‘BlackkKlansman’ is Spike Lee’s Best Joint in Years

BlackkKlansman movie poster

Those who read my reviews know how much I despise the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me. However, Hollywood has been looking for ways to provide variations on this phrase in recent years in an attempt to give it back the value it once had. One of my favorites was “Argo” which was advertised as being based on a “declassified” true story which made it worth seeing all the more. Still, every other movie these days is “based on a true story,” and pointing this out should make you wonder which ones were not. Besides, aren’t all movies based on or inspired by things we have experienced in real life?

BlackkKlansman,” a Spike Lee joint, is the latest movie to be “based on a true story,” but its poster has advertised as being “based on a crazy, outrageous, incredible true story.” Personally, I prefer the phrase Lee uses in the movie itself which says it is based on “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” This description feels far more honest as it would have seemed unbelievable were this movie released a few years ago. What results is the best joint Lee has made in years, and I could not recommend it more highly.

Based on the memoir “Black Klansman,” it stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth who, when we first meet him, is on his way to apply at the Colorado Springs police department and become its first ever black detective. This distinction, however, doesn’t do much for him in the beginning as his fellow officers, particularly the slimy Patrolman Andy Landers (Frederick Weller) who does little to hide his racist attitudes, and he is eager to rise up in the ranks.

Following a boring stint in the records room, Stallworth gets transferred to intelligence where he comes across an advertisement for the Klu Klux Klan which looks to find new members. It is great fun watching Washington talk on the phone with Ryan Eggold who plays Walter Breachway, President of the KKK chapter of Colorado Springs, as he effortlessly convinces him he is as white as they come. This act quickly grabs the attention of Detective Flip Zimmerman who is played by Adam Driver, and it is a gas watching Driver slowly turn around in his chair once he realizes what Stallworth is up to.

Of course, Stallworth does make a critical mistake during this phone call; he uses his real name. As a result, he is forced to turn to Zimmerman who has to pretend to be Stallworth in person as they further infiltrate the KKK. This infiltration becomes a delicate balancing act as Stallworth continues to fool the racist organization over the phone while Zimmerman is forced to fool them in person. In the process, we come to discover how much easier it is for a black man to pretend to be white than it is for a white man to pretend to be black.

“BlackkKlansman” couldn’t be timelier as it digs deep into a past which has a frightening resemblance to America’s present. The KKK is shown here to be as violent and racist as they are today as they keep chanting “America first” and plot acts of violence designed to eliminate those in their way and instill fear in the general public. One of the most disturbing scenes comes as we watch them cheer unabashedly at a screening of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” which portrayed the KKK as heroic and African-Americans as being unintelligent and sexually aggressive. Lee does nothing to hide the racist caricatures Griffith put onto the silver screen back in 1915, and they are as infuriating to take in today as they were a hundred years ago.

It’s very ironic how “BlackkKlansman” was released in theaters around the same time Dinesh D’Souza’s latest propaganda piece, “Death of a Nation,” came out. Both movies deal with “Birth of a Nation” in different ways and acknowledge how it was the first American motion picture ever to be shown inside the White House. D’Souza portrays President Woodrow Wilson as getting a liberal erection from watching Griffith’s movie, and he took this a step further in “Hillary’s America” by having a KKK member on horseback leap out of the screen to where Wilson is shown as being completely hypnotized by this image. D’Souza, however, leaves out “Birth of a Nation’s” more inflammatory segments which include deeply offensive depictions of blacks, something Lee does not shy away from showing here.

As is the case with movies “based on a true story,” “BlackkKlansman” does take numerous liberties with the source material. The events of this story took place in 1979, but Lee has moved the timeline back to 1972 which allows him to acknowledge certain Blaxploitation classics as well as the re-election efforts of President Richard Nixon. It is also said how David Duke never realized Stallworth was a black man until 2006, but the change here was worth it as leads to one of the movie’s best and funniest scenes. With movies like these, it is more important to be true to the spirit of the facts than anything else, and those who have a problem with that can always read Stallworth’s memoir instead.

There’s some additional irony here with “BlackkKlansman’s” release as it is coming out not long after the “Superfly” remake. One scene has Stallworth talking with his girlfriend, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), about which movie was cooler, “Super Fly” or “Shaft.” Patrice replies how “Super Fly” unfairly stereotypes black men as criminals, but it also showed a realistic grittiness to life in the city which was complemented by the brilliant soundtrack composed by Curtis Mayfield. It would be interesting to see how Patrice would have felt about this summer’s remake which threatened to glamorize gangster life more than ever before, and it made me wonder why anyone bothered remaking this blaxploitation classic in the first place.

Then there is former President Nixon whom D’Souza tried to convince us was a true progressive like any other Republican in “Death of a Nation.” We do not see much of Nixon in “BlackkKlansman,” but we do see his re-election posters displayed prominently in KKK hangouts as they were supposedly big supporters of his. Seeing this makes me think of the old Vulcan proverb Spock spoke of in “Star Trek VI” which said “only Nixon could go to China.”

“BlackkKlansman” is designed to make us mad at how history is repeating itself as white supremacist groups have flourished under the Donald Trump administration, but it is also insanely funny at times as it is almost impossible to believe anyone could have gotten away with what Stallworth and Zimmerman did here. Then again, in a time where John Melendez, a.k.a. Stuttering John of the Howard Stern Show, managed to trick Trump into believing he was Senator Bob Menedez in a phone conversation, perhaps it doesn’t seem unbelievable in the slightest

Honestly, it has been some time since I last saw a Spike Lee joint. His movies get overwhelmed at times by his camera tricks and flourishes and overly bombastic music scores which make me want to turn the volume. But with “BlackkKlansman,” Lee has crafted a film where everything feels perfect and spot on, and what results is highly entertaining and deeply visceral. Even as the “Do the Right Thing” director wants you to see how the past never left us, he invites us to revel in Stallworth’s successful infiltration even as those in power want to bury his victories.

There is not a single weak performance to be found here. Both Washington and Driver dig deep into their characters’ complexities as they try to remain professional in an increasingly volatile situation, but their own personal beliefs threaten to get in the way. Jasper Pääkkönen proves to be a fiery presence as Felix Kendrickson, the white supremacist who looks like a grenade primed to explode at any given moment. Corey Hawkins is magnetic as Kwame Ture when he rouses his followers at a civil rights rally. And Topher Grace proves to be an inspired choice to play a young David Duke who is shown to be aloof as to who Stallworth really is, and that’s even when Stallworth is assigned to be his security detail while in Colorado Springs.

It is no mistake Lee concludes “BlackkKlansman” with footage from the Unite the Right rally which took place in Charlottesville, Virginia as the movie is being released on its first anniversary. We see white supremacists marching the streets with tiki torches saying they will not be replaced, we see the real David Duke talk about how Trump is making “America great again,” we see Trump respond to the rally by saying how there were good people on both sides, and we see the car attack perpetrated by a white supremacist which injured many and killed Heather Heyer. While we look at the past as if it is barely visible in our rearview mirrors, it is real events like these which remind us how these same mirrors have the message of how things we see in them are much closer than they appear.

The image of an upside-down American flag which fades into black and white is the perfect image to end “BlackkKlansman” on as we are truly living in “The Twilight Zone” with everything that’s going on. It also reminds me of the final image of that same flag in John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” which ended with the word “unlearn” being typed out over it. Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, and history continues to repeat itself again and again and again. The fight for justice has never ceased, and the progress we all thought Americans had made is not as great as it seemed. Lee has made an overtly political movie which could not have come out at a more appropriate time, and it is his best one in years.

* * * * out of * * * *

Advertisements

‘Frost/Nixon’ is Ron Howard’s Best Film Since ‘Apollo 13’

10290A_UNI_FNX_DOM1sh_Spread_R4

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2008.

Frost/Nixon” started off as a play which was incredibly well received and went on to have a very successful run on Broadway. It has now been brought to the screen by director Ron Howard, and he ends up giving us one of his best movies to date. Like “Apollo 13,” he takes the outcome of an event which we all know about and he turns it into riveting cinema. Also, unlike John Patrick Shanley who cast different actors in his movie version of “Doubt,” Howard retains the two actors from the original stage production, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. This is one of the very best movies to come out in 2008, and it makes sense it is coming out at the end of the year instead of the middle of it.

“Frost/Nixon” starts at the point where Nixon has resigned as the President of the United States. David Frost, just coming off of one of his talk shows, sees the image of Nixon waving goodbye before entering the helicopter which took him away from political life forever. When it is gauged as to how many witnessed Nixon’s resignation on television, Frost sees a golden opportunity in attempting to get an interview with Nixon, something which must have seemed incredibly unlikely at the time. Along with his producer John Brit (Matthew Macfadyen), he travels to America to set up the interview with a major network, but they all turn him down. As a result, he decides to fund the whole thing himself at great personal risk, and he and John hire Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to prep him for interview and research all the available facts on Nixon.

I liked how “Frost/Nixon” really got into the specifics of how the interviewed was prepped and researched. You might think prepping any interview wouldn’t necessarily be that hard, let alone the interview of a former President of the United States, but it is never as easy as it looks. They prep for months in advance, but Frost’s producer, as well as Bob and James, do most of the grunt work while Frost goes to parties promoting a movie he has worked on. When they finally get around to filming the interview, Frost suddenly realizes the gravity of the situation he has put himself in as the interview may very well destroy his credibility forever.

The movie becomes completely riveting when it focuses on the exchanges between Frost and Nixon in the interview and outside of it as well. Nixon proves to be a smooth operator who takes advantage of Frost as the interviewer appears to be laid back and almost completely oblivious to the seriousness of this interview. We see people from both camps focusing on the interview from other rooms, trying to control what comes out of their guy’s mouth. The intensity immediately increases when Frost starts off the interview with the question, “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?” By that, Frost meant the tapes which all but implicated Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal.

The last part of the interview these two men do together represents some of the most riveting and intense scenes in any movie of 2008. The fact there are no guns or explosions here says a lot about Howard and the actors managed to accomplish here. The audience, even if they knew the outcome of these interviews, was so intensely drawn into this part of the movie when I saw it at Arclight Cinemas to where you could hear a pin drop during the last exchange, and the gasps from the audience were very audible. I watched it and hoped at the same time that I had remembered to silence my cell phone so it wouldn’t go off during the movie’s final round. It would have destroyed the moment if Daryl Hall & John Oates had started singing “I Can’t Go for That” (my current ring tone) out of my cell phone.

As Sir David Frost, Sheen is brilliant in making him look like a lot of fun to be around without ever seeming overly smug or easily dismissive. His transition from the casual interviewer to Nixon’s grand inquisitor is very convincing, and he makes you feel the increasing stress Frost is going through. Like his close confidents, we desperately want him to get hard on Nixon and not be so soft. When Frost finally does come around, he caps off his interview by getting in Nixon’s face and never backs down from the overbearing stature Nixon imposes on him. Sheen manages to capture all of Frost’s mannerisms and the way he talks without simply impersonating him. Having previously played Tony Blair in “The Queen,” he is great at giving a different face to people we have come to know so well, and in getting at the heart of who they are outside of the media’s perception of them.

With the role of Richard Nixon, I think it’s safe to say Langella gives the performance of his career here. Like Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” he never ever tries to impersonate Nixon in this performance. Had he, it would have destroyed his performance and the movie. Langella doesn’t even try to look like Nixon either. What he does instead is dig deep into the heart and soul of Nixon to where he gives the former President a strong sense of empathy. Ever since he came to my attention in Ivan Reitman’s “Dave,” Langella has been the king of quiet menace in just about every movie he has appeared in. The menace of Nixon is always below the surface under the guise of a man always reminiscing about a past he can never get back. When Nixon finally caves in during the last interview he has Frost, Langella gives the man a sorrowful dignity as he realizes what he has done will forever haunt him unless he confronts for what it is.

Langella also makes you believe and understand what Nixon meant when he says no one can ever fully understand what it is like to be President. Nixon is never excused for what he did, nor should he be, but there is some leeway we should give him as he has experienced something the majority of us will never get to experience – being President of the United States. The Oscars better not ignore Frank Langella the same way they ignored Howard for “Apollo 13.”

\Howard almost seems like an odd choice to direct “Frost/Nixon,” and he beat out a lot of directors like Martin Scorsese and Mike Nichols to get the job. It almost seems unbelievable his career has spanned as many decades as it has, but it’s probably because many of us still have the image of him as Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days” burned forever into our heads. His last film as a director was “The Da Vinci Code” which proved to be quite sleep inducing, and yet still made tons of money. It almost made you forget what a great director he can be, and “Frost/Nixon” wakes us up from the Da Vinci coma we fell into unexpectedly.

“Frost/Nixon” is better than you would ever expect it to be, and it is one of Howard’s very best movies to date and one of the very best of 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’ Digs Deep Into His Life

gonzo-the-life-and-work-of-dr-hunter-s-thompson poster

I felt like I could never figure Hunter S. Thompson out. Whenever I saw films based on his work, he seemed like some crazed lunatic living in a world of his own creation and madness. After watching “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” I feel like I now know what he was all about. Hunter was as patriotic as any American can get, and while he always seemed to be losing his mind, no one can deny he was a true visionary. At the very least, he was never boring.

This documentary was directed by Alex Gibney who managed to get many people to talk on camera about Hunter who, whether they loved or hated it, had to admit to feeling the upmost respect for all he did. The fact Pat Buchanan participated in this documentary is a big surprise considering how Hunter described him as a “half-crazed Davy Crockett running around the parapets of Nixon’s Alamo.” The writings of Dr. Thompson are featured throughout, and the documentary is narrated by Johnny Depp who played the eccentric author in Terry Gilliam’s film version of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Hunter is credited with creating Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree to where they become central figures in their own stories. He would take on assignments like covering a motorcycle event, and then he would veer off into something else like the death of the American dream. Through his writing, he got at the ugly heart of the matter and exposed it for all its misleading falsehoods.

“He was a reporter with a wild imagination.”

-Tom Wolfe

“He was not afraid to express himself in sometimes shocking ways.”

-President Jimmy Carter

We see Hunter take on his first big assignment when he meets the Hell’s Angels in California which he looked up to as the last outlaws in the world. This relationship, however, turned sour when he witnessed them gang bang a woman at their party. The group later suspected Hunter of trying to profit off of what he wrote, and they beat him severely. This whole experience ended up shaping him as a writer as he looked beyond the façade sold to the public on a regular basis.

One of the most interesting parts in this documentary is how it shows Hunter’s love of America and his sadness over the death of one of his favorite politicians, Robert Kennedy. It is made abundantly clear how Hunter so wanted to believe in the hope of a better future. His sadness only deepens when he is witness to the beatings at the Democratic convention which took place the same year Robert died, and he berated the Democrats for not doing their part to put an end to the violence.

I got a huge kick out of the section where Hunter runs for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, as it showed how visionary he was as he had all these plans for revitalizing the town of Aspen. He called for the decriminalization of drugs for personal use, but he also wanted to keep a ban on trafficking as he was no fan of people profiting off of them. Furthermore, he wanted to tear up the streets and replace them with grassy pedestrian malls, he proposed placing a ban on tall buildings being built as they obscured his view of the mountains, and he wanted to rename Aspen “Fat City” in an effort to deter investors who wanted to commercialize the city. Of course, Hunter lost the election which was no real surprise to him, but his run for the office was never ever forgotten.

“Gonzo” also does a great job of looking at the various relationships Hunter had throughout his lifetime. We get a look at his marriages and learned what it was like living with him. To know Hunter was to tolerate him. Perhaps the most interesting relationship documented here is the one between Hunter and artist Ralph Steadman who created some of the most insane drawings which accompanied Hunter’s feverish writings in Rolling Stone magazine. It is interesting to learn Steadman was actually a conventional artist whose work was no different from anyone else’s. But then Hunter turned Steadman on to drugs, and his work evolved into what he is best known for. There is a great moment where we see Steadman at work, and he has this utterly insane look on his face as if he is gleefully possessed. Who knows what would have happened to him had he never met Hunter.

Perhaps the most important section of “Gonzo” is when Hunter supports George McGovern’s run for President of the United States. McGovern was the democratic nominee running against incumbent President Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War was raging on, and hundreds of young American lives were being snuffed out day after day. McGovern sought to put an end to the Vietnam war which the whole country had since gone against. Hunter had a vicious hatred of Nixon, and he saw the possibility of Nixon going on to a second presidential term as a possible death blow to this country.

As important as this section of the documentary, it was a bit overlong and could have been shortened. It gets redundant as we clearly get the message of Hunter’s disillusionment with politics in general. Fortunately, “Gonzo” picks up in the last half as we see how Hunter became trapped by his fame to where his work suffered as a result. But the McGovern section is still important, especially when Hunter is interviewed in the documentary and says this, “I desperately wanted to put an end to that senseless war [in Vietnam]. I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

Sound familiar? No wonder Hunter got depressed when George W. Bush got elected and the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. Hunter wrote about those events as if he knew exactly what they would lead to, another war overseas with America striking back in revenge mode. This was all another depressing example of how history repeats itself.

For the most part, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” does an excellent job of making you understand him better and of where he was coming from. We need people like Hunter, people who challenge authority and get us riled up about the way the country is heading. His suicide, other than being very selfish and hardly noble, robbed us of a powerful voice we need in times when politicians continue to deepen the divide between the rich and the poor. Hunter was a crazy man at times, and he was also proof that if you take enough drugs, they will completely mess up your head. But you had to love him because he was never boring and always fearless. It is likely there will never be another man like him.

* * * ½ out of * * * *