Tuesday 21 August 2018

BlacKkKlansman (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Freshly-minted detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black officer the Colorado Springs police department ever hired, sees an opportunity for some real investigative work when he spots an ad in the local paper for the Ku Klux Klan. Passing himself off as a white man over the phone, and teaming up with fellow detective Flip (Adam Driver) to act as his physical surrogate, he infiltrates the Klan and gets a close look at how the enemy operates.
Washington is ideal as our lead, showing moral conviction that is frankly staggering to behold on-screen. As the centrepiece of the film, not to mention a portrayal of a real-life badass in Ron Stallworth, he even gives his lauded father Denzel a run for his money as far as collected but powerful delivery is concerned. I could listen to him slyly bullshitting over the phone to the KKK all friggin’ day. Driver as his partner not only hits a lot of the same undercover notes as Washington, but his place in the narrative and coming to terms with how much he has at stake builds on one of the film’s more surprising and most poignant statements regarding how the Klan views “whiteness”. Robert John Burke and Frederick Weller as two of their fellow officers give solid portrayals of two varying but symbiotically toxic attitudes within the American police force, placation and aggression respectively.

Laura Harrier as the president of the local black student union portrays a lot of the core aspects of Black Power in righteous fashion, but the writing combined with her performance also reveals a few chinks in the armour. Not outright bad behaviour, just a certain amount of hesitance to play along with what the majority of the narrative fixates on: Infiltrating ideas into other ideas. Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture marks his strongest performance to date, even considering it amounts to a single monologue early on, imbuing his incredibly potent words with a charisma that one would expect from a man leading a revolution.
Jasper Pääkkönen, Ryan Eggold and Ashlie Atkinson as agents of the Klan give a nice spectrum of hatefulness that helps build on how dangerous and yet domestic the group ultimately is, with Paul Walter Hauser (don’t mind me, I’m just punching the air at the fact that this guy got more film work after I, Tonya) being the literally and figuratively slurring comic relief. He’s basically every redneck stereotype that goes with this brand of racist, and he absolutely sells it. Harry Belafonte makes an appearance to deliver some more heart-breaking truth to power, and Alex Baldwin starts the whole film off on a slightly humourous but mostly unnerving note.

Over the last handful of years, it seems that the American political landscape has reached a heightened awareness of racism, both in its more immediate and incendiary form and as a systemic practice. However, what seems to fall through the cracks more times than it ever should is that racism isn’t always comprised of lynching and cross-burning. This is what makes Spike Lee’s approach to discussing and dissecting racism extremely effective here, as he acknowledges how public outrage over more overt displays of racism doesn’t end up stopping it; it just makes those committing it try and fly under the radar by cloaking it in more digestible concerns like immigration, preserving American culture or, to use a more recent euphemism, "economic anxiety". It is genuinely unnerving seeing the Klan of the 70’s acting in much the same way that white nationalists of today act in light of that, putting on a mask that they are perfectly fine with black people… so long as they stay the hell away from those who are “pure”.
It’s the kind of admission about micro-aggressions, the smaller acts that pile up into a much larger and much more vicious mindset, that sheds some much-needed light regarding the real methods of these people. Over that handful of years, the media (and a lot of those who pay attention to it) have been treating the existence of white nationalists as if it’s something that only just cropped back up again, whereas the reality is that they have been bubbling under the mainstream for a very long time. They’ve just been masking their true intentions under what the populace could mistake for viable issues.

But the really surprising thing about this film is that, along with showing a keen eye for how racism manifests itself in the every day, it also highlights what, in my humble opinion, remains one of the more perplexing aspects of white nationalism: Antisemitism. Watching the film, and seeing how black people and Jews gets thrown into the same pile of “things we could do without” for the Klan, I’m reminded of a line by slam poet George McKibbens:

“The only tragedy of the 21st century is that Jews have not reached the status of being white, even on stolen land!”

Reductive, sure, but it does raise an interesting point, one that this film ends up exploring in great detail. The idea that Jewish people, even though most are able to ‘pass’ for white, still don’t actually count as the genuine article in the eyes of white nationalists. This is something of a historic problem, from the Jews being blamed for the death of Jesus as a political scapegoat to keep the peace between early Christians and the Roman Empire, to Jewish moneylenders that over-time gave rise to the ever-popular Rothschild brand of conspiracy theorising. Through the perspective of Flip, an officer who admits that he has strained connections to his Jewish heritage, we see how the seething hatred that the Klan, and its associated parties, have for people like him highlights how the whole idea of ‘white power’ is partially self-destructive but also encompassing far more than just skin colour.

Getting back to the idea of ‘passing’ in regards to race, this is where the two oppressed groups end up meeting common ground, beyond just who seeks to eradicate them. One of the more frequent ice-breakers in the dialogue between characters relates to the pop culture and high-profile media figures of the era, mentioning figures like Martin Luther King, O.J. Simpson and Angela Davis. As I’ve mentioned numerous times in the past, media has a way of influencing the culture around it, particularly in the world of cinema. Birth Of A Nation may garner respect out of how it influenced cinema culture and how film itself is structured, but let’s not pretend like it didn’t validate some insanely awful ideas with its flattering depiction of the Klan. Juxtapose that with a conversation between Ron and Patrice about Blaxploitation films like Shaft, Coffy and the previously-discussed Super Fly.
Take both of those instances of media representation and combine that with Kwame’s speech about Black Is Beautiful and how the need for self-empowerment and being able to see the beauty in one’s own identity is a vital part of the puzzle. When your self-preservation hinges on being able to present yourself as something other than who you truly are, culturally or individually, it’s a sign that something is hideously wrong. Especially when the manifestation of that pride not only gets used as the basis to try and exterminate other cultures, as wielded by white supremacists, but that vitriolic hatred is presented in a way that they are given a pass because they seemingly "aren't worth worrying about". That in and of itself is worrying in the extreme.

All in all, this is precisely what I wanted out of a new Spike Lee film that actually made its way into cinemas. The acting is phenomenal, with John David Washington and Adam Driver making for a capital buddy cop duo, the soundtrack by Terence Blanchard is fucking amazing, and the writing sheds light on the very euphemistic aspects of racist attitudes, aided by how the events depicted have all too much relevance today in the world of alt-right “intellectuals”. It’s the kind of political and racial insight one should expect out of a team-up like Spike Lee and Jordan Peele, and it marks a serious high point in both of their respective careers. Also, if I can be somewhat more personal here, it's unfortunate how much I can relate to the idea of having to 'pass' (or, in the case of many autistics like myself, 'mask') as something I'm not as a forced survival tactic.

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