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: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Switches Back and Forth Between Amusingly Diverting and Alarmingly Deadly

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This review was originally published on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., Laura Harrier, Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, Tony Revolori, Martin Starr

Director: Jon Watts

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Usual Superhero Action

Release Date: July 7, 2017

The problem with the two Spider-Man movies with Amazing in the title (as opposed to the Spider-Man movies that could be accurately described as “amazing”) is that they hewed too closely to what had already been told in recent cinematic history. Spider-Man: Homecoming (the first Spidey flick to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) avoids that issue by crafting a Peter Parker (here played by 21-year-old Tom Holland, who easily passes for 15) that is markedly different than any classic conception. Rather than bounding himself by the code of “with great power comes great responsibility,” this Spider-Man bounds into any crisis with reckless abandon. As a big proponent of not being beholden to source material, I admire this decision, but I wish that director Jon Watts and his team of co-screenwriters had a stronger handle on what exactly this conception means.

This is very much a high school movie, with its emphasis on episodic, almost sitcom-esque structure. But it is also a superhero action flick, so the threats are just as deadly and just as adult as they are in any other Spider-Man or any Avengers film. The tonal bridge between these two halves is plentifully whiplash-inducing. It is absolutely fine to awaken a hero to the dangers of the world, because the hero’s journey has been fruitful for centuries of storytelling, and it is a valuable representation of real-life maturation. Even switching back to scenes of high school shenanigans after fights with the most wanted criminals is theoretically acceptable, because mundanity does exist right alongside evil. But it requires a deft hand to make that balancing act entertaining and palatable, a feat whose difficulty Homecoming vastly underestimates.

What Homecoming succeeds at most is its skillfulness at making fun of itself, or the MCU more generally. I often find blockbuster stabs at humor to be glib and obvious, but it helps when you have comedy heavyweights like Hannibal Buress, Martha Kelly, and Martin Starr (whom Community fans will note is essentially reviving his performance as Professor Cligoris). Still, as funny as it is, it feels out of place. After all, it is essentially window-dressing to the fight that Peter takes up against arms dealing Adrian Toomes (a controlled, but thoroughly sniveling Michael Keaton), who eventually takes flight as a mechanized version of classic comics baddie the Vulture. We’ve previously seen Spidey get into predicaments as stressful as what he gets into here (a rescue atop the Washington Monument, holding together the two halves of a fissured Staten Island Ferry), but never against the context of a Spider-Man who actually looks like a teenager.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark stops by for several scenes to lend a hand in some of these most dangerous moments. Holland does not need RDJ’s help to make his first big starring vehicle work, but Peter Parker does need Iron Man’s help to avoid killing himself. It is that alarming realization that makes it clear that this ostensibly light and fluffy actioner has maybe taken on more weight than it can bear. Still, it is enjoyable when it allows itself to be kid’s stuff.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is Recommended If You Like: The Other Spider-Man Movies But Wish That Peter Parker Actually Looked Like a Teenager and That Everyone Was Hitting on Aunt May

Grade: 3.5 out 5 Best Sandwiches in Queens