Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 10, 2018 4:14 pm 
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Spike Lee back in the game

BLACKkKLANSMAN is topical, an astonishing true story, a lark, tensely exciting, and Spike Lee's best film in years. It's a must-see, and its significance can only grow. It's a deeply political film, but also a cinematically self-conscious one that refers to many other movies of the period, including specific Blaxploitation titles. It also points out the deep significance to American white racists of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, a perniciously accomplished work (once often listed among the ten greatest films of all time) that David Edelstein points out Spike Lee has wanted to savage onscreen since his NYU graduate film studies days. When Birth of a Nation originally came out in 1915, it had the effect of reinvigorating the Klan nationwide. The timeliness arises from this being a moment of resurgent white racism and widening right-wing extremism, something Spike does not fail to refer to throughout the film, even to pointing a direct finger at the current US President and the infamous events of Charlottesville in August 2017.

It's a thrilling and surprising film and one so full of extremes and seeming absurdities that it may take some time to sink in. It's also a disappointment, because it lectures us too much, and the actual movie can't fully live up to the cool basic idea: a black cop who poses as a white racist and joins the KKK. But it's nonetheless a compelling watch, which you owe to yourself and also to giving another chance to Spike Lee, whose return to form was heralded by Competition status at Cannes, and then the Grand Prix.

It's based on a memoir of actual experiences - the most unbelievable ones are true - that Spike riffs off of freely, adding details to heighten the flavor and significance. In 1978 in Colorado Springs, Ron Stallings (here played by John David Washington, Denzel's son), who sports a big Afro and a neatly trimmed beard, is hired as the first black on the local police force, and later gets permission to "infiltrate" the KKK, whose local branch has been growing. He does this by voice only, on the telephone. Like the lead character is Boots Riley's witty new comedy Sorry to Bother You, Ron uses his "white voice" to pose on the phone to the local KKK as a white racist. Later he collaborates with Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a white colleague, who takes his place when the fake white racist "Ron Stallworth" (foolishly, he has used his real name) must show up in person, meet the Klan, later become a member, and eventually be asked to head the local chapter. Wearing a wire, and backed up by listener collaborators with cameras, the police department investigates the local racists.

Ron's skill with a "white voice" and spouting racist ideas that even gets him on good terms with the Klan's Grand Dragon David Duke (a rather bland Topher Grace) is an example of "double consciousness," "code-switching," as Caleb Gayle calls it, or what Ron dubs his ability at both "speaking the King's English and talking jive."

Ron gets police permission to initiate this bold and dangerous game, dangerous both for him and for Flip, of infiltrating the crazy, absurd world of local racists. But there are racists close by, right in Ron Stallworth's face, all around his job among his supposed peers. To begin with he's clearly being hired as a token black when he's interviewed by Chief Bridges of the police (Robert John Burke) and a black mayoral representative and they tell him he'll be the Jackie Robinson of the force, meaning he'll be on his own dealing with hatred and resentment. It's the "Jackie Robinson" aspect of Ron's experience that's most eye-opening to a white viewer - the way, even when things are "okay," they're not okay for a black man in America.

Once at work, at first hidden in a boring rookie job in the records department, Ron is repeatedly assaulted and tormented by a vicious racist, Patrolman Landers (Frederick Weller) who's a fellow cop and who continues to bait and attack Ron till near the end. Chief Bridges really isn't 100% on his side. Early on, discounting the KKK project, he instead sends Ron to what for him is a distasteful mission: to infiltrate a black power gathering of college students addressed by Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), who's taken the name of Kwame Ture after living in Africa, and announces that a time of violence and revolution is coming. A personal plus of this assignment for Ron is that he meets and becomes involved with the black students' female leader (invented for this film), Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a fiery young militant, bespectacled but beautiful, with her own big Afro, conceived as a young Angela Davis or Kathleen Cleaver. Ron's ongoing debates with Patrice bring out the issue of whether it's best to bring change from within the system (as a black cop) or from outside it (as a black militant), obviously an issue Spike Lee has been confronted with.

Chief Bridges and his racist white allies on the force consider the black college students more a threat than the local KKK, even when the KKK is armed to the teeth and assembling bombs, whereas the black organization's only weapons are their words. This follows an age-old tradition of American cops looking away when white violence against African Americans is at issue - even in this late-Seventies setting where there is a more liberal mood.

Viewers must be prepared for a surfeit not only of racist words but of the most extreme and vulgar racist thoughts, of foul hateful, ugly epithets like "Martin Luther Coon," of endless nasty verbal attacks on Jews and blacks, which both Ron on the phone and Flip, AKA Ron, in with the local Klansmen in person, must answer back in spades to maintain their credibility. While the talk is hateful and ugly, the Klansmen are stupid and laughable.

But while we're laughing, we're also on edge, because this is a very dangerous game Ron and Flip are playing. The first danger is that the Klansmen will notice that their voices are not the same. (There's a funny scene where Ron tries to coach Flip to talk like him talking like a white person.) There's no telling what will happen if the Klansmen discover they're being punk'd, and Ron is doubly at risk because he has used his real name to the Klan, and he's going around town while black, using what's now a new KKK member's name.

When David Duke comes to Colorado Springs, the ever-provocative Chief Bridges appoints the real, black Ron Stallings to be Duke's temporary bodyguard. This shows both the Chief's willingness to put Ron at risk and the fact that he's more concerned for the KKK leader's safety than that of Ron, or of the black students against whom the KKK is planning an act of terrorism. Crazy as it sounds, this really happened, and so did the photo op of Ron and David Duke. And Flip is there, as Ron, causing further danger and complication. This is when the Klan watches, raptly, Birth of a Nation - a sequence that is the strangest and most unique of the film

We have gotten some introduction to the private doings of the local Klan, not only target practice with matching caricature "N---er" figures as targets, but planning of a bomb attack on the local black activists. There are also two grand contrasting scenes that are intercut, with the help of Terrence Blanchard's excellent soundtrack. Flip-as-Ron's skill as a marksman is one more thing that arouses suspicion in Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), the local Klansmen's most dangerous and unhinged member, who adds a sense of danger to the Klan scenes from Flip-Ron's first contact with them. Part of the energy of this very energetic movie comes from the uneasiness of watching a dangerous undercover operation.

While Topher Grace may look and sound disappointingly bland (though the real David Duke is no less so), Adam Driver as Flip-Ron undercover seems too bold. He enters with such zest into the racism and antisemitism of the "Ron Stallworth" he impersonates, it lessens the tension, because we can't imagine him failing. Driver is also cast as Jewish when he's not and does't look it. Flip's excuse for not seeming sufficiently enraged at the local Klan he's spending time with is that he wasn't raised Jewish, but he says he's beginning to think about his Jewishness now every day and come to think all these years of being "just a white guy" he's been "passing." These details, providing the character of Flip, whose original we know nothing about, with Jewish background, gives the character "skin in the game" that a white character might not otherwise seem to have. The movie makes amply clear that white suprematists are as antisemitic and homophobic as they are racist.

Credit goes to Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin WillmottIf, with Spike in collaboration on a screenplay that makes sense of this crazy and mind-boggling story, for what A.O. Scott calls "the deftness of its tonal shifts — from polemical to playful, from humorous to horrific, from blaxploitation to Classical Hollywood and back again." If Spike's movie works, it'll give everyone who watches it "skin in the game." It is a game - and also a very serious lesson, and an epic return to form for this intermittently great filmmaker.

BlacKKKlansman, 135 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 2018, winning the Grand Prix; half a dozen other festivals. US premiere NYC 30 July; US wide theatrical release 10 Aug. 2018. Metascore 83%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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