1989, The Number, Another Summer

It has been 32 years and I don’t think cinema has ever produced something as incendiary as Do the Right Thing since its 1989 premiere at Cannes. Definitely nothing in the mainstream American cinema, sadly nothing writer-director Spike Lee has made since (even with the ambition he threw 3 years later behind Malcolm X), and the closest analogues I can think of – Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables – are sadly written off as “French Do the Right Things”. The fact is that the fire lit by the Do the Right Thing is still burning enough to keep us heated all these decades later and honestly given the state of American society as it is today, it is sad but true that that fire has to keep burning. And the brightness of that fire has of course scared a-plenty of viewers at the time of its release fearing that the movie was genuinely dangerous and was going to cause race riots on the streets from its content, a modern-day Rites of Spring. And even when that fear was unfounded, the movie’s lack of interest in providing a straightforward answer regarding the issues it casually depicts apparently struck enough of a nerve with viewers to engage less in the conversation that Do the Right Thing was inviting and more in a desire to validate their own pre-existing notions.

Maybe it’s simply the charged energy of the picture that truly took audiences aback before the fiery climax even occurred, since Do the Right Thing opens on one of my favorite opening credits sequences I’ve ever seen – bombastically providing what looks like a studio-set version of a Brooklyn brownstone set with black shadows between green and red lighting and dynamic cutting for one of the film’s actors, Rosie Perez dancing with aggression to the angry declarations of Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight the Power”. One could absolutely see how a movie providing such bold imagery and rhythm from its very first frame, not even giving us a breather, could intimidate an audience and get them outside of ease before Lee begins weaving us through the variety of charged stories that take place in Do the Right Thing‘s Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant or Bed-Stuy for short.

The film famously portrays a day and change in Bed-Stuy, except it has a particular distinction of being the hottest day of the summer. Insofar as the movie has a protagonist, it would be Mookie (Lee himself) as he starts another day at his job delivering pizzas from Sal’s (Danny Aiello) restaurant, a cornerstone of that neighborhood for a very long time. And as Mookie heads on down his deliveries to his leisure (occasionally one leading him to his girlfriend Tina (Perez) and their infant son Hector), we meet and hang with several different characters on that street: the local drunk Da Mayor as he occasionally disputes with the matriarchal Mother Sister (played by real-life couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee respectively) being one of the more important strands for us to pay attention to, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who alienates everyone with the large boom box he carries around blasting the same Public Enemy song from that opening credits being another, but mostly doing its relaxed best to sift through Bed-Stuy as a place of diversity that’s not entirely welcome: the tension between Korean shopkeepers, West Indian immigrants, and Puerto Rican folk among all the born-and-raised-in-Brooklyn Black Americans already brings about a nervousness to the energy this movie starts with without adding in the Italian-Americans and police presence intruding on a neighborhood that the movie takes care to note are not from there. While Do the Right Thing is about watching that tension just continuing boiling in a pot over and over under the hot sun above before the pressure just blows the lid right off, the fact is that most of the racial antagonism was there from the start and the movie wants us to know it: one of the first incidents is a low-scale explosion where Da Mayor – one of the film’s most lived-in and agreeable characters – blows up on the Korean family and delivers some racial remarks simply for not having his brand of beer.

If there is any real inciting incident to the picture, it’s the moment where one of Mookie’s friends – the outspoken Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito – there was a time where this movie and Breaking Bad were my only conscious exposures to Esposito and it was outright impossible to reconcile Buggin’ Out and Gustavo Fring were played by the same actor) – dares to challenge the Wall of Fame in Sal’s pizzeria and how it only has Italian-Americans and no black people on it. And yet it escalates from the temperaments of both Sal and Buggin’ Out so quickly that shortly after Sal steps out from behind the counter with a baseball bat simply from Buggin’ Out’s loaded question and has to be held back by his openly racist son Pino (John Turturro) as opposed to his more black-friendly son Vito (Richard Edson). And that sort volatility is revealed before the halfway point of a two hour film: so what we see is just characters letting the heat get them soured enough to spit invective in any which direction and it seems like the only character who has not a single antagonist hostile bone in his body is the DJ who occasionally describes the state of affairs before his giant window in his air-conditioned radio booth, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), to the point that he personally interrupts a centerpiece sequence of four different characters spitting the most venomous racial remarks in direct address with an accelerated wide-to-close-up dolly that really grinds our nose in that hate. Everything that happens by the explosive end of Do the Right Thing was a brewing a long time in the hearts of the characters, even while it all comes as a mixture of shock and disappointment and Spike delivers it all with a rage that shakes the viewer violently.

Anyway, the thing about Do the Right Thing – at least the takeaway I’ve had in the 12 years since I first saw it – is that it is a movie about NOT knowing everything, even and especially when you’re under duress both environmental and social. And more particularly an attempt to subvert the camera eye as something so omniscient towards its subjects but providing a story that has absolutely no easy answers and even impishly gives conflicting attitudes about its own things: it ends with two contradictory quotes by the late civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, characters whose dichotomy we are constantly reminded of by the disabled character Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) and his attempts to sell pictures of their handshake to people who just aren’t interested. Do the Right Thing is a very cinematic picture with its choice of camera movements by the great Ernest Dickerson such as those afore-mentioned direct address dollys or the placement of the actors in the grand space of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in a way that plays well with how often Dickerson seems to decide one type of scale per shot is not enough (the Radio Raheem “Love-Hate” monologue swaps from profile to its own direct address and then back to profile; a long-take boombox battle between Raheem and the Puerto Ricans switches back and forth in tight close-ups before visually announcing the victor with a grand rise of the crane; another interior medium pulls out into an exterior crane late in the film). It’s also just as cinematic the rapid way Barry Alexander Brown switches between tangeants like a continuous thought to the point that some scenes cut in the middle of a character’s last word, sometimes in association like when a delivery from Mookie to Señor Love Daddy leads to a needledrop that catches the attention of the Puerto Rican boys leading to their conflict with Raheem. And it’s of course most intense when it comes to actual heated conflicts: the climactic ones between Raheem and Sal are shot in bizarre canted angles that look like medium shots with the direct focus of close-ups so the intensity of Sal and Raheem within the frame gives the sense of big emotions with physical smallness.

And that’s just in regards to what Do the Right Thing does with its visual ambition to communicate the sense that we are looking all over the people of Bed-Stuy in a novelesque way. There’s another function to the movie-ness of it all: because Do the Right Thing has to feel real fucking hot and just cramping up interiors with fans or drenching the actors with screen sweat won’t just cut it, Dickerson and the color editors have seen fit to favor the reds and oranges that remind us of that hot sun above (and I don’t remember if there’s even a close-up of the sun, meaning that it’s through that color that we are meant to live in the heat with the characters) while in the meantime, the lights seem positioned specifically to favor the brightest white spots on the heads of the actors like a negative chiaroscuro so that we understand exactly what that temperature is falling on. The walls of the neighborhood and the costumes fill in as much white and blue as they can while still playing along with that color temperature serving as the visual translation of the REAL temperature.

It’s of course to be expected that someone like Spike Lee – whose open film scholar-ness isn’t discussed on the same level of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, but absolutely reaches their levels – would be happy to engage with the extent to which he and the crew can move the camera around to the sweet jazz score of Bill Lee and watch these characters bake in the summer. Him pouring his love for the movies (lest we forget that Raheem’s “Love-Hate” monologue is pretty much an appropriation of a similar monologue in The Night of the Hunter amongst other cinematic quotings sprinkled throughout) is just one of several areas that makes Do the Right Thing an obviously personal film: it’s practically a family affair on the level of The Godfather with Bill Lee being Spike’s father (who was also responsible for Davis and Dee getting cast) and Spike’s sister Joie playing Mookie’s exasperated sister Jade, Spike being a longtime native to Bed-Stuy and portraying the neighborhood with the sort of loving intimacy only someone so close to that place could have (to the point that even the constructed pizzeria and Korean shop feel well integrated), and even inching in an anti-Celtics joke with a cameo by John Savage. It’s basically indulgent in the ways that somebody pouring their heart into a depiction of a place and an issue that matters deeply to them would have to be, casual enough to be a pleasant watch but not to undercut the urgency of the climactic violent moments that probably most horrified viewers of all sorts.

And it feels hard to discuss Do the Right Thing without discussing the ending, which I’m trying not to do for anyone who might want to run to see this movie immediately after reading this (and you should have been running to it yesterday) but basically SPOILER ALERT: that climax is where Spike as a writer lays all his sucker punches while portraying how easily the thread can snap for people and a combustion can be catalyzed. It’s not all that much a surprise to the right viewers that Sal turns out to be a racist just the same as Vito is, but we did spend an hour and 40 minutes in his company watching him happily chat up Jade or Da Mayor or letting the kids in after hours to have one more slice before he leaves for the night (the fact that those same kids are behind Sal when Raheem and Buggin’ Out confront him during closing time and then turn around in shock when Sal throws out the n-word is indicative of how well embedded he was in Bed-Stuy as a community and how easy it was for him to betray that). And it’s not just Sal who has a rapid shift, Mookie is relatively placid during the movie when Buggin’ Out is causing a scene with Sal (though that may just be Lee’s… lack of acting ability. It works though!) and yet once he sees Raheem dead on the ground is when he recognizes action must be taken and throws that garbage can through the window of Sal’s pizzeria in another long take. Or the manner in which a community that frequently mocked or confronted with Raheem and respected Sal throughout the movie is willing to put all that aside in solidarity against Sal in recognition that he caused Raheem’s death at the hands of the police (who characteristically leave scot-free). Or simply the fact that ML (Paul Benjamin) – after holding a verbal grudge against the Korean grocers (Steve Park & Ginny Yang) – is inches away from invoking his own violent wrath on their store in the heat of the riot receives clarity at the last second and leaves them be. In any case, the chaos of that climax is where Do the Right Thing pulls the curtains back on what all the characters were truly feeling and lets it sprawl on the streets like a wildfire.

And if Spike decided to just leave us in that emotional sprawl, maybe I’d get why audiences were scared of this movie to the degree that the Oscars ran all the way in the other direction that year to award Best Picture to the cravenly placating Driving Miss Daisy (a move I’m certain Lee considers a personal insult with all the critical acclaim and discussion Do the Right Thing was getting that awards season). But this is a movie about a place he loves and that we can assume he doesn’t want to see torn down and it’s telling that the next morning’s final sequence is not just the character recognizing they’re still standing but Mookie and Sal specifically still standing and at a mutual recognition with each other. It starts hot – a shot-reverse shot that involves Mookie and Sal’s heightened emotions regarding Mookie’s pay and what happened to Sal’s pizzeria – but it ends by the end of it with the wide two-shot that could only come once the two of them got it all out of their systems and walk away not friends but not at each other’s throats either. That Lee saw fit to allow Sal that dignity as opposed to any other character in the film is telling, a mood of restoration that is essential if Mookie or Sal or the rest of Bed-Stuy is gonna be able to survive last night with the memory of Radio Raheem strongly surrounding it, a memory invoked by the last spoken line of the film by that one calm, cool, collected voice of reason Señor Love Daddy.

Anyway, none of that final cool down stopped audiences from feeling that this movie was dangerous and I agree that it’s dangerous. Just not dangerous in the same way that people realize. It’s the last dangerous picture, not no Joker that has nothing social to really say or agitprop films that try way too hard to deliver THE POINT. Do the Right Thing is dangerous because it’s ostensibly about people just living in one spot for 24 hours and it just builds up in an organic way to the violence it depicts: a violence that indicts systemic imbalances and horrors that remain relevant and grave to this very day and age, a violence that comes with a righteous rage that was on 11 from frame one, and a violence that interrupts an otherwise survivable but hot day in a very vibrant and colorful place lived-in by vibrant and colorful people whom we don’t have room to hate (outside of the police and Pino). It’s a movie full of humanity that ends up casualty to that violence, constructed and depicted as a realistic place amplified by the movie’s craft. And that craft may be the subject of Spike’s indulgent and compromised perspective on Bed-Stuy in an ostensibly “Day in the Life” overview of the characters, but somehow all that indulgence and compromise and inconsistency just piles into the humanity of Do the Right Thing to make it not only that dangerous movie that people feared but an unexpectedly perfect object – arguably the only PERFECT movie of a filmmaker who is not interested in perfection and never pursues – and in turn the greatest American movie of the 1980s. In my humble opinion you see, for if there’s one thing Do the Right Thing teaches me, it’s that I don’t know everything.

They’re Going to Destroy Our Casual Joys

strangedays

If I had seen Strange Days sometime in my teenage years, it would have been a part of my “25 for 25” project and had some deciding factor in how I put together my personal canon and identifying the aesthetics I am attracted to most. Instead, I saw it for the first time a few months shortly AFTER I had turned 25 and it never had the opportunity to turn me into the sort of cinephile it could have, although I find it fortunate that the sort of cinephile I am happens to be very compatible with it.

I’ll make one more declarative statement before getting into the thick of what makes me a fan: If I had seen it early in my high school life, it MIGHT — MIGHT – have become my favorite movie. Indeed, it is very easy to see what it shares with my main favorite movie champion holder* Blade Runner: they’re both the stories of disgraced ex-police dealing with a case over their head set in a future version of Los Angeles while grappling with the morality behind technological advances. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that co-writer Jay Cocks (with James Cameron, who conceived of the entire project) had previously attempted to option Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? with Martin Scorsese well before it was adapted into Blade Runner.

Any sci-fi film set in the future with even the slightest hint of noir owes its existence to Blade Runner anyway. Beyond that, Strange Days is a different film in every line of its DNA. Most of its differences feel rooted in the fact that Strange Days is set in 1999, which is easy to laugh aside now as an apparent lack of foresight but such if you fail to recognize that this movie was released in 1995. Cameron wanted to set the movie so close in the future that it’s practically the present, just around the corner with urgency towards its decrepit view of the future. As a result of the proximity of the time period, director Kathryn Bigelow and production designer Lilly Kilvert don’t give us flying cars and neon baths. Instead, things look like they’ve poisoned the concrete jungle into corpse-blue under Matthew F. Leonetti’s lens. The militarized police force occupy every corner, with each cut by Cameron and Howard Smith on the streets practically darting desperately to seed them. There’s an unstable paranoia that comes with being set in the turn of millennium. Even if you’re too young to remember the fears of Y2K, a character constantly refers to the imminent new year as the end of the world and it’s hard to argue when the designs feel on edge. It’s more anarchic than refined and it’s easy to see why the inhabitants of this world are eager to escape to memories of a better age with the main technology at the center of Strange Days: the SQUID, a cerebral device that is able to record an experience on a disc giving you the same physical sensations and emotions.

i043611

We’re introduced to this tech (and the movie itself) through a visceral and roughly textured single shot with the point of view of a robber before a disorienting death drop wakes up Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), the aforementioned disgraced ex-cop who now makes his living selling discs on the black market as he lambasts his supplier for trying to sell him a snuff disc, because he’s got morals. As we spend more time with Lenny, we discover his pathetic and unhealthy inability to move on from his musician ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). Lenny uses every possible opportunity to rely on the kindness of his overworked best friend, bodyguard/chauffeur-for-hire Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), to find his way to clients through which to make his unsavory trade and to facilitate his stalking of Faith in whatever seedy foggy multi-colored industrial punk dives she’s performing at whenever he’s not replaying overly bright SQUID memories of her in his lonely apartment at night.

Despite the wounded sleaze (It’s very easy to see how Fiennes got this role after playing the sloppiest Nazi character ever in Schindler’s List), Fiennes communicates a sense of warmth particularly through his shocking but calming eyes seeping through his greasy long hair (something brought up by more than one character and it’s not for nothing that the movie’s first shot is a close-up of his eye**). Nero is clearly a heart-on-his-sleeve louse that is pushed around rather than pushing others around and he’s constantly able to rollback up with a salesman smile. Lenny and Mace’s dynamic, thanks to being the best performances and the center of the movie, appear to be the most honest in the film: In Lenny’s aimless appellations and intentions and Mace’s frustrated objections and straight talk out of the heart. Bassett isn’t the protagonist Strange Days eventually turns her into from the start, but she walks in already with the exhausted attitude that she’s the only one getting her shit straight and Mace as a character benefits from that attitude as she enters with one of her many moments getting Lenny out of trouble.

strange-days_084

In any case, somebody trusts Lenny enough to arrive to him in a frazzled and anxious state asking for help: Iris (Brigitte Bako), an old friend from Lenny’s time with Faith, who drops a jack into Lenny’s car just before it’s repo’d and then disappears entirely. And whatever the reason she’s scared, Lenny is certain it has something to do with Faith’s manager/new boyfriend Philo Gant (resident 90s bad guy Michael Wincott) and a conflict of interest should be expected when you think the man your ex left you for is involved in some heinous stuff, particularly when it all circles around the impromptu murder of conscious and outspoken hip hop figure Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), another client of Gant’s.

This is a lot of stuff, but Strange Days gets to clean it up nice because it seems like Bigelow and Cameron were intent on making two different yet harmonious movies. Cameron’s basis has always been on the emotional matrix between Mace’s feelings for Lenny while trying to protect Faith, it’s the very first element he ever conceived of the film before even the futurism (it’s for this reason that I find it very curious he gave this concept to Bigelow, who was already his ex-wife of 2 years by the start of production in 1993). And it’s a line carried through by the lead actors certainly, but Bigelow as a filmmaker appears to have little use for it. She’s making a conscious and angry film – galvanized to finally start this movie after the 1992 proved to be one of the most heated eras in American race relations – utilizing the arrangements of the characters to unlock different observations on brutality as a result of a police state, voyeurism on the sufferings of others, the self-deprecating and regressive effects of nostalgia, the ease of white men to avoid trouble that black people (and especially black women would find themselves in), the objectification of women in the media, black women being put in second rung or expected to lay down for white women, conspiracy theories, hip hop and music’s place in observing these issues and having an affect in communities, all mirroring the 1990s in which this film was released and the anxiety in the air. Surrounding these characters’ romantic complications is a whole society developing and decaying in ways that were apparent in the real world. The resultant world-building feels like an extension of the heightened emotions of their romantic complication and lack of awareness.

I’ve already gone through the production design insisting that police are ever-present, down to helicopter lights constantly flashing through the windows. But it’s also in the manner that, for a 2 1/2 hour movie, Bigelow’s direction is violently fast and may as well prove to be coming off her growth as a notoriously “masculine” director with Near Dark and Point Break. There are few action setpieces in Strange Days and they are dangerous and fantastic (while also being the areas where Mace takes charge), but even the majority dialogue sequences have Leonetti’s camera movements whipping around like a paranoid eye and Smith and Cameron’s cutting turning the atmosphere frazzled, denying any sense of calm. And Bigelow is unafraid to go to harrowing places: halfway through the film comes a controversial rape/murder sequence involving cross-cutting with a character witnessing it via the SQUID, first with gleeful interest as he misreads the scene and then with horror as he recognizes the victim, her emotions, and the actions. The end result indicts an audience’s interest in the exploitation of individuals for profit and entertainment.

strange_days_6_1

I am making this movie sound a lot more unpleasant than I feel it is: it is paranoid, it is violent, it is charged, but it has two lead performances able to guide us and make us feel safe even when they don’t and it has moments of relief from the tension that appears throughout the movie [particularly scenes involving Mace’s family and particularly her son Zander (Brandon Hammond) who has a small but comforting slow-motion shot involving fireworks to assuage Mace’s fears]. I also feel like I am making this movie sound perfect, which is not even close to. For one thing, while Strange Days is ahead of its time in many ways, it’s not altogether prophetic. Being a 1995 film about the future that doesn’t invoke the internet at all makes it an outlier and not in a good way. It also has a mostly unimpressive supporting cast beyond Fiennes and Bassett: Lewis feels like the weak link in the movie’s core conflict, feeling way too young for the jaded rock star part she’s trying to play and treating her character’s contempt for Nero less as genuine frustration of a man who is essentially stalking her and more like a teenager lying because she feels like it. Even if that’s how the character is meant to be (which I don’t think so – I like to think Faith does not want Nero to get hurt but she genuinely does not have any remaining romantic feelings for him), it feels like it makes the emotions so much flatter. Meanwhile, the best the supporting cast can do is play unidimensional archetypes of roles they seemed to be typed as in the 1990s like Vincent D’Onofrio being one note of angry or Tom Sizemore being one tone of grimy.

And yet still, I love Strange Days with all its future warts and if there’s something I think signifies how easily I am able to forgive its sleights, it is its climactic finale during a boisterous New Millennium party in the streets. At one point, it is the most harrowing sequence in the film as someone is beaten to the ground in closeness, the next the crowd has jumped in to save a life and it’s a release of all the pent-up anger the film has built under itself, and finally Bigelow inconsistently decides that all is right: justice is served by a confused system that nearly killed an innocent minutes ago and the world does not end at midnight like we feared. And while this is an ending I fundamentally disagree with, the final grace note of where our characters end feels so emotionally right and reassuring as the streets celebrate all around them and we look up to a new night sky while Lori Carson & composer Graeme Revell fades into Deep Forest in a peaceful compulsively delightful ending.

And then the disc ends and I open my eyes.

*give or take a Casablanca.
**In fact, that’s another thing Strange Days and Blade Runner have in common: a close-up of a character’s eye appears within the opening cuts of each film.

nyeve

Raiders of the Lost Oak

124117

I don’t know what it is about Oakland that makes first-time filmmakers so confident, daring, and willing to pull out any possible cinematic flourish to appeal in the audience in such stylized yet urgent way, but let me tell you we need more debut filmmakers attacking subject matter with the same kind of relentlessness. Hell, we need more filmmakers in general to swing material where it hits us, with little care as to whether everything lands or doesn’t.

Most of Blindspotting lands, let me tell you. Most of it lands as hard as a movie about the tension in police brutality, racial identity, and cyclical violence should land in order for you to get the message and walk away shook. And some moments the reason you had to catch your breath was because you heart was tightening in anticipation of horribly unfair things to happen to Collin (Daveed Diggs) while some moments, it’s because you could not stop laughing in relief of the aftermath.

Oh yeah, I wasn’t just talking about Carlos López Estrada’s directing and how he’s well-acquainted with establishing moods via editing rhythms with the help of Gabriel Fleming and realism via nighttime cinematography of the traffic lights and streetlamps illuminated city streets with the help of Robbie Baumgartner. I’m also talking about how well he’s effortlessly he’s able to handle the multitudes of tone that the screenplay by Diggs and Rafael Casal. I haven’t been able to find proof that Estrada himself is from the Bay Area, but Diggs and Casal are natives and confidently provide a map of moods and attitudes that Estrada and his crew bring to the screen that give the streets a two-sided personality based on what Oakland was and what Oakland is turning into. And it is a disarmingly funny screenplay full of lively energy despite dealing with subjects that are no laughing manner, but that Diggs and Casal know all too well to sugarcoat: sometimes casual life in Oakland is going to be violently interrupted by some brutal truths.

screenshot-from-2018-07-16-07-47-51

One of those brutal truths introduced early on in the split-screen opening credits: the before and after of Oakland’s gentrification, turning from a diverse melting pot community that is overpoliced into a mecca for performative hipsters. The very next brutal truth is the impersonal “rehabilitation” system as a judge sleepily states to Collin the terms of his parole for a crime we are not privy to yet. The next one takes a smash cut worth 27 days from his zoned out face in a courthouse to his zoned out face in a neon-decked Uber with his best friend Miles (Casal) to reach, during which time we learn that Miles is the more intense stereotype between the two of them of “gangster” behavior. For one thing, the very first thing we watch him do is offhandedly buy himself a gun from the Uber driver and most of the things he does since is the sort of thing that would get him in trouble with the law if he were the very same color as Collin, often with grill-grinning antagonism. There are many exchanges between Collin and his ex-girlfriend/co-worker Val (Janina Gavankar) that serve to implicitly and later explicitly state just how easy it is for Collin to get in trouble for nothing while Miles is able to walk away after inciting that trouble.

But the very bond between Collin and Miles is a genuine one, chemistry that comes effortlessly from Diggs and Casal being childhood friends without feeling like cheats because both actors are able to craft distinct flesh-and-blood identities with their own personal lives and conflicts, so it’s painfully easy why it appears Collin is strong on refusing to cut Miles loose even if it appears as though he must. Plus, if getting to write their own dialogue feels like stacking the deck in their favor, their delivery of impromptu raps to describe their current situations and states, swapping verses and even words back and forth like they’re passing a blunt, a wonderful connective version of dialogue between the two characters (and something that comes natural to both actors – Diggs won a Tony for his charming performances in Hamilton and Casal’s main career is poetry as a regular of Def Poetry).

blindspotting

This relationship is the core of Blindspotting‘s deft handle on tone: if the audience is having a good time, it’s because Collin and Miles are having a good time, usually in the presence of Miles’ relaxed but no-nonsense homelife with his wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and son Sean (Ziggy Baitinger). If the movie is tense and upsetting it’s because tension is brewing between their relationship or because some other urgency regarding Collin’s closing parole status is causing added stress for him that nobody around him recognizes.

Or he could be reliving the incident of that very same night we catch up with him three days before his parole’s end, where he watched a police officer (Ethan Embry) gun down a black civilian Randall Marshall (Travis Parker) on his way to make curfew. It is a moment that haunts Collin directly and indirectly all throughout Blindspotting, a reminder that all the negative perceptions of black people and the pressures keeping them from responding to a changing world have a dead end at the wrong turn. If there is anything like an inciting incident to this shaggy hang out plot, it is this wake up moment.

blindspotting-domestic-trailer-1_scruberthumbnail_0

And yet it can not be overstated how absolutely funny it is in between those angry and occasionally violent releases. Blindspotting does not play around with serious revelations such as that nor abandon them, but it’s impressive how well the movie is able to unwind at most of the harshness with a good reminder that Collin and Miles have each other and especially using every turn life gives them to show the difference between the two characters and how they can roll with Oakland’s development whether it’s a health drink or a developer’s party. It’s not a message movie despite its lack of subtlety in its stances, it’s an observational one and one without any distance towards the characters. Blindspotting is the sort of movie that thinks everybody deserves to make it out ok in the end, especially Miles despite him having the most apparent flaws (and there is at least one scene where Miles looks REALLY ugly to the audience, but the film knows how to confront that directly).

Honestly, the only real flaw (other than some clunky transitions) I can consider a possibility against the film (read: seen it brought up by filmgoers I respect) is its late attempts at an unconventional structure with two climaxes close by, but I can’t say I’m way too bothered by it. For one thing, the second climax feels less like a restart and more like Estrada ratcheting the tension to its highest point. For another, the script is structured that way because Blindspotting is the story of two men, not one, and their personal conflicts are not the same. I mean, in the end, that’s just the whole thesis of Blindspotting, beyond giving us the best and most gorgeous portrait (I hesitate to say eulogy even if the movie is aware of what’s to come) of Oakland’s urban side: Collin and Miles may come from the same place, but they don’t come from the same place and they’re not going to reach the same ends. But it’s great to watch them take the journey together and hope they can stay together for as long as they can.

636672203689016532-051bsg-157

…Are the Same That Burn Crosses.

http3a2f2fmedia-cineblog-it2fb2fb592fblackkklansman-sinossi-ufficiale-e-prima-foto-del-film-di-spike-lee-1

I like to think of myself as a formalist. And Spike Lee’s latest film BlacKkKlansman is by most angles formally and aesthetically sound, with a brilliant leitmotif by Terence Blanchard that varies in tempo and key depending on the mood and tone of a given scene and radically propulsive editing by his regular Barry Alexander Brown. I mean, it would have to be at least some amount of aesthetically distinct to win Lee the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Rarely do I find myself put off by the actual content of a film if the film attached works extremely well as cinema and Lee has long proven himself one of the most adept directors in utilizing cinematic tools to amplify his attitude and using his vast knowledge of film history as one of the industry’s resident scholars to turn the medium’s ugliness against itself.* I frankly think BlacKkKlansman is a movie where he accomplishes this, so I do walk away thinking it’s a good movie.

But – and this is where I have to admit Lee is infinitely more qualified to tell how angry is “angry enough” when it comes to the United States’ atmosphere of racism – I don’t think BlacKkKlansman is angry enough and that’s disappointing to me.

To my knowledge, the script was originally written by Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz until Spike Lee joined last September, apparently rewriting a part of the script with Kevin Willmott (who worked with Lee on his previous film, Chi-Raq). The parts Lee and Willmott rewrote are easy to pick out and I’m not sure they outnumber Wachtel and Rabinowitz’s contribution. For there are moments that full of an unmistakable charge towards racism in America (particularly the lecture prologue on the scientific proof of white supremacy by an unflattered Alec Baldwin feels entirely like something I’d expect if I saw C.S.A.: Confederate States of America and only its being preceded by a famous shot in 1930s cinema is what prevents me from assuming it’s all Willmott), but there’s also a lot of neutral summarizing of the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel).

maxresdefault

In 1972, he was recruited into the Colorado Springs Police Department and eventually roses from the records room to working as an undercover attendant of Black Power figurehead Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins)’s local speech to initiating his own investigation into the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan just by lifting up his office phone, calling local chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), and proclaiming his hate of all non-Aryan races in the earshot of everyone in his office, including fellow officers Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi). Flip meets on Ron’s behalf face-to-face with the chapter, including the intense paranoiac Felix (Jasper Pääkönen), while Jimmy is recording the encounters and Ron continues to correspond with the Klan over the phone, eventually reaching National Director Grand Wizard himself David Duke (a brittle-yet-prim Topher Grace in his non-Ocean’s-movie career-best).

Most of this material is presented in the cleanest manner and I mean completely clean, like two steps away from Wikipedia summary if not for the liberties the screenplay takes with the story. Not just how matter-of-fact Lee’s direction of moments like Ron’s beginnings in the records room or his mingling with local black student union president Patrice (Laura Harrier), but how absolutely unwilling it is to delve into the complications of the matter. Flip says some vile things to Ron while undercover, some of them to his own face, and there’s never a doubt on the film’s mind that Flip’s aggression is all a game. Despite the Chief of Police claiming in one scene that Ture is a threat to the peace, Stallworth insists in one scene that he is not and the Chief accepts that he is not. The police force depicted here are all unconflicted good guys except for one character by Frederick Weller who exists solely to be booed and jeered as the “bad apple” in the force. In general, despite Patrice’s only major contribution being somebody Ron has to protect and occasionally explaining how racism is institutionalized, the film refuses to confront Ron’s desire to battle the system while being unfortunately a part of that system as it arranges for its depiction of the system to be altruistic. The only disorganization comes from the buffoonish and dumb hicks that are the resident KKK, an approach that feels like the sort of white liberal reassuring I would not have expected from Lee.

I don’t want to lay this on the feet of the white co-writers necessarily. I know that Flip’s Jewish identity was an invention of theirs and a mid-film monologue regarding his feeling of assimilation among white people is one of the few times Flip gets to register as a complex character with his own arc, though it is unfortunate that the entire arc gets contained to one scene. Mostly, it just feels like the main priority was just putting together the episodic investigation with only a few avenues for it to truly become a Spike Lee joint, which it does the more and more it leads to its own finale after a wandering middle where the pieces shuffle inch by inch. That it doesn’t seem interested in talking about racism ingrained in the police force is unfortunate, but I’m gonna assume the man who made Do the Right Thing knows all about that anyway.

124296

Anyway, the “Spike Lee joint” material pops in every now and again after that Alec Baldwin rant (which mind you has terrific editing to imply how flustered and foolish even the most “learned” person can be when all of his mistakes are public). Enough to outweigh the bland stuff, if not in quantity then in quality. Ture’s speech is superimposed by beautiful black faces in chiaroscuro lighting as he verbally tears down perceptions of ugliness towards black people, making us see exactly what inspiration Ture sees in his fellow peers. The most powerful cue of Blanchard’s theme appears at a cold reveal involving a Klan shooting range, defiant and sad at once. Most impressively, Harry Belafonte delivers an account of the horrifying Jesse Washington lynching in 1916 in gruesome detail accompanied by photos while cross-cut with the Klan watching the infamous Birth of a Nation and celebrating the Gus lynching scene, defiantly condemning one of the foundational motion pictures in cinematic history and its acclaim and legacy.

And yet it only feels like bits and pieces have that fiery soul to them rather than the whole movie and even while it ends on its most impassioned moment, involving a direct wake-up call to remind us that a few prank phone calls and averted cross-burnings did not stop racism and violence from remaining in the US, it’s of a ballsy unwieldy move involving archive footage and a static final shot that feels dynamic in its message that some might call the messy side of Spike Lee. Personally, I wish the entire film was that kind of ballsy messiness (after all, I don’t doubt we’d still have moments I loved most with that don’t give a fuck attitude). It’s the most galvanizing moment the entire movie has contextualizing the story with the current atmosphere and it’s impossible to ignore the message from that moment, misfire or not. Maybe Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting both spoiled me, and I can’t pretend a movie led by this kind of performance from Washington (who has clearly inherited his father’s confidence) is boring, but I was not expecting the filmmaker who had been fighting these battles before Boots Riley or Daveed Diggs had to be pulling some of his punches.

*Matter of fact, now that I have that down, I’m thinking BlacKkKlansman would make a worthwhile double feature with Inglourious Basterds, which has similar observations and practices towards cinema. Ironic given the notorious feud between Lee and Quentin Tarantino.

blackkklansman-movie-trailer-large-4

Blood’s Thicker Than Mud

tumblr_p2ar3wmgbo1qgfscco1_540

I have only one criticism of Mudbound, Dee Rees’ sophomore feature adapting Hillary Jordan’s novel, so I’m gonna open with it and then be flatout done talking shit about Mudbound. Especially because it isn’t really an entirely fair criticism and it isn’t even close to justifying the amount of sleeping done on the film. But here I go anyway stating my obvious feeling about Mudbound: It is not as interesting looking a film as I’d like it to be. Much as I am happy to see Rachel Morrison’s name show up on the Oscar nominees for Best Cinematography (the very first woman to receive the honor), it is way too clean for the grubby tale of generational hardships in the South that Mudbound is, threatening to be the one element that gets in the way of allowing us to sink into the many points of view Mudbound provides because of how aesthetically picturesque the imagery is. It’s not as though Morrison doesn’t know how to settle the tone of the story, especially in the darker moments where she’s so mindful of shadows and rural color tones in a dusty olden manner, but it’s way too sharp in a modern way to not hold the viewer at a divide in the time setting.

But of course, “you’re too good at your job” is the best kind of criticism to have for some. And I like to think that my expectations were way too high on account of Dee Rees’ debut feature Pariah being handily one of the best-looking movies of the decade, possibly the century if I’m wildin’ a bit. And considering the quality of literally everything else in Mudbound, it’s still no excuse for the lack of marketing and campaigning on the part of Netflix, the lack of attention given to it by viewers, and the lack of love given it to it by an awards season that was DEFINITELY aware of its existence but still acted like better movies were around this year.

Yeah, I think at this point it should be obvious this is less a review than a rant, but I’ll try to reign it back after one more unqualified superlative: Mudbound is not only better than Pariah in otherwise every way, making the sort of evolutionary step in direction one dreams of out of the talented Rees, it’s also better than possibly all of Best Picture nominees this year*.

tumblr_ozmqcunord1s8esgpo3_1280

OK, wait one more superlative and this one I will be able to qualify: In spite of Bright and Mute‘s… *giggle* “world-building” and the production value of a Jolie film and all those super pigs, I handily believe Mudbound is the most ambitious film Netflix has released. Narrative and thematic ambition, mind you. There’s no super-pigs here. What Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams have managed to thread out of Jordan’s novel is a sprawling view of 1940s Mississippi and when I say sprawling, I mean sprawling. The screenplay casts its net wide on what it whats to observe about the state of existence in the years of and after World War II, what that means for a black woman to feel obligated out of survival to have to neglect her own children for the well-being of another, what that means for a black man to be in a position where he can build or earn his own property and yet the state of American society steels leaves him to be trampled underfoot, what it means to be a white woman resigned to domesticity too quickly to stifle her own romantic dreams and sinking into misery, what it means to be an entitled white man on the road to being the gargoyle of his monstrous father but desperate to establish a decent household in financially hard times.

The black woman is Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), the black man is her husband Hap (Rob Morgan). The white woman is Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), the white man is her husband Henry (Jason Clarke), son of the odious racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks). In the middle of all of this is still the perspectives of Florence and Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), both of whom are drafted overseas to Europe in the thick of the war and discover a vastly more different environment than America – especially Ronsel, treated less objectionably for his skin color (this watering down of Europe’s own racism would possibly be more objectionable to me if it weren’t co-written by a black woman) – then return to the same old miserable South they came from.

tumblr_ozy6snhtk41rr1756o6_1280

It’s a film of many themes and many perspective (pretty much all the characters I named except Pappy have their points of view adopted by the movie): masculine camaraderie, surrounding violence, both sides of abandonment (as we later learn more about Ronsel’s life in Europe), the trauma of war, the resilience of enlightened youth versus the resignment of tired old. Race, gender, class. It’s all explored in this tapestry of the toughness of life and all the angles they have to come from: man or nature or cruelty or desperation. None of these elements are approached with less than the amount of intimacy that Rees afforded her lead character in Pariah. It’s the kind of storytelling that makes me think that Rees could make any movie in the world from this point on and do a decent job with it.

But as Ebert said, it’s not what you’re about, it’s how you’re about it. All the Great American Novel approaches in the world could not get me over the moon about this movie if it weren’t an incredible piece of craftsmanship, such as how Mako Kamitsuna deftly cuts into moments to give ownership of the moment to a particular character so we can understand their inner commentary, sometimes to more than one character at a time just by mere patience and condensing all of the things Mudbound wants to say into a powerful 2-hour package.

And there’s an even bigger gambit in between all of the sound design making us feel the infertile soil beneath the characters’ feet reflecting off of their inability to grow out of their situation with the decision to use multiple narrative voiceovers for our six characters, which is just an insanely bad idea most times. Mudbound is not one of those times, Rees and the soundtrack fully able to space out those voiceovers to work for interiority of character and them lift off of them for sweeping grandiosity, a providing of several pieces of a larger picture of a time and place that is far in the past without having the same sort of divide the cinematography gives us. This isn’t necessarily something that would be easy without the help of one of the year’s best ensembles, who prove to be just as adept at soulful recitations of thoughts as they are at weary postures showcasing how hard life has stepped on them** and their struggle to still retain humanity and dignity in all of that, but the fact that Rees could make such an outrageous move in only her second feature and pull it off without a false note ringing in any of the voiceover work should be enough of a indication of what a miracle Netflix’s most worthy Oscar contender yet has been.

*The only real nominee that gives it a run for its money rhymes with Thantom Phread.
**And mind you after everything the characters go through, the ending feels so emotionally right. I felt like crying.

tumblr_ozu5s9siic1qaeuuzo2_540

Stay Woke

Film Title: Get Out

Director/Writer Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a special sort of screenplay the likes of with I can’t remember having encountered since Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day. It is the sort of screenplay where the writer wanted every single element that comes up to turn around full circle by the end of the film like Chekov’s Gun on maximum. Which leads to storytelling on paper that is rich enough to have the audience speculate on a character’s eating habits (even though Peele has gone on record claiming any possible reading of said moment is inadvertent on his part) or the motivations of its antagonists as they traumatize and assault black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) on his visit to meet the white family of his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). And this is especially wonderful when a movie is as eager to function as commentary on anything, let alone racial commentary which Get Out is for the majority of its duration. Very rich and deep commentary on race that also shows off Peele’s knowledge about horror structure and how he uses it (namely the beats of The Stepford Wives, itself a commentary on gender roles). That and Peele having a great handle on the comedy to keep it from undercutting the unsettling control of atmosphere and tone.

Oh yes, despite the spoilerific marketing driving home the idea that Get Out is an all-the-way horror film from the go-to indie horror house Blumhouse, Get Out IS in the end a horror-comedy. There is a sect of its fans that argue it’s not, but there’s way too prevalent an edge of satirical surrealism and a subplot that is so often brought up calling it a “subplot” feels inadequate is so unambiguously comedic in execution (not only does this subplot have an integral part in the final act, it practically gets the last word in the movie) that I can’t imagine anybody trying to sell that Get Out is not a horror-comedy unless they feel there’s a negative connotation with associating it with comedy. Which to be fair, it could be assumed that Peele – best-known for his comedic partnership with Keegan Michael-Key – was unconfident enough in his ability to make a horror movie that he had to use comedy as a crutch, but whether or not that’s the case, it just feels like almost every single choice we see on-screen was one he had absolute control over. He certainly had that much clout as an artist today.

get-out-catherine-keener

Anyway, I mentioned the subplot of Chris’ best friend, TSA worker Rod (Lil Rey Howery), and his paranoia about the trip Chris is taking without elaborating on the actual plot as is, so let me backpedal as is. Like I said, Chris and Rose go on a trip up to what looks like it has to be an isolated New England town (though the film was shot in Alabama) Rose’s overtly rich white liberal parents neurosurgeon Dean and therapist Missy, who are given perhaps the most inspired piece of casting in the form of the wonderful Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener. Both of them, especially Dean, are remarkably fulsome to Chris’ arrival and it only gets worse later on when they have a backyard dinner party where the degree to which Chris is complimented and questioned on his racial makeup, how it affects his experience in America, and – most creepily – his bodily anatomy becomes aggressive and disarming and yet, shockingly, not antagonistic. In fact, the only outright form of antagonism is from Rose’s douchey masculine brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), drinking and trying to try MMA moves on Chris.

And that’s the wonderful surprise about Get Out and its tackling of racism: we’re used to a certain portrayal of racists in pop culture and media that it has to be angry white conservatives who absolutely scowl at black people are uneducated and so on, but not here. No, Peele is not interested in that but in how white liberals’ eagerness to be so sincerely helpful to the black man can be translated into patronizing microaggressions and that sometimes meaning well doesn’t mean shit if you’re making someone uncomfortable. And sometimes you can still be tone-deaf about some things, like having a black groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson) and maid (Betty Gabriel).

get-out-2017-3-news

The sincerity of the villains’ actions and comments is legitimate. They seem to be motivated by a fascination with black people as possibly superior beings, not inferior and a desire to… well, I don’t want to spoil it, but it doesn’t feel like the villains hate black people at all. This sort of sharp exaggeration of how people want to look progressive without much identifying a minority as an individual is eye-opening to people like me who fit exactly into the target of this movie’s satire (and the ones it pisses off… well, the less said about them, the better).

There’s two main weapons to creating a satire so effective alongside Peele’s knowledge of the horror genre and they’re kind of complimentary to each other. The first is that the cast is just perfect. Like no argument about it, every single performance is perfect. Keith Stanfield, an actor I love so much he’s the sole reason I’m willing to watch Adam Wingard’s next movie, has little screentime and yet embodies two distinct personalities (one relaxed and genuine, the other restrained and mysterious) eerily and effectively. Keener and Whitford layer cringe dialogue of out-of-touch characters with sinister attitudes and that’s before the obvious reveal of their intentions with Chris. Gabriel certainly made a memorable turn in one single scene and one repeated “No” over and over (it helps that her big scene involves a constant close-up on Peele’s call), but best in show is unambiguously Kaluuya.

Because the second thing is that Peele’s trusts Kaluuya’s reactions to everything he’s being asked and going through that Peele’s direction can play with the ridiculousness of this situation being overt and almost comic. Indeed, that’s how a lot of the inquiries – namely “would you consider being black to be advantage or disadvantage?” or “I would have voted for Obama a third time” – are presented during the day as laughable as a Key & Peele skit, especially the dinner party. Kaluuya’s reactions and disarmament off-sets it from waving aside the problematic element.

And then there are the moments at night, which are intense and on Chris’ wavelength so that Kaluuya can guide the viewer to being unnervingly helpless just from his eyes watering and his hindered movements. And the movie gets visually interesting here, with Missy’s therapy sessions being a vehicle for engulfing blacks and ominous firelit interiors.

All of this trips when Get Out goes full-throttle in its final 20 minutes as a horror film, in which case it just becomes all the sort of disinteresting Blumhouse tropes I’ve never been moved by without an ounce of self-awareness until its final beats. This is also however the moment where the audience I was in the theater with (especially my girlfriend) got exhilarated by the action taken in a cathartic way, so that may just be me. In any case, the movie doesn’t stop with the subtle race jabs (especially with how Chris escapes), the design of the Armitage’s domestic dungeon, and the overall craft of Peele’s work on this most impressive and intelligent of film debuts until the credits roll, so what can I say except gesture at the great film Peele made up until that point.

mv5bzty2njg1owetyzdmyi00y2exlwe2zjatm2uwymy4zmi2zdbjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzq4ody2nja-_v1_

History by Lightning Leaves Scorched Earth

the_birth_of_a_nation_war_scene

I really wonder if I am remotely qualified to review one of the most notorious pictures of all time, The Birth of a Nation, in any manner at all – whether approaching it simply as movie or looking back at the century since it came out taking the entire world of American cinema by storm (and that’s me being very reserved – many of its technical introductions, if not innovations, really transcend nationality of film) having canonized it as an irremovable part of our film history. It is a landmark for better or worse and it’s more mandated as essential viewing for anybody interested in film as a document of historical sensibilities or the craft of the medium itself. And it is immediately accessible to anyone – being in the public domain, on Netflix Streaming Services, and on YouTube, among other ways to find it.

Especially in the face of the state of racial relations here in 2015, it’s especially a tough question to ask if I’m to really shrug off its disagreeable politics and attitudes to just judge the film on solely on its aesthetics or if I’m going to have to recognize that D.W. Griffith’s creative ambition and his narrow viewpoints come from the same places and we have to hit them both head on.

But The Birth of a Nation was always that towering mammoth of a historical picture that I always had half a mind to look back on and review on my own grounds and now that it is 2015 – literally 100 years since 1915, the year of the film’s creation – it comes a point that I realize it is the time to jump into that picture and try to shake out my feelings about it. Though, the fact that 2015 is also a year of significant events alongside the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the Baltimore protests, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland’s deaths, or the Charleston shooting, deserves some mention, I’m not gonna be able to apply this to the The Birth of a Nation‘s criticism the same way that I will when I finally post on Panel & Frame about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly sometime this coming week.

In the meantime, The Birth of a Nation will be something to simply approach as what it is. That’s it.

hqdefault

And what is the movie on the narrative is the ties that bind and the discord that splits two families close to each other during the Civil War that changed America irrevocably and its aftermath Reconstruction, based on their relations to each other and where they stand. The Northern based family is the Stonemans – abolitionist patriarch Senator Austin (Ralph Lewis), his daughter Elsie (Griffith’s interminable muse Lillian Gish), and his sons Tod (Robert Harron) and Phil (Elmer Clifton). In the Old South resides the more voluminous Camerons – young Southern Gentleman Ben (Henry B. Walthall) will be our primary protagonist and not simply by screentime proxy, but there is also a notable presence in his sisters Flora (Mae Marsh) and Margaret (Miriam Cooper).

In the first act of this infamously 3-hour silent picture, The Stoneman sons join the Union Army while the Cameron sons enter the war on the side of the Confederate (Ben being joined by his brothers Wade and Duke, played by George Beranger and Maxfield Stanley respectively) and so begins the tragedy of their place while the world changes around them as all but Ben are casualties of the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Ben however is still put under legal jeopardy when he gains notoriety as a Confederate Colonel and is forced to be attended to medically in the North by none other than Elsie herself, whom we are early on revealed that Ben has long held a romantic torch for. Elsie and Mrs. Cameron are able to make an audience with President Abraham Lincoln himself (Joseph Henabery) and successfully make a case for Ben’s presidential pardon alongside Lincoln’s many attempted policies to reconcile the Confederacy and Union into one nation again after the Civil War has torn the United States apart.

Lincoln’s post-war attempts are cut short as John Wilkes Booth (who I just realized is played by Raoul Walsh! THAT Raoul Walsh! The guy who made White Heat and High Sierra and if you haven’t seen those, stop and go watch them! Speaking of directors in little roles, here how about that John Ford playing a Clansman?!) executes the President shockingly at the Ford Theatre and Sen. Stoneman and his fellow Congressmen begin to corrupt the Reconstruction to their own vitriolic means against the South as the first Act of The Birth of a Nation concludes.

lincolnbirth

And I’m gonna take a break from synopsizing the moving picture to note how remarkably restrained the First Act is in its attitudes, though not less than obvious that Griffith had clear sympathies for the Confederacy beyond narrative. Romanticizing Confederate soldiers is still a classical storytelling trope used to this very day without obligating the work to share the points of view of the Confederacy (the last notable usage to my mind is essentially the Firefly/Serenity franchise, albeit space Confederates), but Griffith goes above and beyond to portray the Southern way of life as fragile and essential – the Cameron daughters particularly as framed as pure young virginal allegories for how perfect life already is while the politicians in favor of the abolition of slavery, namely Sen. Stoneman, are all bluntly high and mighty and flaunting in their idea that they know what is best and that change and progress is necessary (I really fought about whether or not to put progress in scare quotes to portray the movie’s attitude accurately, but I really can’t even pretend to put myself in Griffith’s bigoted perspective). And the minstrel presence of two blackface actors portraying black servants of the families already serves as precursor to the truly ghastly Second Act of The Birth of a Nation, where blackface becomes more than just caricature but an appalling way to visually identify the villains as being the dark and blackened men who act on animalistic instincts in desire of sex – as is the case of Gus (Walter Long) – or supremacy, in the case of the mulatto antagonist Silas Lynch (George Siegmann).

Which causes me to realize I haven’t explicitly acknowledged what it is that portrays The Birth of a Nation as such a problematic film. Let me take a deep breath:

06-birth-of-a-nation1-w750-h560-2x

The screenplay by Griffith and Frank D. Woods is adapted from a novel called The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr. and the play Dixon also produced after the novel’s publication. The title of that novel is based particularly on the events of the Second Act where Ben himself is now moved to action by free blacks now mobbing their way into influencing the South to a darker age and, by taking said action, creates the Ku Klux Klan to fight off the Reconstruction.

… Yes. The Birth of a Nation truly shows its distorted colors in its second half and desperately maintains that they’re red, white, and blue.

Anyway, what makes this most shocking is how aesthetically powerful the movie is. There’s a reason it has always been considered a gigantic snapshot of all the capabilities of the cinematic medium in the same vein as Citizen Kane and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and that comes from how impressively stimulating it is. D.W. Griffith brings to the table panoramic shots in full frame 1.33:1, knowing just how to accommodate the scale to fill the image with nostalgic liveliness in the early scenes and surrounding action in the war and raid scenes at the same time using the implication of off-screen space. It utilizes the pointed perspectives of irises to portray the intimate and character-based, alongside the length of the picture desperately attempting to expand the scope into more of an epic and involving atmosphere. It competently contains challenging night scenes and occasionally moves the camera further into the lives Ben and Lynch. Its cross-cutting, of course, by Griffith himself in moments of peril and tension – namely in the infamous scene where Gus chases down Flora while Ben races to rescue her – is the stuff of legend. But what is of course worth noting is that most of these skills are not without precedent, only that The Birth of a Nation is a big enough splash to pioneer them into the basic and involuntary artistry of film and a momentous enough picture in its ambition to be admired for its ability to say the things the way it can.

What really surprises me, though, are the storytelling techniques that are ahead of their time in The Birth of a Nation in both the best ways and less than pleasant ways, and I think they all culminate in its war scenes in the First Act. Continuously pummeling scenes of violence that does the impossible (according to Francois Truffaut) of propelling further and further into the fight without any excitement, but without any sound work to give one more dimension to the experiential part of the film. I especially think sound would have really benefit the slow and lengthy shots where we watch each of the Stoneman and Cameron brothers die and languish, having the unsettling rhythm of war turn more and more distant as their gazes become vacant and we watch their souls leave them. It’s agonizing in a manner it aims for, but not with the same potency as the rest of the film pumps through its veins. What does give the unpleasantness of war its biggest potency is dousing the frame of the war scenes in a visceral red until all is settled and we return to the usual grey of silent cinema, now having more of a thematic meaning as the rubble after the battle has reduced everything to dust. A devastating portrait of war that pre-dates All Quiet on the Western Front, the most devastating of war films.

1321321194_1

You see, the formal construction of The Birth of a Nation is immaculate and while I would not hesitate to claim the following film Griffith made in vague response to this one, Intolerance, would better take artistic flourishes with the tools Griffith displayed here, it is impossible to argue against The Birth of a Nation‘s spot in canon no matter how much we might resent it.

And I really have to admit to resenting it now.

The First Act of The Birth of a Nation is relatively fine, the story it uses its impressive tools for is a naive fiction based on romanticism with its ugliness merely sitting in its pocket. I’d say if it weren’t for that First Act, the movie would be hard to understand what there is to admire about it. Its racism is muted, never impossible to ignore, but sidelined in the way of its emotional manipulation towards faces as genial and attractive as Gish’s and Walthall’s. It’s essentially no different than recognizing Gone with the Wind‘s grandeur alongside its objectionable content.

But that Second Act… that Second Act is like suddenly finding a real nightmare on your hands. It’s the darker side of how skilled someone can be in crafting a despicable narrative in art when he has the talent to do so. That Second Act is completely morally reprehensible, made all the more shocking because it tells its tale almost as well as the First Act, if not for how obviously it dips its hand in melodramatics then.

Birth of a Nation - 1915

For one, Lynch is already introduced as an unnerving psycho who’s devious grin and buggy eyes is just more and more of a manner of turning black people in this movie into cartoons, but it’s nothing compared to the scenes portraying black representatives and voters in Washington as picking their feet, and eating fried chicken, and drinking like, after the Stonemans and Camerons are given broad but sophisticated presences all throughout Act I, we have here the worst Looney Tunes short in existence.

In the meantime, it underlines this misrepresentation of black people with the elitist suggestion that Congress is FORCING white people to salute and allow black soldiers to pass and legislating mixed marriages and at one point a handshake becomes a point of contention between Ben, a revered war hero, and Lynch. Because “are these the sort of people you want marrying your daughters or sitting in your courtrooms? For shame!”

It only gets worse underneath when it uses these tensions to justify summary execution of a black character, turn it around to imply a white man’s life is in danger and more valuable, and finally lets its melodrama go full throttle to release Lynch upon the Stonemans as living plague targeting Elsie herself for his lecherous desires. And my, how fearful I am of how persuasively the actor’s performances and Griffith’s editing takes charge of expressing the peril of Dr. Cameron’s legal charges, the daring heroics of Ben’s Klan riding down to save the two families and the South, the implication that there are “loyal” black folk as well who “know their place” (really, the entire perspective of Griffith’s racism seems less malicious and more absent-minded and that’s severely depressing in what says about American culture in the later 1800s to 1910s), the “unity” that comes from bigotry and subjugating the black population, and… oh boy! The best damn part! the implication of divinity and peace in that same amount of subjugation by tinting the frame again into a golden shimmer and superimposing the image of Jesus Christ over the happy people once the blacks are back in their place and kept from our sacred voting booths by intimidation (I know I stated I’d not to apply 2015 racial relations to this, but seeing mounted horsemen guarding those booths with rifles to scare blacks out really says a lot especially today)! Oh God Bless Us Every One!

It makes me want to spit the taste out of my mouth as soon as it’s off and I can’t help knowing how effortlessly the film feeds these bias ideals towards sexuality, race, and class, by the confidence and stature of its technical achievements. Maybe the fact that we recognize its persuasiveness is exactly what holds it as an eternal tenet towards moviemaking and the expressiveness of the visual and image-based, but you cannot by any means separate the politics from the art when the two are so very much intertwined as they are here. Especially in consideration of how aggressive it announces those principles it has around its second half. It’s just how it goes. I respect as a picture, but in the end, I don’t think anyone is obligated to. And I wouldn’t dare suggest one should reject their feelings for it, one way or the other. But that doesn’t mean I have to give it all of my respect nor do I have to look up to Griffith or the hypocrisies of this movie’s portrait of America’s virtue as threatened by integrating black people and whites together and then ending on this pompous note:

Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead — the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace.

… Fuck off.

454399_036