Skip to main content

I'm just happy to be talking to a true white American.

BlacKkKlansman
(2018)

(SPOILERS) BlacKkKlansman illustrates, if nothing else, that Spike Lee is still entirely unable to judge when less is more. Only this time, his lack of discernment has come up roses, garnering him Best Picture and Director Oscar nominations. One can be cynical about this, crediting peer recognition to the picture’s socio-political currency rather than its quality, but then, wasn’t it ever thus with the Academy Awards? This really isa disappointing film, though, roundly failing to deliver on its you-couldn’t-make-it-up, must-see premise; one can only imagine how much more potent BlacKkKlansman might have been, had producer Jordan Peele opted to direct rather than bringing Lee on board. Peele is, after all, a dab hand at both comedy and drama; Lee’s credentials in the former are debatable, some might say negligible, and he hasn’t really proved himself in the latter in a decade or more.


Lee’s film (for which he shares a screenplay credit with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott) is neither fish nor fowl, sprawling carelessly across various genre signposts without ever settling down for coherence’ sake. The accompanying pace and tone are typically languorous; he’s quite happy to hijack the proceedings for a sledgehammer sermon here or over-indulge period pop-cultural referencing there, neither to the overall benefit of the whole. 


In particular, Lee’s embrace of Blaxploitation iconography – explicitly discussed in a scene between undercover Colorado police Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and student union president and activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) – feels like it could have slipped out of an early Tarantino flick, or a straight-faced version of Undercover Brother. And yet, while there’s abundant potential for razor-sharp humour in the material – a black detective (by way of the telephone and his Jewish alter ego, Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman) goes undercover in the Klu Klux Klan – Lee’s approach is so heavy-handed that the material never comes close to striking a balance between its genre – police procedural/ thriller – trappings, its aspirations towards satire and the impulse to reduce everything to overt commentary. This is Spike Lee, so the latter wins every time.


Without internal tension to the fuel the proceedings, Flip’s immersion in the KKK’s racist invective quickly grows tedious; the impetus to shock the audience that people actually think this way can only pay off for a scene or two. Jasper Pääkkönen’s Felix is immediately suspicious of Flip, but the scenario rarely leads to genuine drama (an exception being the scene when he invites Flip to take a lie detector test). There’s also little actual detective work, presumably reflecting that the writers had to invent the third act – the actual historic case is acknowledged in passing, whereby the Klan attempted to position members in senior positions in NORAD – and what there is frequently feels ludicrously contrived. 


One never gets a sense that Lee is particularly engaged by or comfortable with the detective plotline, let alone the pulpier elements massaged onto it. Of which, ignoring historical accuracy is fine if it improves the storytelling; in this case, it only serves to detract from it. In particular, Lee delivers a succession of tonal missteps whereby elements of fact – Ron being assigned to protect David Duke, including the photo taken with him, although how he could possibly lose such a thing; it would be worth its weight in gold now – conflate with a contrived bomb plot and the blowing of Flip’s cover such that, rather than escalating tension, the results are more akin to letting the rest of the air out of an already sagging balloon.


Lee’s approach seems to be: great, I’ve got a dynamite story, now I can hang my bag of preachy predilections on it to the point that it collapses in on itself. Eventually, you realise he isn’t so much digressing from Stallworth’s story as, in his scheme of things, Stallworth is the digression.


So we have setting the scene in the most ponderous, obvious fashion, with Alec Baldwin spewing racist doctrine for a public information film, quickly followed by an excerpt from Gone with the Wind. At any point, Lee can’t resist this kind of overkill, such as the mesmerising effect of Kwame Ture’s (Corey Hawkins) words on his audience members, singled out in the darkness of the meeting room, as if they’re being touched by God. Later, Harry Belafonte recounts a horrific 1916 lynching, intercut with Flip being accepted into the Klan and watching The Birth of a Nation; this is Lee at his blunt-edged nadir, offering commentary that would stop the film dead in its tracks if it wasn’t gasping for air anyway. He’s preaching to the converted while simultaneously failing to come to grips with the story he’s (supposed to be) telling. And again, one’s led to conclude that it isn’t so much that he keeps getting distracted as that he never thought the story was especially interesting to begin with. Finally, to top it all off, he grafts Charlottesville footage on the back end, as if he was worried the Trump-Duke parallels weren’t explicit enough in the first place. Or that maybe his picture didn’t seem “current” enough.


He’s at least partly rescued by his leads, who are both very watchable; Washington is likeably self-assured – possibly verging on too laidback, although that fits the more humorous side of the movie – while Driver seems incapable of putting a foot wrong. Elsewhere, though, the performers are let down by the material. The beats of Ron’s relationship with Patrice are pure cliché, up to and including his confession that he’s a police officer. The KKK members are idiots or psychopaths, which may be accurate but allows for little tonal variation or narrative progression. Both Duke (Topher Grace, failing to make much impression) and Chief Bridges (one-time Robocop Robert John Burke) are explicitly paralleled for asserting that black people provably sound different to white people (the pronunciation of “are”), but the utterance has more impact the first time (ironically, Duke delivers it second). The scene where Ron reveals his race to Duke over the phone ought to have been both the comic and moral high point, but instead it feels laboured, trying too hard, and fizzles (“I’ll be here all week”); there’s no actual satire in BlacKkKlansman, just a filmmaker stumbling about in the dark knocking into things, hoping that if he repeats the same refrain over and over again, someone will notice.


Which they have, I guess. I think it’s fair to suggest BlacKkKlansman is a rank outsider for the top prize at the Oscars, but in its favour is that it’s in spectacularly average company, so anything’s possible. What it also has going for it is a crushing lack of subtlety, spoon-fed didacticism and scenes that probably have a rousing effect as soundbites even though they fail to add up to a coherent whole. Ideal Oscar material when you think about it. But actually, no, I don’t think it has a chance of winning the top prize. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.