Archive for September 4, 2018

Under the Hood

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2018 by dcairns

If I was Kim Newman I’d begin this post on Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN by pointing out the existence of the 1966 Ted V. Mikels joint THE BLACK KLANSMAN, and the black sort-of klansmen in SHOCK CORRIDOR and THE KLANSMAN (O.J. Simpson, name-checked in Lee’s film). And then reference THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, Ivan Dixon’s genuinely revolutionary version of the conceit, in which a black man joins the CIA to learn guerrilla techniques he can use in the struggle. But I’m not Kim Newman. I don’t even own a cape.

I would cheerfully go along with the critical mainstream and call this Lee’s best film in years, but I stopped watching his stuff around the time of SUMMER OF SAM, which I thought was really hatefully ill-thought-out. Lee was attacked for exploiting real-life murders in a way that seemed, and was, unfair, since nobody, or nobody much, ever used similar grounds to attack Richard Fleischer (COMPULSION, THE BOSTON STRANGLER et al), Richard Brooks (IN COLD BLOOD) or the countless other filmmakers to labour in the true crime genre. But Lee’s movie has, for example, a throwaway reference to THE FLY — a talking fly as part of the killer’s hallucination. Lee’s director’s commentary at this point explains his choice: “hommage to THE FLY.” But what he doesn’t explain is why he thinks that belongs in this film. (Lee has always had a screwed-up willingness to go a mile out of his way in order to include a meaningless and inappropriate hommage, and it still hasn’t left him, even in this much better movie.)

So, in a sense, the criticism of this film was justified — it used real-life murders as an excuse to include a joke about a fifties horror movie. If I were the relative of a victim, I’d be offended. In fact, I’m just someone who’s seen THE FLY and I’m still offended.

But I did belatedly see INSIDE MAN and liked it a lot, so I’ve been thinking about giving him another chance.

The Independent has a fairly good, informative piece on where Lee’s film departs from the facts of his latest true crime story — probably best read after you see the movie which, as I’m trying to imply, is well worth seeing. The screenwriters seem to have invented A LOT, though the story’s unlikely set-up is indeed “fo’ real.” I wondered, after reading it, if the film’s romantic interest even existed in reality. The piece doesn’t tell me. She’s at the centre of an ethical dilemma involving the hero — is he sleeping with her while undercover? — which the movie never answers. (Turns out she didn’t exist — the real Ron Stallworth had already met his future wife before this story begins.)

The movie is shot on 35mm for an authentic blaxploitation look, although the design seems to consistently situate it bang in the middle of that decade. Nothing said 1979 to me, although maybe Colorado Springs moved a touch slower than elsewhere. Having just watched THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, whose attention to verisimilitude was a little marred by some unconvincing wigs and cookie-dusters reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Sabotage video, I was relieved that the wig-work here was convincing and, to me, the movie didn’t cross over into seventies parody. Any time you watch an actual blaxploitation movie, there will be several costumes worn in apparent earnest that you could never use with a straight face in a modern movie set in that period.

What the movie does give us is some excellent performances — John David Washington is an instant star, funnier than his famous dad, Adam Driver is as good as we’ve come to expect, and there’s an extremely powerful cameo from Harry Belafonte which forms a major part of the best sequence I’ve ever seen from Lee. Now THAT’S an hommage, if you like. (Lee’s always been good at finding roles for iconic black actors, and I’m grateful to him for giving Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis plum late-life parts). And at the end there’s one of his patented dolly-the-actors-with-the-camera shots, and it’s the best iteration of that particular conceit I’ve seen from him. And I got a fleeting sense, from the way the movie folds in bits of Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION and implicates it in the resurgence of the Klan, that the technique has some special meaning for Lee (it must, for him to use it so insistently), having something to do with the intrusion of movies into life.