This Is a Movie Review: A Wild Real-Life KKK Infiltration Makes ‘BlacKkKlansman’ an Essential Spike Lee Joint

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CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally published on News Cult in August 2018.

Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkönen, Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Robert John Burke, Corey Hawkins

Director: Spike Lee

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for Incendiary Language and Images, Plus a Few Outbursts of Violence

Release Date: August 10, 2018

Going undercover is the most nerve-wracking work I can possibly imagine. Living in a constant state of dishonesty causes so many problems. Maybe this is one type of lying that can be justified morally, but that does not mean it is without consequences. It warps your sense of self and tears at the seams of all your close relationships. I have never had to go undercover myself, and thank God, because watching it in movies is stressful enough. The undercover experiences of Jewish Colorado Springs detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) only serve to confirm this perception. But the approach of his black partner, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), reveals that at least one person is built to handle the cognitive dissonance of going undercover.

Stallworth and Zimmerman’s infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan is the electrifying and infuriatingly relevant story of BlacKkKlansman, one of the most crowd-pleasing and just plain best joints in Spike Lee’s career. My main reaction to this flick is that if the real Stallworth is anything like the way Washington plays him, then he is one of the most righteously insane people who has ever lived. This is the first black officer in the history of the Colorado Springs police department, and his instinct when he sees a classified ad in the newspaper for the KKK is to contact them for more information. Furthermore, he treats his phone conversations with David Duke (Topher Grace) as an opportunity to pull off a long con to prove to the notorious grand wizard that he is not so adept at telling apart the races as he thinks he is. Stallworth’s actions may put himself and his fellow officers in the line of cross-burning fire, and Zimmerman calls him out for treating what should be a job as a crusade. But when unabashed racism is still delivering deadly violence to its targets, bold action is required to keep people safe.

Lee, of course, does not shy away from the rotting, anti-humanist message at the core of the KKK, but directly calling it out for what it is can still be a lot of fun. The entirety of Stallworth’s dialogue seems designed to inspire the dual reactions of “Can you believe what he’s saying?” and “That’s probably exactly what we need to hear, though.” “With the right white man, we can do anything” might very well be the slogan of American as filtered through the lens of Spike Lee. The KKK members are also a hoot without hiding their despicableness, with Grace seamlessly capturing the banality of evil and Alec Baldwin cameoing as a bumbling propagandist. Laura Harrier is just as essential as a Black Student Union leader who Ron becomes romantically involved with. Their discussions about blaxploitation and where the soul of fighting for justice should lie are the stuff of geeky film buffs’ delight. If you’re looking to have a fun time, seeing BlacKkKlansman is a great option, but Lee makes sure to unequivocally remind us of what we’re fighting for by including a coda of real-life footage from the 2017 Charlottesville riots. The historical passage of time in America is in many ways not so linear, and Lee is doing his best to capture it like lightning.

BlacKkKlansman is Recommended If You Like: Malcolm X, Chi-Raq, American Hustle

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Crank Calls

This Is A Movie Review: Non-Stop

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Non-Stop-Liam-Neeson
When Liam Neeson entered the action star portion of his acting career, my reaction was, “Yes, of course.”  Actually, I may not really have had any reaction at all because the one-man army role suited him so well that I hardly noticed any difference.  This is partly a way of getting at the fact that Neeson’s action stardom has been more successful than the actual movies have been.  He made Taken work as well as it did by sheer force of will, but I found that movie to be too distressing and overly tidy to be able to embrace it completely.  His subsequent lone hero actioners have for the most part been variations on Taken.  No doubt about it, Non-Stop is Taken on a Plane, but I preferred it to the kidnapping thriller because it was just so insane that I might have had to lose my mind, and I was happy to.

(GENERALLY SPOILER-ISH INFORMATION FROM HERE ON OUT, BECAUSE I FEEL THE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS MOVIE IN SPECIFIC TERMS.)  Non-Stop is filled with improbabilities right from the get-go.  Neeson plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal who has turned to the bottle to deal with his daughter’s death.  The fact that Marks still gets assigned jobs despite obviously being affected by his drinking and the cause of his alcoholism being overly pat strain credulity, but it is actually purposeful to the narrative that his competence is suspect and that information about his troubles could be public knowledge.  Anyway, though, Non-Stop gets away with most or all its implausibility by being upfront about it.  A movie that crosses a classic mad-villain extortion scheme with a cat-and-mouse game at 30,000 feet is not aiming for everyday verisimilitude.

In addition to reveling in its absurdity, Non-Stop excels in its suspense by establishing just about every character as a legitimate suspect.  Julianne Moore, as Marks’ seat neighbor, is overly talkative.  Scoot McNairy, who excels at playing slimy (check him out getting into deep shit in Killing Them Softly) plays a punk who is rather inquisitive about what plane Marks will be getting on.  Certain traps and killing maneuvers suggest action in areas of the plane that only the pilots and flight attendants would have access to.  A second marshal is the only other one who should be on the cellular network that Marks is receiving the threatening texts from.  Corey Stoll is an overly aggressive New York City cop who questions why Marks doesn’t give the Muslim passenger as thorough a shakedown as he gives everyone else.  This seems like a typical moment playing on post-9/11 paranoia, but it may actually be a matter of class or profession bias, as Marks may have overlooked him because he is a doctor.

(THINGS GET EVEN MORE SPOILERY IN THIS PARAGRAPH.)  The nature of the manhunt suddenly changes in the final act when it is revealed that the killings are not just going to be those happening one by one every 20 minutes due to the revelation of a bomb, which had earlier been disguised by cocaine.  This new crisis prompts Marks, who has been backed into a corner by passengers suspicious of him, to reveal everything about his previously secretive investigation.  This sequence sets quite a benchmark for excitement that the rest of the 2014 film slate will have a tough time matching.

If you are worried that too many twists and turns have been spoiled by the promotion of this movie, don’t be.  While the trailer does include a fair amount of footage from the final act – and, admittedly, does feature as its centerpiece the most memorable shot of a pivotal struggle – there is actually a fair amount of misdirection.  The first death in particular does not go down exactly as the previews would lead you to believe.

Non-Stop falters a little bit with its ending, as the motivation for the extortion is revealed – it tries to be straightforward, which is difficult amidst all the insanity.  I did not have a problem with the spirit of the motivation itself, or how it went about being explained, so much as the fact that it was a bit too simplistic.  Still, that does not take away from all the highly pressurized excitement that precedes it. A-