…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

Shine a Light

spotlight3

Spotlight was a movie I was relatively late to the party on. Not that I was completely late to it, but by the time it was even on my radar, it was the most locked Best Picture nominee.

And upon reading the synopsis for the film, explaining itself as retelling the 2001 story of the titular investigative team for the Boston Globe as it digs into a story of conspiracy within the Catholic Church to cover up the sexual abuse of minors as perpetrated by several priests within the Church. If that sort of historical biopic backdrop for social issues heavily moral doesn’t sound like Oscarbait, you don’t know Oscarbait.

And upon seeing it’s directed by Thomas McCarthy, I had a lump in my throat, for my very first exposure to his work was earlier in the year with the appalling Adam Sandler dramedy mess The Cobbler. A reprehensible enough movie to make me wary to see anything else done by anybody involved with that film in the slightest – as a Wu-Tang Clan fan, I’m not even sure I want to listen to Method Man anymore. So, since THAT had to be my first Tom McCarthy picture, I was afraid that Spotlight would be similarly incompetent with the worst possible material to screw up.

Now, on the one hand, Spotlight indeed turned out to be the Oscarbait we were expecting. But, it is phenomenally well-crafted Oscarbait, sophisticated enough that I don’t hesitate in calling it my second favorite of the Best Picture nominees, even if Mad Max: Fury Road is the only one that I think belongs there. Much of the praise on the film is rightly given to how McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer dedicate their focus on the painstaking meticulous manner of digging through as many sources and asking as many questions as possible to slowly bring together a full picture on how far and deep does this conspiracy run, with editor Tom McArdle being the film’s biggest weapon taking time to show how messy the pile of information that the Spotlight team has to work with is before letting them making their tedious cracking at it run right on without any slowdowns nor making it seem like this work was easy.

mv5bmtq5njgymdm4nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtqymdeynze-_v1__sx1617_sy873_

The other main source of praise, the one that actively has my head scratching, is where I’ve seen people claim Spotlight is entirely unbiased to the events the team is reporting. Which isn’t true at all. Spotlight could have been an objective recollection of the events (though, without going into the morality, I don’t think it’s possible to be objective about child rape), but it’s not, for the other shocking strength of Spotlight is how it achieves being an ensemble character study.

Well, ideally, the CHARACTER central to this is Spotlight, but that Spotlight team is made up of head Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James). All of whom are humans whose reactions we have to witness as they’re digging up more and more information, most of whom are lapsed Catholics themselves who now have to witness the Church in a different light. It doesn’t override the movie’s intentions to be a story about how the system of journalism works, but it’s there and it’s sneakily snuck into the places where we think the investigation is at the front-and-center of the movie, only to see McArdle cut many times to the faces listening to the victims rather than the faces talking to them (Spotlight is not at all dismissive of the victims either, the moments where we listen to their accounts are sobering without manipulating the audience the gravitas of the recollections). There are few visual noted visual flourishes, for Spotlight is a very muted film (my first reaction was almost to add on to the “this would be a better film as a documentary” brigade only to figure that to miss the point), but its most obvious one is how it portrays that act of listening as taking its mental and emotional toll on each of the characters as they realize what grim reality this paints and what repercussions their story will have.

Spotlight is of course not the only one affected by this – new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who is trying to get a good feel for this new position of his, and section editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) begin at ends in regards to this story (Baron being the one who prods Spotlight into taking it and taking brunt for it as well as being an outsider), while Rezendes constantly compels exhausted attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to pull out a lot of old skeletons out of the legal closet to help Spotlight get decisive information on the case while attorney Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) regrettably maintains his representation for the church.

tumblr_o10yl9c3mr1r9pt1so6_500

The machinations of the journalistic and legal process becomes a smokescreen for a picture of all the people affected by this case from the outside and later, a portrait of Boston as a city with this as a dark shadow behind it (there is at least one shot to my memory of a church overlooking our characters, though I can’t say I buy that as the movie not dipping its hand). And this wouldn’t work half as much if the cast were not as successful as they were in making characters whose sole function is to move us closer and closer to unveiling the truth we already know, with Tucci being the standout best. Ruffalo is the only one who actually gets caught acting. Like, really caught acting. He is the movie’s biggest weakness as he stares as goes out of his way to broadcast ticks of Rezendes and overshoots his Big Acting Moment in the movie (everybody gets one). That he’s the one actor with an Oscar nomination for this film makes me slightly bitter, but he’s outnumbered by so many restrained performances under McCarthy that turn humanity into drama instantly assuages that bemusement of mine.

It’s not All the President’s Men and it’s not going to be. Nor is Spotlight trying to be, since All the President’s Men asphyxiates itself on tension and paranoia while Spotlight is not much more than a well-crafted social piece by a director who knows where his strengths are. It doesn’t break the mold of journalism pictures and I wouldn’t make it a Best Picture nominee and yes, it is at times semi-anonymous for those reasons, but it’s satisfying and intelligent and that’s all it needed to be to go and redeem the name of a director I was barely familiar with.

On the nicest note to possibly end on, I have since seen all the other Thomas McCarthy films – The Station AgentThe Visitor, and Win Win – and can safely say McCarthy is a really good director. A very strong director of character and acting, in case Spotlight didn’t already display that. Maybe I can pull a retrospective soon…

mv5bmtcxodu0ntk1mv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzmymdeynze-_v1_sx640_sy720_