Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman

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I had a pretty good feeling that BlacKkKlansman would be great and when my mom and aunt and I went to see it at the conclusion of their short visit to my new home-city I was just hoping that it’d live up to my expectations. It didn’t, though. As the movie ended, the whole theater sat still, stunned while a haunting Prince cover of “Mary Don’t You Weep” played over the end credits. The last image we saw, an upside-down American flag that indicates distress, still dominated my vision (it probably didn’t help that we were sitting closer to the screen than I usually like). Walking out, we started discussing what we just saw. It became clear that we were in agreement: that was maybe the best movie of the year so far.

Based on a true story, BlacKkKlansman follows a black “diversity hire” detective in 70s-era Colorado as he infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, first over the phone then with the help of a white (Jewish) partner. John David Washington and Adam Driver have a lot of chemistry together, and the scene where they learn to talk like each other is both funny and a perfect example of code-switching. The basic story is intriguing enough that if it were just told straight it’d probably be pretty good.

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But Spike Lee doesn’t let things just happen on screen. Instead, he augments the story with skillful directorial touches such as the faux documentary that opens the film, featuring Alec Baldwin as the kind of progenitor of David Duke’s racism who can’t quite spit out the hate as smoothly as he would like. They keep coming throughout the movie, posters of blaxploitation movies overlay the screen when characters talk about them and adoring fans get stylized close-ups on a black background during a speech by Kwame Ture that kind of kicks everything off. These aren’t just flourishes for flourish’s sake. Instead, each has a purpose, whether it’s in capturing the way that speakers can move their audiences or showing that movies can, in fact, move entire groups to action. It has become almost a cliché now to note the impact that movies like Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation had on our national consciousness, but Lee incorporates scenes from both to prove that movies and cultural products can shape the way we feel, think, and even act.

That’s all well and good, an observation that resonates with me, but Lee also clearly wants BlacKkKlansman to be a movie that shapes the national conversation. Lee could never be accused of subtlety, and this isn’t just a movie that wants to tell us the story of something that happened before half its audience was even born. Rather, this is a movie about right now, about the roots of the racism that have sprouted with greater force than many of us expected when a presidential candidate stopped keeping the racism under cover and started just being racist right out in the open. We get a few Trumpian figures here: the malicious and distrusting klansman, the dumbass klansman, and David Duke himself, the slimy, almost-presentable asshole. Each is a side of Trump we have seen on the campaign trail and in office, and Lee makes sure that we’re picking up what he’s putting down in a few on-the-nose scenes involving the discussion of Duke’s political ambitions. Far better is the scene where Duke gives a speech in which he invokes the American Nazi slogan, “America First.” Trump has, knowing its history or not, picked up that slogan for himself and still claims with a straight face that he’s “the least racist person you’ll ever meet.” Ha.

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Lee goes even further at the conclusion of the movie, a mini-documentary on the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville where Heather Heyer was murdered by the modern-day equivalent of the KKK seen in this movie. We hear again the “good people on both sides” bullshit that Trump spouted days after her death and then we see the upsidedown flag that I mentioned earlier. It’s a powerful ending, proof that racism is not a solved problem and proof that we are not so different from the people in the movie. We must figure out how to deal with increasingly comfortable racists that have permeated our society. One such example happened over the weekend, as the one year anniversary of Heyer’s death saw more Unite the Right ralleys that were hopelessly outnumbered by counterprotesters in DC and beyond. Collective action that seeks to push these murderous assholes out of public spaces and public acceptance will be a good first step, and BlacKkKlansman is part of that first step. A glorious, funny, disturbing part.

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Back Catalog Review: Jean Vigo’s Documentary Shorts – À propos de Nice and Taris, roi de l’eau

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

I was going to do all of Vigo’s shorts, which would have added Zéro de conduit to this post, but I realized that the Vigo’s first two shorts, À propos de Nice (1930) and Taris, roi de l’eau (1931), were of a different genre than that film, which is a fictional story about life in a boarding school. These two films are documentary shorts, though as I’ll go into a little later, they stretch the boundaries of that genre a little bit. First, a bit of background. À propos de Nice is a city symphony, a subgenre of film that takes a look at the city it is documenting without utilizing a traditional narrative (usually), made famous by Man with a Movie Camera. In this case, Jean Vigo and his photographer, Boris Kaufman, filmed the sights of Nice, France, including beach scenes, sporting activities, a parade, and the working men and women who contrast with the rich leisure-seekers. Meanwhile, Taris, roi de l’eau is a shorter film, commissioned to celebrate the Olympic swimmer Jean Taris’s abilities and prowess. I noticed between these two films with a total runtime of 35 minutes six interesting techniques Vigo used to innovate the documentary form and put his anarchist worldview on film.

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Back Catalog Review: Kwaidan

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

When I was very young, my grandmother had a picture book of Japanese folklore. I remember reading it alongside Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and together they kindled a small fire of horror fandom that would eventually turn into the deep love I have for the genre today. I was engrossed by the strange Japanese demons and ghosts in the picture book, and I was intrigued by the different art style that was more in line with the flat compositions typical of classical Japanese artwork. The memory of reading this book came flooding back when I sat down to watch Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, a film comprised of four shorts depicting ghost stories set in Japan’s distant past.

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Back Catalog Review: The Exterminating Angel

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

Like a less-overt episode of The Twilight Zone, The Exterminating Angel puts people in a weird situation and then sees what happens before putting a final twist of the knife at the very end. It’s unlike most other movies in that it isn’t super concerned with characters or even a story as such. And for all of its surrealism and absurdity, the events of the film mostly follow logically from one to the next. Everything, that is, except for the first few minutes, which feature the servants in a baroque Spanish mansion trying to leave before the start of a dinner party that will prove to last quite a long time. We see two maids hide in a closet as the group of rich revelers enter the house and go upstairs to the banquet hall. Here the maids see their escape route open, only to have the same set of guests enter and perform the same actions a second time around. It’s your first hint that something is up here and it’s delightful and off-putting at the same time.

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Movie Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Making a Star Wars movie in 2018 is fraught with dangers. Lurking within the dangerous fog that surrounds the only safe path are fans who have invested in personal visions of the universe based on recently de-canonized stories, critics eager to espouse opinions about franchise fatigue, and just when you think you’ve made it out with your precious cargo, here come journalists ready to pounce upon any reports of troubles on the set or changes in filmmakers. It’s almost impossible to avoid all of these traps and hungry monsters, and the worst thing is that there’s really no way of knowing when one will pop up. Did you hire directors whose trademark is their sense of spontaneity to make your movie that has to slot precisely into a rigid canon, then fire them when you realized that they weren’t going to button up and act right? Oops, there’s 6 months of bad news stories. Did you think it would be a good idea to focus a little on a prop that had accidentally become important after previous filmmakers cut the justifying scene from three movies ago? Well, now you’re scrambling to make up for a horrible movie that everybody hated (one that’s actually the best in the franchise), so now they’re going to hate your movie too. Is your film in part a prequel and in part a set-up for further untold stories? That’s not good storytelling, it’s just an excuse to be money-grubbing hacks. What’s a moviegoer to do?
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