Saturday, August 18, 2018

Movie Reviews: BlackkKlansman

directed by Spike Lee
This film is based on a true story. Lee at 61, is still interested in interrogating whiteness. In some respects the culture has caught up with him. American Whiteness and Blackness are not just biological markers of lineage. 

The concepts show us who is on the winning team and who is not. We use race to delineate opportunities: legal, financial. social or otherwise. Ironically, though these racial descriptions are taken for granted by most Americans at any given time, the reality is that both categories, but especially whiteness, have been historically flexible.  At one time "White" Americans questioned whether or not Italians, particularly southern Italians, were really or fully white. Al Capone and other Italian hoodlums murdered Irish hoodlums who, irritated by the sight of Irish women with Italian men, insulted the women by telling them to leave the bar and come back with white men. A few generations before that incident not all white Americans accepted Irish as white. 19th century era magazines and newspapers ran columns and cartoons depicting Irish as lazy, stupid, wicked, in other words Black in all but color. 

White in America has also meant "not-black".  That meaning has co-existed with the idea that the further someone is from Northern or Western European heritage and Christian religion, the more tenuous their whiteness claim is. In BlackkKlansman a Jewish detective infiltrates a Klan group. A Black man makes initial contact with the Klan. He draws them in by pretending to be white and runs the investigation. A white man is pretending to be a Black man who is pretending to be a white man. Lee shows us how whiteness and blackness can be understood as performance art. 

People debate on how or whether an artist's political, sexual, racial or legal sins outweigh his or her artistic creations. I don't think there's any answer. The question becomes more complex when the artist's work itself has negative elements.

From his past statements Lee apparently is still peeved at being taught in film school to appreciate or analyze such works as Gone With The Wind or Birth of a Nation without also hearing that both films, whatever their technical achievements, were racist agitprop designed and used to spread hatred of and contempt for Black people. Lee judiciously uses cuts from both films to make their purpose clear. I thought the later sections of BlackkKlansman were too didactic but (1) that is Lee's style and (2) sometimes you have to spell things out for people.

It's only been for a little over fifty years that Black Americans have had (still contested) basic legal protections of citizenship. Before that, depending on the decade, the majority or at least a very sizable minority thought that Blacks should be either slaves or something less than citizens. That history affects the post 1964 American culture. It impacts Ron Stallworth's (John David Washington-Denzel's son) decision to become Colorado Springs' first Black police officer. 
Stallworth wants to make change from the inside. Stallworth doesn't think there should be a conflict between being Black and being blue.

Police Chief Bridges (Robert Jon Burke) isn't thrilled to have Stallworth join. Bridges is skeptical of Stallworth's intellectual abilities or capacity to fit in with white officers.  The chief's doubt and occasional hostility make him an uncertain ally. Other cops initially ignore Stallworth or treat him with exaggerated courtesy that is not so hidden mocking racial hatred. Bridges assigns Stallworth to infiltrate and report on a meeting that Kwame Toure  (formerly Stokely Carmichael, played here by Corey Hawkins ) has with the local college Black Student Union, which is led by the beautiful and motivated Patrice (Laura Harrier).  

Stallworth would like to know Patrice better. But Patrice is not fond of police. She might not care for Stallworth if she knew he was a "pig". Not having anything more for Stallworth to do and possibly hoping to make him quit, Bridges assigns Stallworth to the Department's intelligence division. Refusing to be sidelined,  Stallworth leaves a message for the local Klan recruiter selling himself as a white patriot. He is surprised as anyone when he gets a call back. 

Stallworth becomes best buds with Walter (Ryan Eggold), local Klan chapter leader. Walter wants to meet Stallworth, who has foolishly used his real name. Stallworth convinces the Chief to assign Officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to portray Stallworth in person. Flip will go undercover to identify the players and find any prosecutable criminal plans. 

Flip is Jewish but can play a "good old boy" as well as anyone because he is one. Flip will be challenged to stay in sync with Stallworth's stories and avoid the thoughtful attention of Walter's second-in-command, Felix (Jasper Paakkonen). Paaakkonen almost steals the film. He's that good as a stereotypical redneck who, to quote Charlie Daniels, is as mean as a snake, sneaky as a cat and belligerent when he speaks. Walter excels at setting up meetings and running fundraisers; Felix is the Klan's evil soul. Felix dislikes anything new almost as much as he dislikes Black people or Jews. Felix isn't a trusting sort. He's always trying to sniff out informants or government agents. 

The movie ran a little over two hours. The color choices, clothing and camera  scream out seventies, so great work there. Lee really brings out the beauty in brown skin.

Lee draws parallels between Stallworth's and Zimmerman's roles. Both men are undercover in hostile institutions. Many Black "firsts" and those who follow them must balance their resistance to white racist norms and their desire to advance or continue to have a job. The Colorado Springs Police Department is no different in this regard than General Motors, Wells Fargo or your local Target.

I thought Lee wrapped up things too neatly but I don't know how much of this was fiction. If the film has a failing it's that Felix's evil charisma or David Duke's urbanity notwithstanding. most of the depicted Klan members are over the top obvious in their racism and/or are physically unattractive people.  To be fair though, we do see them when they are relaxed and among their own and thus more likely to be talkative. Still it might be too easy for some to think that the Klan is always over the top, blatant, and those people over there. Some Klan political objectives were absorbed by the post Goldwater Republican party in its Southern strategy and beyond. Perhaps realizing this Lee links modern events to this past story.

Topher Grace plays David Duke as a man who is lonely, smarmy, credulous, and altogether pathetic. Harry Belafonte is a survivor of an earlier Klan atrocity. Ashlie Atkinson is Felix's plus size wife, who combines a feminist streak with a fierce dedication to white supremacy. Washington is smooth. I'll be looking for him in other films. This movie was produced by Jordan Peele, who directed Get Out.

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