Thursday, August 9, 2018

When Chickens Of Hate Come Home To Roost Violently

Toasting hate as Amerikkkan tradition: Topher Grace as David Duke in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman". David Lee/Focus Features 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, August 9, 2018

Four of the most important scenes in Spike Lee's potent, riveting masterpiece "BlacKkKlansman" are the first and last two.  Somewhere in this brilliant film (based on seminal African-American Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth's true story of infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s) is "Gone With The Wind" (1939) and "The Birth Of A Nation" (1915).  There's film vintage of later years: "Foxy Brown" and "Coffy", "Shaft" and " Superfly".  Cinematic culture and political history simmer through "BlacKkKlansman" like charged chapters along a combustible cultural tightrope that will explode. 

Mr. Lee's irrefutable argument, in his best film since "Malcolm X", is that American culture itself is instrumental, though not solely responsible for the racist venom, indoctrination, violence and hatred against Black people in America for centuries.  The Klan and American institutional white supremacy, are the obvious others.

Rookie officer Stallworth (an eye-catching, nuanced John David Washington) leads an undercover investigation of the Klan after one-too-many menial desk duty assignments where white fellow cops condescend to and insult him.  Stallworth gets a Jackie Robinson-type induction to Colorado Springs cop ways before deep-diving into Klan ranks with Stallworth's white Jewish alter ego, the reluctant Flip (Adam Driver), who faces anti-Semitism from his Klan "friends" including the notorious Felix (Jasper Paakkonen, magnetic and menacing here), and a risk of their cover being blown. 

Mr. Lee, excellent at atmosphere, boundaries, people and geography in his films (especially "She's Gotta Have It", "Do The Right Thing", "Jungle Fever", "Summer Of Sam" and "Chi-raq") is calculating and detailed in the battlefield on display.  You see slogans dotting the homely rural landscape: "America, love it or leave it!"  You see recognizable politicians and their code-worded dog-whistle campaigns.  You hear words like "America First" and feel the discomfort of the familiar and real. 

But Mr. Lee's greatest triumph in "BlacKkKlansman" is what he shows us in quiet and incendiary moments.  A speech by legendary Black activist Kwame Ture (an electrifying Corey Hawkins), who speaks at a Colorado Springs Black College Student Union meeting led by Patrice (a pitch-perfect Laura Harrier), is the film's best scene, supplemented by mesmerizing, powerful cinematography by Chayse Irvin.  "Pick up arms, brother," Ture urges the undercover Stallworth, forever questioning his own existence in conflicting dual identities.  In quiet reflection a scene between a white woman and her violent husband chills in its idyllic sunny tenderness -- and coldbloodedness.  The banality of evil.  The woman who has an everyday appearance (played well by Ashlie Atkinson) represents the 53% of white women who voted for Donald in 2016.  Chilling enough.

 All power to all the people: John David Washington as Ron Stallworth and Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumas in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman". David Lee/Focus Features 

The telephonic encounters between Stallworth and David Duke (an amiable Topher Grace), the grand wizard of the Klan, are often funny though not intentionally so.  Their phone banter symbolizes the fusion of the absurdity of Klan racist hate and the bizarre specter of a Black male cop undercover as a Klan insider (hence the way the title of the film is depicted: BlacKkKlansman.)  The director's measured, languid style at times conveys an innocence in the humanity of these peaceful interactions.  These two very different men are so casual they could actually be brothers.  Yet "LOVE" and "HATE", inscribed so memorably on Radio Raheem's hands in "Do The Right Thing", do battle once again in "BlacKkKlansman", but for some the fight is often waged within.  This film is about love and hate and the power struggle both undergo in an attempt to vanquish each other.  Mr. Lee's film is also about an absence of leadership, whether now or in the American past, and what happens in the void of leadership and responsibility.  Sometimes events occurring under such cratered circumstances solidify and symbolize an oppressive system rather than challenge it.   

Lest I forget -- and "BlacKkKlansman" was an absolutely galvanizing, unforgettable experience for me -- there are institutional Black pillars in Mr. Lee's film; timely, educational ones that inspire, that are griots, that are authentic and life-affirming.  Mr. Lee's film is nothing if not a history lesson, and the director, who loves America deeply and declares his right to criticize his country here, goes to the screen with an engrossing high-concept that's as sophisticated and profound as Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning "Get Out" was.  (Mr. Peele produced Mr. Lee's film and initially was tapped to direct it.)

The most terrifying thing about "BlacKkKlansman" is its depiction of the devastating institutional authority of white supremacy and dominance, which Mr. Lee fiercely indicts, be it the Colorado Springs police, the Klan, cinematic history or political structures.  These very real bodies are sometimes silent yet towering, and a low-angle image of Mr. Grace tilting his head back slightly during a notable ceremonial is disturbing, an apex of absolute white racist power and divine exaltation in the actor's innocent, clean-cut babyfaced boy-next-door look.  Such markers however, are but a prelude to what will be a cold rush of blood to the head and tears to the eyes, tears of sorrow and indescribable rage.

The terror isn't only in the violence (much of it is spoken here) -- it is also in the charisma of evil.  There's a very charming bespectacled Klan recruiter Walter (Ryan Eggold) who could be a schoolteacher.  (In 2018 a young white woman in Florida taught classes at a middle school and also did white racist supremacist podcasts before finally being expelled.)  It would be far too easy for the director to make cardboard cutouts or caricatures.  He's far too wise to stoop that low.  Mr. Lee again resists convention, achieving power and heightened moments in ordinary everyday faces that look and feel so familiar and neighborly.  Hardly any face, be it a Black or a white one, snarls at us in this film. 

A country club atmosphere in one prolonged scene feels so airy and ordinary it could be in a place right next to you.  That's the point: evil, hate and vitriol are never far from your door -- if you choose to look at them.  The director asks, what will you do about hate, evil and violence when it hits you in the face, the gut and the heart?  The answer is one to ponder, especially by the conclusion of this vitally important and timely film.  At the start we see the aftermath of war and at the end we see something grostequely similar.  The question is, how did we get there? 

At its earthy and subterranean best "BlacKkKlansman" achieves a jarring, traumatic effect that ratchets up methodically with superb, well-paced direction from Mr. Lee, outstanding enough to be a strong contender for next year's Oscars.  Soon you are quite comfortable, relaxed enough to forget that this real-life story is an entertaining, thought-provoking satire, before it becomes too viscerally present again.  The imagery you see will be very familiar; taken in isolation the images previously may have appeared relatively ephemeral, a quick flash of terror.  Yet in context after absorption at a seemingly mundane but crackling 1970s distance, the very same imagery is altogether newly and plaintively horrific, deeply frightening and traumatic on a large screen in a darkened theater.  What comes is the punch to your gut that this dangerous current climate has sadly numbed us into oblivion and exhaustion away from.  Thank god Mr. Lee wakes us up from out of our prolonged nightmarish slumber -- and does he ever.

Also with: Paul Walter Hauser.

"BlacKkKlansman" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disurbing/violent material and some sexual references.  The film's running time is two hours and 15 minutes.  The film opens tonight in the U.S. and Canada before its wide release on Friday.

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