Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

OSCARS 2019: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Let's admire the incredible patience of Spike Lee. Despite being one of the most distinctive and loud-spoken filmmakers of his generation, it took him a long time to gather any critical respect from the mainstream. His films have been back-and-forth embraced and dismissed by critics, sometimes fairly, sometimes not so much. But anybody with half a brain should be able to recognize that Lee probably should've gotten a Best Director nomination, if not an actual Oscar, by now. Yet here we are, in 2019, and Spike Lee has only gotten his first Best Director nomination now. It seems “BlacKkKlansman” has captured the zeitgeist to a degree, to the point that not even the Academy could ignore him anymore. 

The year is 1972 and Ron Stallworth becomes the first black officer hired in Colorado Springs. Initially used to spy on what is believed to be black militants, Stallworth gets a crazy idea – after spotting a want ad in the local paper – to call up the Klu Klux Klan. Over the phone, he pretends to be a white man. The police department supports this deception by sending a white officer, the Jewish Flip Zimmerman, to go meet with the local Klan chapter face-to-face. While Zimmerman faces suspicious from some of the Klansmen, he's happily accepted by others. Stallworth, meanwhile, begins talking over the phone to David Duke and finds his professional life interfering with his attempts to romance a female black revolutionary. Soon, both men are attempting to prevent the Klan from setting off a bomb.

At times, “BlacKkKlansman” plays like an extremely dark comedy of sorts. This is apparent from its opening minutes, where a perfectly cast Alec Baldwin plays a higher-up Klansman stumbling his way through an “education” documentary. Stallworth practically calls the Klan up on a whim. Within minutes, the black man convinces the Klansman of his white supremacist bonafides by parroting back the racist sludge he's heard his whole life. There's an uncomfortable humor in the conversations with Duke, that peaks when Stallworth meets Duke in the flesh, the Grand Wizard unaware of who he's actually looking at. While Lee successfully mines tension out of a sequence where a Klansman insist Flip takes a lie detector test, the eventual request that he see his dick – to see if its circumcised or not – veers towards humor. Lee has quite a lot of fun portraying several of the Klansmen as cartoonishly stupid, racist caricatures. The glee with which one of their wives, portrayed by the unassuming looking Ashlie Atkinson, spits out racist catchphrases is definitely played for laughs. But it's not like racism of this intense, seemingly ridiculous, level doesn't exist in reality.

For the japes Lee makes at the Klan's expense, “BlacKkKlansman” is ultimately characterized by a fiery rage. This is shown in the disgust with which Lee portrays the Klan's recruitment tactics, or how white history has exonerated this racism in “Gone with the Wind” or “The Birth of a Nation.” That frustration, that sense of injustice is most apparent in its last third. While attempting to stop the bombing, Stallworth is attacked by another police officer, his shouts that he's a cop going ignored. While Duke is ultimately left humiliated, in a hilarious sequence, it's a hollow victory for the film. The Klan still has its degree of power. In its deeply disheartening final minutes, Lee shows exactly how that breed of hatred and racism has crept ever-closer to the mainstream in modern America. It leaves the viewer stunned and horrified.

A lot of the critical praise “BlacKkKlansman” has received has been for its cast. And rightfully so. John David Washington is the son of Denzel Washington. While you might be tempted to cry nepotism here, Washington is excellent as Stallworth. He keeps the frustration the character feels everyday inside but never let's his face betray the exact emotions inside him. This film finally sells me on Adam Driver, who let's the audience in on the unease he internally feels during the Klan scenes. This is especially potent during a monologue about Zimmerman's Jewish heritage and how the Klan's hatred has caused him to reflect on it. (That's Driver's Oscar clip, for sure.) Yet my favorite supporting turn is from Topher Grace as David Duke. Grace perfectly captures the banality of evil, as he portrays Duke as a smiling, positive guy who uses his charm and charisma in service of utterly disgusting beliefs.

Lee has never backed down as a visual stylist either. There's a striking moment early on, when  Kwame Ture reaches the hearts and minds of his audience, which Lee depicts through a series of slow, impactful close-ups of their faces. A similar slow and thoughtful technique makes a sequence where Stallworth looks over racist shooting targets equally powerful. A discussion of blaxploitation cinema is broken up by shots at the mentioned movies' posters. The various phone conversations get a considerable boost in energy from Lee's lively split-screen techniques. Yes, the director utilizes his trademark dolly shot here, saving it until near the very end. And it definitely makes an impression.

Naturally, “BlacKkKlansman” has been received with controversy of its own. Lee takes many liberties with the facts. In reality, Stallworth's undercover work happened in the late seventies, while the film is set in the earlier half of the decade. The bombing plot is totally invented, as is the decision to depict Stallworth's partner as a Jewish man. Yet the biggest criticism towards the film has been in its decision to depict cops as heroes in a story of a black man struggling against a racist system. I'm in no place to comment on such issues but I will say that “BlacKkKlansman” is a stirring piece of filmmaking, a funny, thrilling, and ultimately potent reflection on the grip hate has on the American heart. [9/10]

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