First, though, a little advertisement: starting this weekend, the Morris Theatre is holding the Prairie Light Film Festival, a whole week with a rotating roster of good movies, movies I’ve wanted to see, but had low expectations that they’d ever play in small town rural Minnesota. It’s a small, mostly white and conservative town, and we’ve long had this single screen movie theater that has had to play it safe with their choices if they want to be profitable, and that means we get movies that will appeal to college students or the general community, without a lot of risk-taking. For instance, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was the sole movie being shown for about a month a few years ago. Enough said.
So now we’ve got this crazy wild festival coming up, and we’ve got a second screen, so finally the theater can show movies with narrower appeal, like BlacKkKlansman. Once upon a time, I would have estimated the chance of a Spike Lee film being shown in Morris as negligible — not because the theater management wouldn’t have liked to, but because they needed movies with broad appeal to the Morris audience. But now they can, and I am so happy.
BlacKkKlansman is the best movie I’ve seen this year. Right at the top of my list. Great acting, amazing story, strong and relevant theme, beautifully structured. I had no idea how they were going to pull of the central conceit of the story — a black man joins the KKK — but the way it was done, that there were two undercover cops using the same name, and it was the white guy, Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman, who would appear at Klan meetings, while the black guy, John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, would manage everything over the phone, worked well. It also worked well because it gave both Flip and Ron opportunities to grow in the roles they were playing. Driver was great as a Jew who realizes that this is his battle, too.
But I have to say something about the end of the movie. It was the most powerful gut punch I’ve ever experienced at a movie. So below the fold is a kind of a spoiler — I’m not going to give away any details of the plot, but I am going to say a few things about the structure of the ending.
It’s a fun movie, with a simple premise: will the undercover cops expose the KKK chapter developing in Colorado Springs? Along the way, we learn about these Klan members: a normal-seeming conservative white guy, a dim half-drunk doofus who seems too stupid to function, a crazy-eyed psycho who croons to his adoring wife about his dreams of murdering black people. Topher Grace is great as David Duke, a man who is clearly out of his depth, and he was a perfect choice to play the role, in part because he’s a recognizable actor, and he helps set the stage that this is played as a kind of traditional sit-com, or dramedy, or whatever term of art we should use. It’s a movie. Then at the end, it wraps up the story with Ron Stallworth calling David Duke and revealing that he’d been played by a black man. The End.
Except…Spike Lee then inserts real footage of the Charlottesville marches, the death of Heather Heyer, our bumbling buffoon of a president babbling about “both sides”, rioting alt-right goons, and shoves the truth in our faces: this is not just a movie. You don’t get to distance yourself by thinking of all this as acting, a little play with a beginning and end, it’s real and it’s going on right now. You don’t get to pretend that the wicked Klan characters in the movie are nothing but goofy tropes for your entertainment, they’re around you in your little safe quiet town, too, and are running the government.
So, yes, brace yourself at the end, because your two hours of escapism and entertainment are going to finish with reality slapping you in the face hard. It took me a few minutes to get my heart restarted before I could stagger out of the theater.
Hopefully you will get a chance to see Sorry to bother you.
Even better than Black Klansman
A Masked Avenger says
It was a gut-punch, but it wasn’t that much of a surprise (to me at least) in that the movie made many callbacks to Trump throughout. It’s been a couple weeks, so I can’t remember specifics, but there were paraphrases of “make America great again,” and some kind of both-sideism, and a few other echoes.
PZ Myers says
Read this relevant counterpoint.
I remember hearing an interview (on CBC Radio’s As it Happens) with the black police officer who actually did this. If I remember correctly it was in Utah.
John Harshman says
You talk about the movie as if it’s fiction. Is it escapist entertainment if it really happened? I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I don’t know how many liberties were taken, but the central conceit — black detective joining the Klan over the phone, white detective doing the in person bits, and none of the Klansmen noticing — is true.
Ron Stallworth’s Wikipedia page has some informative links from 2006:
How a Black Cop Joined the KKK (NPR transcript, audio links are Real media(!) and Windows media(!), FWIW)
Black sergeant was ‘loyal Klansman’ (Deseret news)
It’s possible that the above might have some spoilers for the film (which I haven’t seen yet).
Searching cbc.ca doesn’t find any interview with Stallworth in its archives (but maybe it’s somewhere else?), but it does link to a 2015 podcast about him.
I saw this film last weekend and the ending was a real gut-punch. I really enjoyed it but even before reading Boots Riley’s critique I found myself feeling quite uncomfortable about the positive light the police were put in. Apart from the ‘one bad seed’ cop no-one seemed to have a problem with Ron which didn’t seem at all realistic given what I’ve heard of the US police (and, tbh, US society in general).
I can’t help but wonder if it’s a sort of fantasy – a ‘what should have happened’ – and the ending is a way of showing that it is just a fantasy because if it weren’t there’d be no way for the present to be as institutionally racist as it clearly is.
I agree with @sarah00, I can’t say I cared for how pro-cop the movie was, nor was I particularly fond of how much they played up the truth of a story that may or may not even have happened. I didn’t read Boots’ critique of the film before I saw it, but I understood the gist of his critique and I think the movie proved him correct. I could believe also that Spike Lee shook some trees at NYPD to get police consulting on how these operations work, but it left a pretty clear mark of wanting to improve the polices’ image all over the final product.
There were some things that I really loved: the fact that the stereotypical midwestern housewife was just as racist as the husband, how the racists were portrayed as (realistically) dumb but still (realistically) dangerous, the meaningful cinematography (the lecture scene was shot amazingly), and the gut punch at the end. I was kind of on the fence about the movie before the end, but that last 10 minutes or so literally took my breath away.
Sorry to Bother You is way better though.
you mean like how in the end, the police captain quickly quashed the investigation and told them to destroy all evidence?
yup, that sure improved police image alrighty.
you and I did not see the same movie apparently.
..or how about when Ron is nearly killed by two white cops while he was trying to stop white woman klansman from bombing a house full of people?
just because there were a handful of people who applauded his work in the department, this was far from the overarching theme.
Matt Cramp says
Riley’s critique is much more specific (and more fair) than that: Ron Stallworth infiltrated civil rights groups over a period of several years, not briefly and half-heartedly as shown in the film. The KKK infiltration wasn’t the bulk of his career; it was a blip that didn’t lead to any serious arrests, but it’s got a fun hook and we can gloss over what Ron spent most of his time actually doing.
I find that most of the time when a movie makes me cry the director is nice enough to not do it right at the end so I have to go out into the lobby all teary.
The treatment of police in the movie being too pro-cop for some.
Spike Lee has caught a good deal of flack from within the Black community over that.
On a separate, but related note, i worry that many viewers are going to see the treatment of white supremacists and dismiss them as “stpid” “idots”, even with the ending showing deadly they can be. Ppl have long conflated perceived intellectual capacity with bigotry.
“Racists are just stpid”.
“Misogynists are a bunch of idots.”
“TERFs are a bunch of mor*ns”
are but a few of the kinds of comments one can see on liberal or even progressive pieces discussing bigotry.
But I do not think its a good idea to continue conflating intellectual capacity (actual or perceived) with bigotry.
Is it really a good idea to–deliberately or not–send the message that if racists or misogynists or TERFs did not have intellectual problems that they would not be bigots? To effectively say impaired intellectual ability leads to bigotry?
Given the existence of plenty of intellectually disabled ppl who are not bigots, I don’t think that’s at all a good idea to continue. YMMV, but that’s unacceptable splash damage. Plus, there are some ppl with high levels of intelligence (at least according to certain definitions of the word).
I realize the difficulty in watching our words to avoid using undesirable or bigoted language, but there is a two fold value in doing so:
1–the aforementioned splash damage is no longer a problem.
2–ideally, not weaponizing words that dyarscribe intellectual capacity means alternate words have to be thought up. Now, some might say their use of ‘idit’ was not meant to refer to intellectual capacity, but if you are using a common word with a generally accepted meaning (and words like ‘idit, ‘morn’, & ‘stupd’ are generally used as references to intellectual capability) that could lead to a breakdown in communication. But if you say that someone is ‘willfully ignorant’ instead of ‘stup*d’, you convey exactly the idea you are looking for with no splash damage.
Oh gods, the tags in that comment are jacked up. Badly.
I wasn’t trying to italicize anything!
Guess its my fault for using my phone instead of my laptop.