I want her avenged.

Score: 9/10


  1. Just saw this movie and found your review, had to leave a comment to say I enjoyed reading it. 👍