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Posts Tagged ‘Spike Lee’

(Yes, I know that’s a reference to a film by a different director. Stand down.)

I have to confess that I can perhaps be a bit oversensitive about some things: in other words, it occasionally doesn’t take much to put me off a movie, and this can even extend to (what looks like) excessively affected titling. I’ve never been a huge fan of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and I do wonder if that isn’t just because there’s a plus sign in the title where a more conventional conjunction would have done the job just as well.

I suppose the same may partly explain why I didn’t rush to see Spike Lee’s (deep breath, gritted teeth) BlacKkKlansman when it was originally released last autumn. (I think you can see where the issue lies.) Of course, I also had the (reasonably good) excuse of being in the Kyrgyz Republic during most of its UK run, but even so it wasn’t on the list of films I hoovered up as part of my catch-up regimen when I eventually returned.

In the end it turned out that this was the only film on this year’s Best Picture nomination list that I hadn’t actually seen, and this sat even less well with me than the weird styling in the title. So I was quite pleased when it popped up on the in-flight entertainment menu on my flight back from the States the other day. (There were a couple of other films I had meant to see but ended up missing, and so I abandoned my plan of trying to get some sleep on the overnight flight and buckled down to watching three movies back-to-back, which the schedule looked like it would just about accommodate assuming there were no pesky tail-winds or anything like that.)

Lee’s film opens by assuring the audience (using somewhat idiosyncratic language) that it really is based on a true story; ‘based’ being the operative word, of course – the implication throughout is that the film is set in the early 1970s, when the real life events took place some years later, and some elements of the story have been heavily fictionalised too.

John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the first African American to join the Colorado Springs Police Department after a diversity-based recruitment drive. (He is even allowed to keep his beard and Afro.) However, he initially finds himself consigned to the records department and exposed to the casual racism of various fellow cops.

Even when he is allowed out of the filing section, it is to go undercover at a rally being held by ex-Black Panther and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (who at this point in time has adopted the name Kwame Tura) and record any especially provocative or inflammatory rhetoric that he may hear. Perhaps inevitably, he finds himself torn between his duty and the way that Tura’s message of black liberation resonates with him.

Shortly afterwards Stallworth is reassigned again, and it is now that he embarks upon the deeply unlikely exploit at the heart of the film: he answers an ad placed by the head of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and declares himself to be an angry white racist, keen on joining the organisation. Obviously, there is one small barrier to the success of this operation, which is that he can’t actually meet up with his new associates face-to-face. Step forward fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who will handle all the face-to-face contact with other KKK members, while Stallworth continues to talk on the phone to them. Soon enough they have managed to reach the upper echelons of the Klan leadership, particularly Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), and come across worrying signs of serious plots being put into motion…

Most of the publicity for BlacKkKlansman has focused on the absurd comedy inherent in the premise of the film: various scenes of Washington on the phone, earnestly making profoundly racist declarations to his KKK contacts (there is, needless to say, a lot of strongly discriminatory language throughout this film). There is also a sense in which some of the KKK members are presented as comic stooges and played for laughs.

However, watching the film makes it clear that for Lee this is a very serious project, shining a light into an important and perhaps too-obscure area of American history and particularly the struggle for civil rights. Ultimately, the threat of the Klan is treated very seriously and the consequences of the philosophy they espouse are addressed head on – one sequence intercuts a clan ritual with personal testimony of a racist lynching (a cameo from Harry Belafonte) to disturbing effect. Questions of just how black Americans should respond to racist social institutions – through active resistance, or trying to change the system from within? – are articulated and seriously considered. It is, and this is not meant to denigrate this year’s Best Picture winner, all considerably more hard-edged and politically sophisticated than anything in Green Book.

That said, the film never completely loses touch with its identity as a thriller, and functions quite well as such – though you are never in doubt that these are just the bones of a different kind of film. It takes a while before the whole infiltrating-the-Klan element of the story gets going; at least as important is the section with Kwame Tura’s speech, which introduces a number of significant themes and characters (not least Laura Harrier as a young activist who becomes Stallworth’s love interest). And while the story seems about to conclude relatively straightforwardly, it – well, it doesn’t, Lee choosing to become openly political in the closing moments.

It is clear that this film is meant to be about America today as much as in the 1970s, and there are moments throughout which reinforce this – the first person on screen is Alec Baldwin, playing a cartoonish Klan mouthpiece, and most people will be aware of Baldwin’s most famous satirical performance of recent years and make the appropriate connection. It doesn’t even stay that subtle – Klan leader Duke speaks of ‘America first’ and ‘making America great again’, while the film concludes with footage from the Charlottesville riots and Donald Trump’s repugnant equivocal non-repudiation of the racist groups involved in them. Perhaps it’s the case that in its closing moments the film sacrifices finesse for raw power, but that doesn’t make this any less effective as an attack on its chosen targets. In the end it manages to be palpably angry and political while still remaining an engaging piece of entertainment, and that’s no small feat.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 6th 2006: 

Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that doesn’t know quite as much about the English education system as it thinks it does. This week I was hoping to share with you my thoughts on (the apparently hilarious) Basic Instinct 2, but scheduling problems meant that this hasn’t worked out — hopefully next time [In the end I had to go to Japan to see this movie – A]. Instead, I went to see Spike Lee’s Inside Man, what on paper looks like a rather generic thriller and an odd choice of project for this famously politicised film-maker. However, as in the plot of the movie, not all is as it seems.

On an average day in Manhattan, proceedings at a wealthy and respected bank are disrupted by the appearance of devious mastermind Dalton Russell (Clive Owen doing a reasonable American accent) who leads a crack team of people called Steve in an audacious raid on the institution, barricading themselves inside and taking the staff and customers hostage. The NYPD being really quite sharp, they fairly soon notice what’s going on and send in detective and trained negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) to try and sort it all out painlessly. However the situation is more complex than Frazier suspects, as the chairman of the bank (Christopher Plummer) has a very personal reason to worry about the crooks ransacking his vault, and sends in ruthless political operator Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to resolve things to his own satisfaction…

Well, the first thing to be said about Inside Man is that it is a tremendously slick and polished, thoroughly solid piece of entertainment. The plot is fairly complex but never obscure, the situation is genuinely involving, and it’s very well performed by a quality cast (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Willem Defoe play two of the other cops backing Washington up). This isn’t the most original scenario for a thriller – Russell Gewirtz’s script acknowledges the debt it owes to Dog Day Afternoon, amongst other things – but the plotline concerning Foster’s character gives it a new spin, and it’s not afraid to lighten things up with moments of dry comedy either. Washington is charismatic and, as ever, believable as a man caught up in machinations he doesn’t entirely understand at first, while Owen is very nearly as good, especially considering he’s playing a character we learn almost nothing about and who spends most of the film masked. The script is playful and deceptive, only losing its pace and focus slightly near the end once the siege at the bank is over and the aftermath of the situation is playing itself out. There is of course a twist in the tale, but I think you would have to have seen virtually every episode of Mission: Impossible to figure out what it is.

In some ways this is a rather old-fashioned, seventies-style movie, and Terence Blanchard’s muscular soundtrack seems to be acknowledging this. But in others this is a very contemporary film and one senses that this is why a fairly radical director like Spike Lee took the movie on. This isn’t an overtly political film but the plot does fundamentally revolve about the exploitation of minority ethnic groups – to say much more would be to spoil the plot. The film seems to ask who is really worse, the bank robber or the corporate raider, and isn’t afraid to load the dice in favour of its preferred answer, going so far as to make Owen’s character seem rather more sympathetic than Plummer’s. Lee can’t resist throwing in a few incidental jabs about modern race relations either – there’s a fairly long sequence where a Sikh who works at the bank gets mistaken for an Arab suicide bomber, roughed up by the police and has his turban confiscated, and another with a droll parody of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and its glorification of the gangsta lifestyle, neither of which is strictly crucial to the plot. Lee directs confidently, with lots of long takes and tracking shots, although at least one of his grand flourishes ends up looking unintentionally funny – at one point a close-up on Washington, supposedly running flat out, looks instead like he’s being wheeled along on a trolley – mainly because he very obviously is!

But this isn’t a heavy or preachy film, and all this stuff is by no means crucial to enjoying what it has to offer. Inside Man is at heart a genre piece, but it’s made with such wit and skill and energy that one almost doesn’t notice this. Very enjoyable indeed – recommended.

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