BlacKkKlansman: An Ahistorical Dark Comedy

An African-American police detective in 1970s Colorado Springs fights for acceptance at work while infiltrating the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan with help from his Jewish partner. Will he win the affection of a Colorado College activist and foil the KKK’s violent schemes? Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Laura Harrier, BlacKkKlansman (2018) was written and directed by Spike Lee, et al. While entertaining, it jettisons historical accuracy to score contemporary political points.

BlacKkKlansman was inspired by the book Black Klansman (2014) by Ron Stallworth. Stallworth was a police officer and detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department who in 1979 responded to an ad in the newspaper looking to start a local branch of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. With the help of a white officer posing as Stallworth at meetings, he successfully infiltrated the Klan for nine months. The Colorado Springs PD shut down the investigation after Stallworth was asked to lead the chapter, fearing word would get out that the police department had Klan affiliations.

Aside from a few incidents, like Stallworth speaking to David Duke (Grand Wizard of the KKKK) and having his picture taken with him, that’s where the comparison parts ways. It turns out “based on a true story” is really “inspired by true events.” The writers took many creative liberties to forward a cinematic narrative and spoon feed the audience an overtly political message.

Attacks on the film’s accuracy have come from many corners. Sorry to Bother You (2018) director Boots Riley criticized Spike Lee for allegedly ..er.. whitewashing Ron Stallworth, turning him into a hero and downplaying his infiltration of black student organizations. “It’s a made up story in which the false parts of it try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racial oppression,” he argued.

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First Impressions of BlacKkKlansman

I finally went back to the theater (instant sticker shock, btw) to see the one movie I’ve been looking forward to for the past several months, BlacKkKlansman. Spike Lee is always an interesting if not controversial filmmaker, and the story of a black detective infiltrating the KKK promised to be entertaining if nothing else. The fact it was based on a true story sealed the deal. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be. Here are some of my initial thoughts, with a full review to follow next week.

  • After doing some research, it turns out “based on a true story” is really “inspired by true events.” Only the basic premise, and a few scenes, actually happened. The rest was made up.
  • This opens a can of worms for me, and not just from a historical perspective. If Spike Lee wanted to make a movie about racism, why fictionalize events from the 1970s, when there are so many other clear cut and dramatic examples of racism in U.S. history?
  • The dialog in BlacKkKlansman is so bad and anachronistic. It’s literally “I’m a racist character so I do nothing but talk about how much I love whiteness and hate minorities,” or “I’m a black activist so I do nothing but talk about black power, blaxploitation references, and how much I hate cops.”
  • The acting among the lead cast was decent. Topher Grace stole the show as race huckster David Duke.
  • What was Spike Lee’s message? Is it just to make parallels between racism in the 1970s and racism in the 2010s? Because he does that. A lot. He beats the audience over the head with it.
  • Or is he criticizing identity politics as a whole by making a side by side comparison of black power activists and white power activists? At one point a jump cut shows both groups shouting their respective slogans. This is contrasted with the main character’s chummy relationship with coworkers of different backgrounds.

That’s all for now. My review is mainly going to focus on the historical accuracy of the film and divining its message. Look for it on Monday!

Christine: A Potently Pessimistic Period Piece

Events leading to journalist Christine Chubbuck’s 1974 on-air suicide are recounted in Christine (2016), a bleak but potent film written by Craig Shilowich and directed by Antonio Campos. Strong performances by its lead actors and its visual authenticity make Christine the best overlooked film of 2016.

Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is a sincere but troubled woman working as a reporter for a local news station in Sarasota, Florida. She lives with her mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), and performs puppet shows at a children’s hospital on the weekends. Her life begins to spiral out of control when, approaching 30, she discovers she has a cyst on one of her ovaries and may never have children.

Her boss, Michael (Tracy Letts), is concerned about falling ratings and wants Christine to cover more sensational stories. This professional dilemma is compounded by the arrival of station owner Bob Andersen (John Cullum), who wants to move some personnel to Baltimore. Christine is passed over in favor of anchor George Peter Ryan (Michael C. Hall) and sports anchor Andrea Kirby (Kim Shaw). This is a double-blow because Christine had an unrequited crush on George.

I won’t reveal how the film ends, but you probably already guessed. Rebecca Hall, who also starred in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) and The Dinner (2017), is outstanding as Christine Chubbuck, and won several awards for her effort. I’m not sure this film would have been nearly as good without her performance. She disappeared into the role, bringing her character to life with all the emotion and idiosyncrasies of a real person.

This film’s authenticity is also incredible. If you could somehow capture the look and feel of a decade, Christine does it. 1970s period pieces usually feature larger than life characters and situations. This film does the exact opposite–it shows normal people at a normal job, who happened to be involved in an incredibly tragic incident.

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Battle of the Sexes: A Tedious and Unfunny 1970s Sports Dramedy

A female tennis star wrestles with the patriarchy and her own sexuality in the gyno-centric sports dramedy Battle of the Sexes (2017), written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Jonathan Dayton. A retelling of the most-watched tennis match of all time, between ex-champion Bobby Riggs and top female player Billie Jean King, seemed promising, but something misfired along the way. It was partly billed as a comedy, and features both Sarah Silverman and Steve Carell, but ends up only being mildly amusing.

It’s the early 1970s. Tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) confront Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) about gross inequality in tennis prize money between male and female players. In outrage, they storm off to found their own women’s tennis association. Meanwhile, ex-tennis star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) has hit a new low as his gambling addiction threatens to tear apart his family.

As her new league takes off, Billie Jean King’s behavior threatens her marriage as well, when she meets hairstylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and discovers she is attracted to women. This affair seems to have little effect on her life, however, when her cuckolded husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell), shrugs it off and continues to faithfully dote on her.

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs comes up with a way to exploit controversy over the women’s lib movement to make money and challenges top female tennis players to an exhibition bout. He handily defeats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who is portrayed as somehow flawed and weakened by her loving devotion to her husband and child. Billie Jean King finally accepts the challenge and ends up humiliating Riggs in a match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.”

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The Nice Guys: Film Noir for the Disco Era

An unlikely duo must team up to find a missing girl before a secret cabal has her murdered in The Nice Guys (2016), a comedic crime drama written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi and directed by Shane Black. Set in 1977 Los Angeles, The Nice Guys is a film noir for the disco era, but wasn’t originally written as a period piece. Thankfully, the writers decided to rework the concept and what resulted was one of the best films of 2016.

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a muscle-for-hire who Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) pays to dissuade private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) from looking for her. March, an alcoholic who lives with his preteen daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), believes Amelia is somehow connected to the death of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Misty’s aunt, Mrs. Glenn (Lois Smith), hired March to investigate Misty’s death because she believed Misty might still be alive.

When two anonymous men (Beau Knapp and Keith David) show up at Jackson Healy’s apartment to press him for details on Amelia’s whereabouts, he decides to pay March to help him locate Amelia before they do. Together, they discover Amelia and Misty were connected to an underground adult film allegedly exposing a conspiracy on the part of auto manufacturers to suppress the catalytic converter. Several people involved in the movie turned up dead.

Things get really complicated when Amelia’s mother, Judith (Kim Basinger), a prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice, pays March and Healy to find her daughter. When Amelia literally falls into their laps, she accuses her mother of being part of the conspiracy. March and Healy slowly put the pieces together, but will they rescue her and the last remaining film reel in time to expose the truth?

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Detroit: A Gripping Historical Drama

Detroit (2017), written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, dramatically recounts an incident in which three black men were allegedly murdered by police at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit Riot. Detroit grabs you and never lets go. Unfortunately, its subject matter might be a little too weighty for summer movie audiences. Bigelow, whose other films include The Hurt Locker (2008), K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), set out to make a film critical of white privilege, so certain elements have been changed to conform to this perspective. In some ways the actual events were much worse than depicted.

First, some context. In 1950, Detroit was a diverse, prosperous, and culturally significant metropolis of 1.85 million people. It was arguably among the greatest cities in the United States. By 1967, Detroit was 40 percent African American, but its police force was 95 percent white. Migration to the suburbs had already caused significant population decline. The 1967 Detroit Riot (also known as the 12th Street Riot) began around 3:15 a.m. Sunday, July 23, 1967, after police raided an illegal after hours party in the office of the United Community League for Civic Action at 9125 12th Street.

The riot lasted five days, ending on July 27. Michigan Governor George W. Romney sent in the National Guard and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to help restore order. When the dust settled, 43 people were dead, 1,189 injured (including 493 police, firefighters, and National Guard members), and 7,231 arrested. 2,509 stores were looted or burned, with an economic loss estimated at $40 to $45 million.

Three men, Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), 19, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), 17, and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), 18, were killed at an annex of the Algiers Motel, 8301 Woodward Avenue. Pollard was killed by Detroit Police Officer Ronald August (“Demens” – Jack Reynor), Temple was killed by Detroit Police Officer Robert Paille (“Flynn” – Ben O’Toole), and Cooper’s murderer remains unknown. Police officers involved in the incident were acquitted by reason of self defense at trial, so their names were changed for the film.

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First Impressions of Detroit

I watched Detroit last night, Kathryn Bigelow‘s new film about three black men who were murdered at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit Riots. Bigelow’s other films include The Hurt Locker (2008), K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), a mixed record as far as I’m concerned. But all I can say is, wow. Detroit grabs you and never lets go. It’s by far the best movie I’ve seen this year. Here are some of my first impressions:

  • I wasn’t alive during the 1960s, but the movie feels authentic. The settings, dress, characters, and documentary style transport you back to that time, and not in a cliched, feel-good way.
  • Will Poulter, who played Kenny Rossmore in We’re the Millers (2013), is incredible as a racist Detroit patrolman named Philip Krauss. Everything from his hair to his facial expressions make him look like he stepped off the pages of an early 1960s yearbook.
  • Although Detroit doesn’t disguise its message, it isn’t entirely one-sided, showing the destructiveness of the mob and the efforts of some white policemen and authority figures try to combat the excesses of racist officers.
  • Powerful images dominate the film. When a security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is taken into an interrogation room, you can see a handcuff dangling from a pipe and a discolored stain on the wall at the same level as his head. The movie doesn’t have to show violent interrogations took place–all it needs is this one brutal image.
  • Detroit’s run time is over two hours, but it grips you and never slows down until the ending trial scene. By the way, John Krasinski is really out of place as an attorney named Auerbach. He was the only bad casting choice.
  • I understand why the filmmakers chose to focus on the controversial event at the Algiers Motel, but it downplays the 40 other people who died during the five-day riots. 1,189 people were also injured, including 348 Detroit police and firefighters, 55 National Guardsmen, 67 State Police, 15 Wayne County Sheriff deputies, and eight soldiers. 2,509 stores were looted or burned.
  • Although an attempt was made, I don’t think enough was done to show how the National Guardsmen and other law enforcement trying to restore order felt threatened by the rioters. While it doesn’t excuse their behavior, it might help explain why they were so on edge, which the audience never gets a solid feel for.
  • The the main character, played by Algee Smith, finds some solace in gospel music, there is no happy ending here.

I’ll have much more when I post my full review next week.