Thursday, August 9, 2018
Not quite a Klassic
BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee's latest joint and it was clearly intended as a statement film, rather than a story. There are generally two types of political films: one with a story that delivers a message as part of its theme and one with a message that carries a story. This one is the latter, without doubt, dressed up as it is in the stylistic trappings of a Lee effort that attempts to be the commentary before the critics can get there to extol it.
The best part about its absurdist plot is that it's a true story: the only Black police officer in Colorado Springs did actually infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and speak with David Duke. But Lee is careful to not let said absurdity override the essential disturbing theme of American racism being alive and well in 1979 and to this very day. All of the direct encounters with the Klan members carry an atmosphere of danger and there are no hi-jinks that would lift the story out of the realm of drama and into comedy. That doesn't mean that the film is a brooding one, as Lee also consciously applied the style of the time in which it's set, using choreography and shooting angles that were an obvious homage to the Blaxploitation films of the 70s (Patrica and Ron skimming toward the camera with guns drawn, etc.) He was also careful to draw tight links to the reality of Trump and his followers in the present day ("There's no way America would ever elect someone like David Duke president!", Topher Grace as Duke muttering about "Making America achieve... greatness again!"), as that part of the message was repeated over and over: In many ways, nothing has changed in the last 40 years and the regular shooting of Black people isn't too far away from the organized lynchings and torture that Harry Belafonte as Jerome Turner spent several minutes elaborating upon for his young revolutionary audience. I think that message is a good one that bears repeating.
My one note of reluctance about the film is that, as has happened with many other Lee joints, I think he was attempting too much with one film and the editing was perhaps hindered by both the amount of material contained in the script (and the message) and the relatively thin characters that weren't able to carry the film from scene to scene. In many ways, it became too obvious that it was a message being delivered and not a story being told. The jumps from scene to scene were often choppy and the pace of the film dragged a bit in the middle, mostly because there wasn't enough story to carry it evenly from act 2 to act 3. You only cared about the inevitable resolution and not enough about what was happening to get you there. There was little warmth in the relationship between Ron (John David Washington) and Patrice (Laura Harrier) and most of the moments when Ron had to deal with the chief or other superiors felt almost as staged as your typical police procedural.
But there were some very strong and memorable moments. I found it kind of fascinating that the few moments of real levity were when Ron was conducting his phone kalls to to Klan members and other cops would be cracking up at his over-the-top performance. Of course, Washington was playing it so straight that what was truly funny about those scenes was watching the other cast members try to restrain themselves and end up giving him away. This is one of the interesting things about comedy, in that some of it can best be enjoyed with other people, so that true enjoyment comes from seeing how other people are reacting, even moreso than anything gained from the actual content of the joke. You'd like to think that that, too, was a part of the message, in that the best way to deal with that kind of visceral and unreasoning hatred and ignorance is to be able to laugh about it (and at the racists) together; taking collective joy in the behavior of fools rather than letting their foibles reduce our own.
Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman had the most poignant moment of the film when it occurred to him just how much privilege he enjoyed, despite the fact that he was one of the primary unwanteds of the Klan, since it wasn't obvious that he was anything other than a White man. It was a great question of identity when he revealed that being Jewish was never something that was a part of his reality as a child until he grew old enough to understand what it meant and develop his sense of self. But that scene may have been a measure of Driver's greater experience as an actor, since he was able to convey that kind of identity quandary, whereas Washington, as the central figure in all of this, really didn't. He was constantly the straight man in the grand joke. Similarly, it occurred to me in act 3 that the person occupying the typical role of hero in the action scenes was, in fact, Driver, since he was the one taking the physical risks in interacting with the Klan, got the chance to show off his shooting skills, and then finally rescued Stallworth from overzealous cops at the end. So, once again, the person occupying the popularly understood notion of "hero" of the film about Black identity was a White guy (see: Amistad.) And this was a Spike Lee film! Two other performances of real note were Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture and Jasper Pääkönen as Felix. The latter reminded of no one so much as Michael Biehn as the deranged Lt. Coffey in The Abyss.
Another familiar aspect was the little cultural touches that Lee included, sometimes with a feather, like Mr. Turrentine (Isiah Whitlock) using the tagline ("Sheeeeiiiitttt!") of his most famous role from The Wire, and sometimes with a cinder block, like dropping in the movie posters of those Blaxploitation films while Ron and Patrice are discussing them. I can see the desire to clue people in to what that conversation (and the consequent style touches throughout the film) was about, but I also think the heavy-handed approach kind of diminished the overall effect. No one I saw the film with had seen The Wire, so the Clay Davis moment was lost on them, but sometimes those Easter eggs are things to be discovered with later viewings, rather than shoved in your face the first time. Similarly, while I understand the desire to show the events of Charlottesville from last summer to drive home the fact again that, yes, this is still a reality and these people, including the president, are dangerous and a menace to civil society. But I'm not sure the full footage was as effective as a few still shots with captions would have been, allowing the audience to draw some of their own conclusions, rather than making them for it.
Regardless, it's a film that's well worth seeing for a variety of reasons and probably much more effective in the theater than it will be on smaller screens.