Muddled ‘BlacKkKlansman’ picks obvious targets

Watching the latest Spike Lee joint at a morning screening as per my routine was a mistake. I should’ve been there on a Saturday night on opening weekend, observing the crowd when the Nixon/Ford-era film alludes to our grotesque contemporary political moment. Tethered umbilically to this moment, BlacKkKlansman wobbles when telling the story, based on the eponymous book, about a rookie Colorado Springs cop plucked from the research department to pose as an enthusiastic would-be KKK member. For a Lee film BlacKkKlansman feels weightless. Nothing is at stake when the bad guys are this bad.

One of the curiosities about BlacKkKlansman is how it begins as a jaundiced look at systemic racism in a police force but insists on incremental reform. This is not to say that in a society like ours the latter would be a mistaken approach; but Lee’s film waffles on many fronts. Setting out to be what he says in his own words the Jackie Robinson of Colorado Springs, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) accepts Chief Bridges’ (Robert John Burke) mild support and, in return, accepts an assignment infiltrating the Colorado College Black Student Union’s meeting with Kwame Ture; told that the Black Panthers are the most dangerous and radical threat to law and order in America today, Ron insists he can keep it professional. There he meets union president Patrice (Laura Harrier) while wearing a wire. It’s not clear whether his bromides about good black cops in white police units are said for the benefit of partners Flip (Adam Driver) and Jimmy (Michael Buscemi) — this after he learns that a gross racist cop stopped Patrice and her friends on their way to a bar and manhandled her. But in the film’s most eloquent sequence Lee lets Ture, played with force by Corey Hawkins, deliver his black power speech to an enraptured crowd; he lets the scene play for almost five minutes, the spellbound black faces filling the screen Hollywood Squares style.

But the meat of BlacKkKlansman happens when Ron, tipped off by a classified, calls the local chapter of the Klan (euphemistically called The Organization), accidentally uses his real name, and hatches a plan in which the Jewish Flip plays Ron Stallworth and penetrates the chapter. Why he’s allowed to pursue this investigation after his chief has made clear the world-historic threat posed by the Black Panthers isn’t clarified; audiences have to accept that the Colorado Springs Police Department considered the Klan and Panthers equal threats to public safety, never mind that the scenes shown to date do not support this claim. This results in a meeting with a group of pathetically unhealthy men, subsisting on Cheez-Whiz, endless cigarettes and terrible beer, and slurs. Regional president Walter (Ryan Eggold, with the right degree of fervor) wears comically oversized glasses. Like many bigoted men Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) has an obsession with penises — in this case the possibility that Flip/Rob might be concealing a circumcised penis — suggesting other psychosexual forces at work. The stupidest of the bunch, rather too cutely named Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser), is a sodden drunk. Felix’s mooncalf of a wife (Ashlie Atkinson) begs to be given a mission, like Lucy begging Ricky to put her in his show. Meanwhile reports of Ron’s enthusiasm for bigotry have reached David Duke in Louisiana. Clad in the era’s terrible flapping three-piece suits, Topher Grace earns BlacKkKlansman‘s most honest laughs playing a man of pathological mousiness mouthing eugenicist drivel.

Lee loses control over the material at this point, unable to shake the impression that the scenes with Patrice have a “Meanwhile, back at Justice League headquarters” distractedness. Frantically intercutting between them produces energy without tension. Is Lee suggesting that Patrice’s impassioned appellation of cops as pigs is equivalent to Duke’s well-spoken bullshit comparisons of black men and animals? Clearly he’d rather be on Patrice’s “side,” but that’s the problem with BlacKkKlansman: to suggest that the Klan and a black student union represent “sides” is to concede that the Klan have won. Having established the Klan chapter’s badness with a plot to explode a bomb at Patrice’s house, Lee has nowhere else to go. Ron berates Flip, raised as a non-practicing Jew, for not being passionate enough, but nothing in the framing or dialogue indicates a similar struggle in Ron. He’s a recessive figure, at worst a poseur up for an acting challenge, and Lee might’ve made another good film about a blank careerist able to absorb the last bit of compelling rhetoric to which he’s subjected. A commanding presence, possessing his dad Denzel’s rich bourbon-soaked timbre, Washington is capable but ephemeral. The script sidelines Ron for generous stretches but when he’s offscreen he’s wiped from memory; he has no resonance. This is a problem. If BlacKkKlansman is supposed to dramatize W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of double consciousness, the film needs an actor who can incarnate both and bring both halves together. Remarkably, it’s Driver who succeeds; in just a few years Driver has become impressive at suggesting the movements of thought in consciousnesses that are otherwise too ponderous.

Boasting Lee’s usual jazzed-up pulse, BlacKkKlansman isn’t dull, but it lacks the originality of 2015’s Chi-Raq, which won’t be on many lists of Lee’s best films; while lacking a target worthy of its literary ambitions, it thrilled like BlacKkKlansman doesn’t. If the new film has any forebears, it’s 2000’s Bamboozled, not a triumph either and in its own way a muddle ducking behind the fact that it was a comedy. Lee designed Bamboozled as an assault on a liberal audience’s idea of good taste; by contrast BlacKkKlansman reassures, acts as a balm. The Birth of a Nation, screened by Duke and the Klansman after Flip’s initiation ceremony and for which they whoop and scream as if watching college football, is reduced to white supremacist agitprop. Some of his shots are at an Alexander Payne level of underlining, such as a scene in which Felix and his wife plot while a Bible on a nightstand is foregrounded. Gritting my teeth, I awaited the applause during the awful last act scene where a certain cop gets his comeuppance. No one clapped. Don’t underestimate audiences (for a stronger film about serving as the lone black officer in a white police force, by the way, seek Charles Burnett’s too little seen The Glass Shield from 1995).

Yet I found the conclusion, in which Lee’s trademark double dolly is a time machine that sends us to the present moment of crisis, bracing: a time when white supremacists can march in Charlottesville and a wizened but no less bland-looking David Duke can regard that march as a turning point. Lee can never have envisaged the riot in Do the Right Thing continuing with no signs of abatement.

GRADE: B-

6 thoughts on “Muddled ‘BlacKkKlansman’ picks obvious targets

  1. Jukebox

    “Why he’s allowed to pursue this investigation after his chief has made clear the world-historic threat posed by the Black Panthers isn’t clarified”
    TRUE. The flip of the main investigation seem capricious at best. The rookie suddenly is shown in a position of power in the Police Department that I couldn’t understand. Not even in the realm of fiction. Ron is given the task by Chief Bridges “against my better judgement”. That’s all the explanation we’ve got (?)

    Side notes: The in-jokes. All good. Talking bout “The Last Picture Show” early on, “Chief Bridges” is called upon. Flip is the name of the Jewish cop who will impersonate Ron. I counted no less than 8. Aside for the “America First” obvious ones, another one of Hattie McDonald winning the Oscar for “Gone With the Wind”, another from a black waiter in the KKK gathering and so on…

    “the scenes with Patrice have a “Meanwhile, back at Justice League headquarters” distractedness. Frantically intercutting between them produces energy without tension”
    As a foreigner to the actual events, I found them both really provocative, between shouts of “White Power” and “Black Power” intertwined to show two different kind of “Organizations”, both not really THAT undercovered but ahown here equally righteous (one with reason, but obstinate, the other a lame joke but a dangerous one) and about to collide, with unpredictable results, as one member indentifies the cop scam at one of the parties: I call that tension. As a cinephile, I found this parallel montage a nod to the ones in “The Birth of a Nation”, historically known as the first ones of its kind, and which is ALSO shown to the members of said party. This whole scene is on par with the first one you mentioned about the black students reunion early on. That one not only with the beautiful but spectral faces of the attendees, followed by a rousing dance choreography in the bar with wonderful “black” music (a jolly good reason to love Lee, who never falters on that regard. He still got game!).
    In short, I found that montage deliciously cinematic and sometimes hilarious, unlike the one you will see in Beale Street (not cinematic, solemn to the point of turgid, trust me), full of meta-references and I loved that not one bullet is shot to the “enemy” so far up that moment (a lesson in restrained and clever contrast to the circus-like violence of the Griffith film). That were the most lucid Lee sequences I’d seen. All capped by the explosive climax, a comedy of sorts whose pathetism (the cops mistaking and attacking Ron while Felix’ wife was unable to make the job done well) reminded me of the denouement of Fargo. Pathetic people, not even good at hating, but very representative in that ugly final images of the incidents in Virginia.

    The coda of Trump was unnecesary to me. Ponderous is a right word.

    On your following notes:

    “Clearly he’d rather be on Patrice’s “side,” but that’s the problem with BlacKkKlansman: to suggest that the Klan and a black student union represent “sides” is to concede that the Klan have won.”

    I thought that was sort of the point. The “sides” are not drawn the same way. Clearly the students had no weapons, explosives, FBI covered members or whatnot. Bibles are the lesser problem here, even underlined. Crosses burning at the door are. I don’t think these people even read their bibles. They just hate for the sake of it. Mocking David Duke it’s one of fictions prerogatives. Spike Lee used this to put a cap on the whole scheme. I don’t think the purpose is for us to clap at the witty cop. No one ever did in my screening. We just had a smirk because the clown had been clowned. At least for one day. The evidence of the KKK having won is in the current adm. Is the coda that inderline this. I think, again, unnecessarily.

    “A commanding presence, possessing his dad Denzel’s rich bourbon-soaked timbre, Washington is capable but ephemeral. The script sidelines Ron for generous stretches but when he’s offscreen he’s wiped from memory; he has no resonance”
    True. The character seem too determined from the get-go for such mixed-bag assignment. He seems he’s unconcious at worst, fearless at best (the Polaroid scene) But he definitively makes a point with Patrice when he says he always wanted to be a cop.
    That, for me, is when his resonance comes out. Not from inner turmoil, like Flip, but about how he verbalizes it at the end. He doesn’t need to appear WOKE. That’s when Beale Street lost me (a film to compare to this one in more ways than one; and this one wins out, even whiit its flaws…) You see, Ron just wanted to be like everyone else in Coiorado Springs, even when Patrice lecture him more than once. Lee is not ponderous ON HIM. I liked that. Stallworth, the character, could have been one with the lectures about what’s right or wrong in endless arguments with Patrice. And that would have made him insufferable. And the film, too. He’s all about making the job well. How he turns his job around from Black vigilante to KKK infiltrate is what Lee or the script don’t manage well. And, perhaps, Ron’s misterious allure to get away with the investigation of choice AND the girl. But he’s determined to be part of a force that punishes people like him (and Patrice) And Lee doesn’t question neither his decisions nor his determination. Was a lecture necessary? Aren’t much of these kind of films lecturing us enough lately? Anyway, I’m taking your advice on The Glass Shield at heart,

    I wanted to share these thoughts right after the film premiered here. Let me add, with better reviews than in your country. Perhaps, you need the likes of Beale Street (not YOU, but the critics at large in America and the taste-makers) and we understand the genesis of the violence there (and everywhere) with a solid piece of entertainment like this. Which also uses the tools of narrative cinema like Jenkins isn’t capable of with a trickier material (to be fair) completely avoiding the most cinematics aspects of the novel: the supposed rape of Fonny and his trial. Totally absent from that film. There, you will find enough of arguments and inner monologues to satisfy heavierarguments about how is to be black in White America. I have a feeling a would stick with the novel… when my bothering with that film passes by. But that’s for when you review it here.

    If I had to rate BlacKKKlansman: a solid B.

    Reply
    1. Jukebox

      One more thing: I think the film is clearly about disguises (Alec Baldwin, stuttering off camera and then verbalizing his supremaicist rethoric) The one who can impose his disguise better acquire some kind of power. We call it “El Teatro del Poder” I think Lee is very aware of this trick, so he infuses Stallworth with this gift, even when we don’t see clearly where it’s coming from at first. In the end, he disguises as a cop because he believes he could obtain the power he needs to thwart the supremacist scheme, which he does. The moral implications of his disguise it’s not arguable in the film. Lee is disinterested in that. But I don’t think this is naiveté: Some disguises plus incendiary rethorics end up violently. Always. Perhaps Stallworth is not interested in the power of violence as much as this trick that can make one powerful. This is clever politics in a way. I wouldn’t underestimate it as weightless. Precidencies had been won by these schemers. Perhaps, Lee want us to identify the ones able to desactivate them. The bomb deactivators are more needed than the agitprops right now. And that’s a thought I could take home and think about right now.

      Reply
    1. Jukebox

      Thank you Alfred. The more I think about it, the more I like it. I really respect what Lee does here. Using all the tools of cinema, he makes a buddy comedy, a political manifesto and a quiet thriller. subverting the incendiary rethorics used in the likes of “Malcolm X”. I suppose he’s aware how these kind of things, right now, are un-clever and dangerous. Part of the problem, not the solution. I don’t see this mentioned enough in Americans reviews. It’s absolutely paramount the main characters (Ron and Flip) DON’T RECT AGAINST THE HATRED throwed towards them. They are even trained to do so!
      So that’s why Stallworth trumphs here. He’s the epitome of coolness and sang froid. He NEEDS to be in order to suceed. Hence, his enigmatic and stoic behaviour.
      B+

      You can read some reviewers in Spanish here: http://www.todaslascriticas.com.ar/pelicula/el-infiltrado-del-kkklan

      Reply
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