‘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 * * * *

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‘Superfly’ Remake Has Little Reason For Existing

Superfly 2018 poster

The original “Super Fly” directed by Gordon Parks Jr. was a notable blaxploitation classic as it provided many advancements for African-Americans in show business. Many accused it of glamourizing the drug business and of drug dealing in general, but others saw its glorification of drug dealers as a critique of the civil rights movement’s failure to provide better opportunities for black America. Either way, it gave a lot for audiences to talk about, and it provided us with one of the greatest soundtracks of all time courtesy of Curtis Mayfield.

Now it is 2018, and we have the remake of the 1972 movie which the filmmakers have entitled “Superfly” because, you know, why separate the two words? While it made more sense to separate the words “super” and “fly” decades ago, the rules of grammar continue to change for no special reason. But while the original movie still resonates with audiences more than 45 years after its release, I walked out of this remake constantly saying to myself, what was the point? Updating a classic of any kind is one thing, but this “Superfly” has little reason to exist as it offers us the same old tale of a gangster who is looking to go straight after spending too much time in a life of crime, and it offers nothing new or fresh to this story. While it is never boring, this movie will not have the same staying power of its predecessor.

The story remains the same, but this time the action has been moved from New York to Atlanta, Georgia (or ATL as the locals like to call it). Playing Youngblood Priest is Trevor Jackson, a 21-year-old actor, singer and dancer whose taste in clothes and cars is almost upstaged by his silky head of hair. Priest has it all, and this includes a luxurious house which has a beautiful view of downtown Atlanta, a pair of loving and tough-minded girlfriends in Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and Cynthia (Andrea Londo), and he drives around town in a super-expensive Lexus car which, unlike Ron O’Neal’s 1971 Cadillac Eldorado, needs no customization. One look at it is enough to give you an idea of how well-off Priest is to where putting a spoiler on his Lexus would just look stupid.

Yes, Priest is a career criminal who is now more serious than ever about leaving the Atlanta drug scene, but no one is about to make things easy for his departure, and this is especially the case when one particular drug deal goes horribly awry. From there, those who have seen the original “Super Fly” will not be surprised at the turns the story takes, and those who have not watched it will marvel at how convoluted things become as the remake heads to its largely unsurprising climax.

The first thing I got to say about “Superfly” is when it comes to Jackson, I cannot help but feel he is too young to play Priest. Jackson is not bad as he exhibits a natural charisma and does have the necessary aura of coolness Priest requires, but he never struck me as a gangster who has led a rough and tumble life. Instead, he looks more like someone who just entered the life to where he has yet to show off any of the scars which come with it. Alex Tse’s screenplay does make mention of how Priest started out hustling at the tender age of 11, but even with this realization, Jackson still looks like an intern who just entered this life.

The other big problem is Jackson is constantly upstaged by his fellow actors, several of whomwould have been more believable as Priest. Chief among them is Michael K. Williams, best known for playing Omar on “The Wire,” who plays Scatter, Priest’s chief drug supplier and martial arts teacher. The scene in which they spar with one another is one of “Superfly’s” best moments as their physical moves match up with their mental ones to where you can see them working out scenarios in their heads about surviving into the future. Williams has the look of someone who has worked in the Atlanta drug trade for many years, and he makes Scatter look like someone with more of a reason to retire from this life than Priest does. I think Williams would have been a better fit for the role of Priest, but I guess considerations in regards to demographics were taken into consideration here above all else.

Jason Mitchell, who was fantastic as Easy-E in “Straight Outta Compton,” steals one scene after another as Priest’s right-hand man, Eddie. He keeps you guessing as to what Eddie’s next move will be to where you constantly wonder where his loyalties lie. While Eddie seems eternally dedicated to Priest, Mitchell constantly gives you the sense he may bolt to the other side as being a supporting player in this trade can be infinitely frustrating at times, and his high energy performance is one of “Superfly’s” great delights.

Lex Scott Davis makes Georgia into a formidable girlfriend for Priest to where he needs her more than she needs him. Andrea Londo provides “Superfly” with its most alluring presence as Cynthia, Priest’s other girlfriend. From start to finish, Londo inhabits Cynthia to where she cannot be mistaken for anything other than a fierce self-provider who is more than prepared to fight to the death for her loved ones. Outkast’s Big Boi shows up as Mayor Atkins, a man whose political influence knows no bounds until Priest puts some directly in his path. And I have to single out Jennifer Morrison for her wonderfully wicked performance as the infinitely corrupt Detective Mason. She doesn’t hesitate to show far off to the dark side Mason is as she makes clear how quick she is to bend the rule of the law to her hardened heart’s content, and I could never take my eyes off her whenever she appeared onscreen.

Directing “Superfly” is Julien Christian Lutz, better known by the name of Director X. Whether or not this name is meant to define some sort of political belief I will leave for him to explain. X is best known for making music videos with Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Rhianna among others, and his trademark involves tweaking the letterbox format to where he plays with our expectations with glee. He crafts a strong opening sequence in which we follow Priest into a nightclub whose membership is clearly restricted to a select few, and it reminded me of the scene in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” when Henry Hill and Karen entered the Copacabana nightclub through the back way. As we follow Priest into this particular nightclub, X makes it feel like an invitation into a side of life many of us never get to experience. After this sequence, everything ends up feeling inescapably routine.

There have been many gangster movies like “Scarface,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Sugar Hill” and “Light Sleeper” which depict their lives in a way which is endlessly fascinating even as the characters are looking to escape the life they were not necessarily aiming to enter. “Superfly,” however, feels stale in comparison as it offers nothing new or unique to the genre. As the movie went on, I kept wondering what the point was of remaking this blaxploitation classic. Many have said how the original glamourized crime and drug dealing, but this remake seems to do this to a shameless extent as the characters sport not only designer clothes, but designer guns which more lethal than the kind we usually see in movies. Whereas O’Neal’s Priest was moving through life the only way he knew how, Jackson’s Priest looks to live the life of the richest 1% in America as drug dealing provides what seems like an unrealistic route to it.

I cannot say I didn’t enjoy parts of “Superfly” as it is never the least bit boring, but this kind of movie has been played out too many times to where this remake serves no real purpose. After all these years, the most memorable thing to come out of the 1972 blaxploitation classic will be Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack, and even the filmmakers behind the remake could not escape this fact as one of his songs is featured here. If there was a reason to update this story for the year 2018, this is never made apparent here. Besides, there is bigger gangster for Priest to deal with in this day and age, and his name is Donald Trump.

* * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Super Fly’ (1972)

Super Fly 1972 poster

With the remake about to be released, it was time to check out “Super Fly,” the 1972 blaxploitation crime drama which is considered one of the biggest classics of the genre. I have been aware of this film’s existence for years, and the photo on its VHS cover of Ron O’Neal holding a gun and looking ever so cool in his white suit and pants has been burned into my memory for decades. But like many movies I perused at local video stores, all of which have since vanished, I never got around to watching it until now.

While I certainly understand why “Super Fly” is long considered a classic blaxploitation film, it is not necessarily a great movie. On one hand the signs of its low budget are very much on display throughout to where I was reminded of what John Carpenter once said about the rule of making independent movies: “Shoot as little film as possible and make it as long as you can.” But on the other, it presents us with a New York time which no longer exists in modern day America, and the gritty realism of the city streets is on display throughout to where the movie’s existence is especially important as you can only fake this kind of realism in today’s cinematic world.

Ron O’Neal plays Youngblood Priest, an African-American drug dealer who enjoys a luxurious lifestyle in Harlem, New York. He got the name Priest because of the cross he wears around his neck. While this cross may or may not reflect his belief in God or any religious deity, a closer inspection reveals that the tip of the cross is fashioned in the shape of a spoon, and this allows him to do lines of cocaine whenever he needs a hit. In addition to his high-class apartment, the kind which would fetch at least a million in today’s New York real estate market, he also has a dedicated girlfriend in Georgia (Sheila Frazier), a white girl mistress named Cynthia (Polly Niles), the best set of clothes any man would be lucky to own and wear at the time, and he drives around town in a 1971 customized Cadillac Eldorado. Looking at Priest is to be convinced this is a man who has a lot of power and confidence you would be foolish to question, and this is something he does not have to spell out to anyone in words.

But as successful as Priest is, he yearns for a life outside of the underground drug business. This, of course, leads to him to plan one last “big score” which he believes will allow him to retire and go straight, but those of us who have watched countless gangster movies know this last big score will be the one fraught with the most danger. It gets to where there I expected the one scene where Priest just shakes his head as if to say to himself, “I should have gotten out of the life sooner, and now it’s too late.” Still, Priest is much smarter than his friends and foes realize, and we watch as he plots his way to his biggest drug deal ever, and then attempt to stay one step of everyone else who wants to do him in.

It has been said that the screenplay for “Super Fly” was only 45 pages long, and this is why we get exposed to so many shots of people walking, driving and talking in restaurants. This is the kind of film editing you would never see today as everything needs to move at a fast pace. This ends up dragging the movie down a bit as certain moments play themselves out for much longer than is necessary. Still, it allows us to take a look back at the New York that was before it, for better or worse, was cleaned up to where much of the state if unaffordable to live in. This helps to make up for other scenes which are staged rather pathetically, especially one in which a character gets hit by a car.

O’Neal immediately comes across as the personification of cool from the first moment he appears onscreen. He was in his 30’s when starred in “Super Fly,” but his face has the look of a man who has seen a lot in life up to that point, and this makes his performance as Priest feel all the more powerful and authentic. I never got the feeling he was trying to glamourize Priest’s lifestyle, and he was not afraid to make this character a rough and unlikable dude at times. He simply portrays Priest as a man who makes his way through life the only way he knows how, and his methods as you can imagine are not always morally sound.

As for the rest of the cast, their performances range from okay to pretty good. Charles McGregor, who was released from prison before “Super Fly” began filming, has some good moments as Fat Freddie, and Carl Lee, who plays Eddie, has a strong scene in which he tells Priest if it wasn’t for him, he would have overdosed. This line of dialogue would later prove to be tragically ironic as Lee became a heroin addict, and he died of a drug overdose back in 1986.

When “Super Fly” was released, many African-Americans were said to have been displeased with the way the movie glamourized people like themselves as drug dealers and pimps, but it resonated deeply with others who saw the movie as an example of how to rise up in the American class system. Does this movie glamourize the lifestyles of drug dealers? Well, perhaps it does, but the scary truth is there is always an allure to a life like this as it affords us a wealth which constantly seems out of our reach. Still, it should be noted how we never really see Priest enjoying himself much in the movie. While he has many things a person would want in life, we see right from the start how he has long since tired of his role in society to where it is believable and understandable why he yearns to do something legitimate for a change.

For those who think “Super Fly” provides audiences with a rather ambiguous look at the world of drugs and drug dealing back in the 1970’s, you need to take the time to listen Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to it which, by the way, is one of the best of its kind ever. An exhilarating fusion of soul and funk music, Mayfield also provided lyrics which were very socially aware and took an even closer look at drugs and poverty in society. When you read the lyrics of the song “Freddie’s Dead,” you can see the evidence of this very clearly:

“Everybody’s misused him

Ripped him up and abused him

Another junkie plan

Pushing dope for the man

A terrible blow

But that’s how it goes

A Freddie’s on the corner now

If you want to be a junkie, wow

Remember Freddie’s dead

We’re all built up with progress

But sometimes I must confess

We can deal with rockets and dreams

But reality, what does it mean

Ain’t nothing said

‘Cause Freddie’s dead.”

Looking at this, it is no wonder the soundtrack ended up making more money than the movie itself, and the movie did make a huge profit.

So “Super Fly” may not be an example of great filmmaking, but it should be noted how its production succeeded in offering advances for African-Americans. The city of Harlem went out of its way to back the movie financially, and many black businesses helped with production costs. Furthermore, the majority of the crew were in fact African-American, something which was very rare at this time in cinema. Taking all this into account makes “Super Fly” all the more enjoyable as it was a movie made with passion and respect as the filmmakers sought to tell it like it is. Despite its glaring flaws, it is a very cool movie to experience, and I am glad I finally got the chance to check it out, especially before I went out to see the remake.

* * * out of * * * *