Movie Review – Blackkklansman
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, and Jasper Pääkkönen
Movie Review – Sorry to Bother You
Directed by Boots Riley
Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Stephen Yeun, and Armie Hammer
Movie Review – Black Panther
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nong’o, and Daniel Kaluuya
Movie Review – Wonder Woman
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, and David Thewlis
Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution
Over 50 years ago, a group of maverick Independent filmmakers, many with a background in television, helped usher out a bloated old-Hollywood system still churning out overblown musicals and stiff historical pieces, by bringing a more adult realism, a more audacious type of storytelling, and a frank sexuality to American film that changed cinema forever and still influences much of what we call drama. Altman, Ashby, Bogdanovich, Coppola, Lumet, Peckinpah, Penn, Scorsese – these names are legend now. Coinciding with the counter culture movement of the late 60’s and 70’s, their films formed a cinematic revolution, a true and easily recognizable change of guard.
Today, Hollywood seems as bloated as ever, with the box-office dominated by the spectacular and the stupid and the adult drama movie market seemingly uninterested in breaking new ground, settling for star power and Oscar buzz over originality, vision, and honest characterization. But in the movies, things can happen quickly, and Hollywood is overdue for some change. That change often comes when the seats aren’t filling. And baby, the seats just ain’t fillin’ like they used too. Although blockbusters continue to break records and today’s high-tech luxury-minded multiplexes have gone to extremes to draw in customers, overall box-office continues to trend downward. Affordable home theaters and smart TVs have made the cost and effort of going to the movies increasingly less attractive. But more than that, audiences are hungry for new content, not just new trappings.
Not that I expect the blockbusters to stop or even want them to. When they’re done right as they so rarely are, the can be vastly entertaining. (The creative minds at Marvel have demonstrated this with a series of enjoyable, often lighthearted, blockbusters in the past few movie seasons.) Yet the big studios are still stuck on the idea that spectacle outweighs story and character. But lately there’s been something else going on – something that’s undeniably been in the air these past couple of movie seasons. And it almost seems like… well… a revolution.
While independent films have long offered and continue to offer an alternative to audiences craving adult drama, the last two years have seen an unusual number of acclaimed, high profile, and financially successful independent films about women and minorities made by women and minority filmmakers. Among the most notable: Barry Jenkin’s gentle Moonlight, about a poor young black man discovering his gay sexual identity, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, about a rich young white man discovering his gay sexual identity, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, about a young girl’s journey to emotional maturity, and The Big Sick, Kamal Nanjiani’s funny-poignant look at illness. Moonlight won the Oscar for best picture, and the Guadagnino, Gerwig, and Nanjiani films all received major nominations. All received critical raves. And it’s not just little independent films. Even studio-backed blockbusters have gotten in on the action with Patty Jenkin’s decidedly feminine and feminist Wonder Woman and Ryan Coogler’s gloriously Afrocentric Black Panther.
But the most important of the lot may well have been Get Out, TV sketch artist Jordan Peele’s on-point satire of racial appropriation. Peele’s Oscar-winning script deftly explored the daily fears of a black man living in a white racist country, using an ingenious horror movie construct as his MacGuffin. In Peele’s film, the fact that all the protagonists were black, and all the antagonists white, seemed groundbreaking. It wasn’t, but it was rare, particularly for a film so embraced by white audiences. The film industry has a century-long history of producing films with white heroes and black villains, the result of an industry almost entirely dominated by white men, many of whom held degrading, racist, and dishonest views of African Americans. Peele’s film offered hilarious insight for white viewers and a great inside joke for African Americans but more than that, it told a black man’s story from a black man’s point of view to black audiences and made fortune doing it. It’s a landmark in American cinema and a key moment in the history of minority-made films.
It’s not that there haven’t been minority films before, or that there haven’t been black auteurs. We’ve even seen movements. The silent 20s and early talking era of the 30s had black film pioneer Oscar Micheaux, arguably the first black American film auteur. The late 60s and early 70s saw several fine films by African Americans spanning from the blaxploitation works of Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song, Watermelon Man) and Gordon Parks, to smaller, personal films by people like Ozzie Davis (His 1972 drama, Black Girl is a personal favorite), but these were usually B pictures with low budgets and little promotion. And though many of them received acclaim, they rarely went mainstream and remain largely unseen by white audiences. What I’m talking about ultimately is a film industry in which diversity is the norm and not just another flirtation that goes nowhere. Remember the late 80s and early 90s, when Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was the talk of the movie world and John Singleton became the first African American nominated for a directing Oscar? It seemed like change was inevitable, but it didn’t quite happen, at least not soon enough. Things have slowly gotten better and today there are successful black filmmakers like Tyler Perry, who, if not auteurs in the aesthetic sense, nevertheless have their own brand and a loyal following. But no one has ever accused Tyler Perry of making great films.
As for the spate of quality minority films we’ve been seeing, will we one day remember Peele, Jenkins, Jenkins, Riley, and Gerwig as the stars of a movement, a revolution, that changed the industry? That’s a judgement best left to the hindsight of future critics, but at the very least it’s a trend that’s starting to feel like a movement. With Sorry to Bother You, BlackkKlansman and Crazy Rich Asians already in theaters, new films on the way from Jenkins and Peele, and Marvel’s shot at a female superhero, Captain Marvel (starring Brie Larson and co-directed by Anna Boden) due next March, that trend seems to be picking up steam. The movie studios may have finally discovered there’s money in diversity. And as our society grows more diverse, it’s inevitable that audiences will want to see more characters like themselves. The move toward equal representation may be unavoidable and it’s about god-damned time. The revolution may not, as Gil Scott Heron so powerfully insisted, be televised, but it might very well be coming to a theater near you.
Under Cover of the Knight
It seems entirely appropriate that this latest wave of minority films should include a Spike Lee “joint”. Lee is not just the preeminent black American filmmaker of all time, he’s one of a handful of living American directors with an international reputation as a film master. His latest film, Blackkklansman, pulls no punches in its direct approach to our country’s racist history. It stabs you in the viscera. But there are also moments of great beauty and sweetness.
Lee is at his best when he’s angry and unafraid of artifice and when he creates a vivid setting, as he did in previous works like Do the Right Thing, Malcom X, Summer of Sam, and his best film, Crooklyn. Here, the vivid setting is Colorado Springs, Colorado in the early 70s, the setting for the real-life story of Ron Stallworth, a black rookie cop who, with his with partner Flip (Adam Driver), infiltrated the Ku Kux Klan. Originally hired as a token, he’s filed away unseen in the records room, but is eventually given a real assignment. Under the false premise of protecting black citizens, Stallworth is enlisted to infiltrate other African Americans, wearing a wire to attend a speech to black college students by a former Black Panther (Corey Hawkins) whose words of black pride and power and off-hand remarks about killing cops have aroused the alarmist racial fears of the city’s police chief (Robert John Burke). There Stallworth meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), the event’s organizer, a smart and confident student with whom he explores various viewpoints on black issues and culture as well as the prerequisite romantic relationship. Reassuring his bosses that the threat of violence is overstated, Stallworth then becomes involved with the KKK, recklessly responding to their literature and setting up a meeting by phone with their local leader (Jasper Pääkkönen), giving his real name and apparently forgetting his own race. The chief agrees to pursue the case, with the Jewish Flip, posing as Stallworth.
Lee uses Stallworth’s story to explore his themes of black pride and how the black pride/black is beautiful movement brought the African American community together in both rage and hope, and of the long and continuing racial hatred that has existed from the very foundations of our country and continues to poison our culture today. That racist history, as the film reminds us, includes the movies. Lee’s opening image, the legendary and epic crane shot of wounded soldiers in the racist 1939 civil war epic Gone with the Wind, becomes a metaphor for the division that pervades our history and the carnage it continues to generate today, as we are uncomfortably reminded in the film’s riveting final moments. And there is an extended clip of Birth of a Nation, the landmark silent film masterpiece, irredeemably tainted by its ugly, racist stereotypes of black people and its portrayal of the kkk as heroes.
As expected, Blackkklansman, has sparked its share of controversy. Lee doesn’t make safe movies, and one expects a backlash. But one of the film’s biggest critics has been Sorry to Bother You creator, Boots Riley, who has criticized the film for coddling white audiences with its overly positive portrayal of the white police force and for the film’s final-frame homage to a white martyr. Riley has a point about the portrayal of cops. There is only one really bad cop in BlackkKlansman. The rest are likeably and two-dimensionally inoffensive. And in those scenes, the film does seem tailored to white audiences. Lee’s defense is that his films are not about black & white, but justice, reminding Riley that many white people have also died for the cause of justice. And he’s right. Lee’s film is about good vs. evil, not black vs. white.
My biggest problem with the picture is that Lee approaches his racist characters from an often-comical stance, with the “n” word used frequently in a questionable attempt to reveal the comical stupidity of it all. Regardless of its intent, these sequences are painful to watch. I found myself squirming. And Lee mutes their dramatic effect with a minor Klan character who is so ridiculously stupid he comes of like the comic henchman in a Disney cartoon.
Despite its missteps, the film is powerful. Lee is a master at building tension and the expectedly explosive finale delivers. But there’s so much more to the film than ugliness and violence. There are moments of ethereal beauty that are among the most exhilarating in Lee’s repertoire. When the Black Panther gives his speech to the dark room of college students, we see their fully engrossed, wide-eyed faces float on screen amidst a dark background, enlightened by the self-realization of their own physical beauty, a revelation white society has denied them. This is Lee at his poetic best and it’s both compelling and lovely. Later, in a magical sequence, the characters visit a club where they dance and sing along to the Cornelius Brothers’ “Too Late to Turn Back Now” while Lee’s camera (cinematography by Chayse Irvin), sweeps up and down and around them, creating a dreamlike effect that beautifully conveys their communal joy at being black.
And as always, Lee is a genius at creating vivid settings. Numerous references to 70s pop culture abound. All in the Family, David Bowie, and Blaxploitation films all get a shout out. And the production design, costumes and hair styling are effectively accurate (afros, afros and more afros). The atmosphere just feels right.
If Blakkklansman is oversimplified, its truths are no less valid, it’s message no less urgent. It remains the work of a master filmmaker who approaches the subject of racism with a passion and insight that only a black man or woman could provide. There is no other voice like his in film today and it’s a privilege to see him still in full flower. He’s a national treasure.
White Man’s Game
Hip Hop musician Boots Riley’s insane directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, takes a similar approach to Get Out, choosing a satirical setup to explore its story of a black man trying to salvage his cultural identity in a white world, but with a darker, angrier vibe, and a wacked-out sensibility that makes Peele’s film seem staid. And while Get Out was a precisely focused, spot-on parody of horror films, Riley’s film is all over the map, employing artifice, surrealism, broad comedy, psychedelic music (composed by the director), and surprising turns toward drama, and even science fiction. But it pays off. The film is smart, satirically-on-the-nose hilarious, and in at least one key moment (the rap scene), devastating.
Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), is the perfect everyman for a new era of cinematic diversity, the kind of guy you could imagine chilling out with over a couple of beers and a blunt. He’s unemployed and living in the garage of his uncle (Terry Crews, who’s worth the price of admission just to see with a full head of hair). His girlfriend Detroit (the memorable Tessa Thompson) is a starving performance artist and part-time sign twirler. Facing eviction, Cash, applies for, and easily obtains a job as a telemarketer in one of those big phone factory sweat shops that anyone who’s ever been desperate for a job will recognize. Cash finds little success at first until, on the advice of a black coworker (Danny Glover), he learns to speak to his customers in a white man’s voice (David Cross). Immediately, he sees his sales increase and as a result, he’s promoted and given access to a secret world of white privilege.
This sets the stage for some raucously funny satire and some angry criticism of corporate greed and the refusal of big companies to pay their employees a livable wage while they themselves reap tremendous fortunes. In this, Riley sees a type of modern slavery and he’s utterly unafraid of suggesting a radical solution – violent revolution.
Riley’s initial storytelling extravagances (Cash’s job interview is comically exaggerated. And when he makes his sales calls, we see him drop from the ceiling, desk and all, into the living rooms of his prospective customers), lend the story a surreal touch that makes the more fantastical scenes that follow easier to swallow. But not entirely. As the story progresses, the humor gets darker, the tone angrier. While Riley may have made a comedy, he isn’t kidding. The film ultimately drives its slavery theme home with a bizarre turn towards science fiction. It isn’t that these scenes aren’t effective, but their absurdity seems less on point than the rest of the movie. There’s also a sinister vibe in the film’s post-credit scene that’s disturbing.
Sorry to Bother You is the kind of loopy, well-thought-out, satirical riff of a movie that would play well at the midnight movie to an audience of stoners, but its broad imagination, hip vibe, piercing satire, and revolution-minded anger seem equally well suited to original screenplay Oscar territory.
Sins of the Father
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is set in the mythological land of Wakanda, an invisible kingdom in the heart of modern-day Africa. Wakanda is filled with wealth and technical marvels beyond understanding, but it’s hidden from the rest of the world, which continues in its natural state of turmoil. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), known outside Wakanda only as the superhero, Black Panther, ascends to the throne on the death of his father. But his reign is threatened by the angry young outcast Eric Kilmonger, a fellow Wakandan, unjustly denied his place in the kingdom and abandoned to the squalor of inner-city America. This sets up a Shakespearian tragedy of betrayal and ultimately forgiveness that is powerfully symbolic and deeply moving.
Appropriately and wonderfully, the white man’s point of view is mostly absent in Black Panther, save the rather weak inclusion of the ineffectual white CIA agent from the comics (Martin Freeman) who seems like a consolation to appease white audiences who might feel left out, or perhaps antagonized by the comic book’s traditional white supervillain Klaw (Andy Serkis), a more conventionally evil antagonist who’s a mere cipher here. Or perhaps, from a more sinister perspective, it’s meant to appease knuckleheads who might want to see the movie as a call to a race war. But Black Panther’s audience isn’t insecure white racists. And it’s apparent to anyone who’s seen the film that it explicitly rejects any violent revenge against The Man. The film’s message is ultimately, one of unity. It speaks first to black audiences about self-determination and taking care of one’s own, but it also speaks to wider audiences about the sins of greed and excluding one’s fellow man from the comfort of one’s riches.
Black Panther was written, directed and created by a largely black crew and a large, black cast. As T’Challa, Chadwich Boseman is a solid and attractive lead, but he’s often overshadowed by the rich cast of seasoned veterans. There are memorable turns by Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, and Lupita Nyong’o. And there are Oscar-worthy performances by Michael B. Jordan as Kilmonger and Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Chala’s tech wiz sister, who’s the embodiment of female empowerment in the modern technological age.
Empowered black women are a major force in the film. The movie brims with a multitude of strong female characters including an army of female warriors. But the subtle revolution of Black Panther is not only in its empowered females, it’s black director, or its black cast, but in the rich Afrocentric milieu that informs its African kingdom. Beyond the glorious towers and various CGI marvels in Coogler’s Wakanda, are the traditional African-inspired elements of Hannah Beachler’s production design and the stunning creations of costume designer Ruth Carter. These lovely designs celebrate the character’s African American heritage to rich effect, something rare for any movie, let alone a popular entertainment. Consider, for instance, the black natives of Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake with its grotesque caricatures of allegedly primitive black cultures. Made over half a century after the original film, its natives are the kind of bone-pierced savages prevalent in the original and countless other films from Hollywood’s early decades. The beauty of Black Panther alone can’t undo the damage of King Kong and over a century of film industry defamation, but it offers a giant step toward healing.
Currently at number three on the list of all-time domestic hits, the film has clearly struck a nerve, not only with black audiences, but with whites as well. That’s wonderful because it reminds us that, true to film’s message, we have more in common than we have differences. But Black Panther’s is, above all, a glorious valentine to black audiences, a celebration of black pride and culture you don’t have to be black to appreciate. I won’t pretend that every black American will, or should, like or be inspired by it. The African American “community,” like all communities, is made of individuals with varying viewpoints and experiences. But the movie’s focus is on African American audiences and that is something that’s long overdue for a big-budget superhero movie.
That is the true revolution of these films, that we are now seeing stories from the perspectives of those who have previously been marginalized in our culture and in our movies. Our movie gods, at last, are diversifying. And the subtle details we derive from these self-told visions more effectively and permanently seep into our collective consciousness than the simplistic condemnations of racism white male Hollywood has traditionally given us, sneaking past the built-in resistance to sledgehammer moralizing that tends to turn off today’s more sophisticated audiences and settling in our brains as the new normal. That is why Black Panther and its massive success are so important. It’s one thing for independent films to win critical praise and perform better than expected at the box-office. But when a major studio blockbuster tells a positive story about minorities, made by minorities, and expressing the point of view of minorities, it’s a real signal of change. Money talks. There will be more Black Panthers.
Saved by a Woman
“Know the masculine, but keep to the feminine,” Lao Tsu said some two and a half millennia ago. To the Taoist, this is wisdom for the ages, but it’s an ethic that’s rarely embraced by comic books and the films they inspire. Though comics long ago shed their stereotype as the pre-masturbatory refuge of pimply-faced adolescent males reading by flashlight under their bed covers, they have never shed the masculine ethics of aggression and violence to which the ancient Chinese sage was referring
I know little about the DC Universe, the Marvel Extended Universe, the Marvel-Unextended Universe or any universe for that matter. I am traditionally not a fan of the genre. Past films of this type often epitomize everything bad about contemporary movies. Soulless, overproduced, under-scripted and oozing with dark energy, they are often anything but heroic. And often, they’re simply empty exercises in over-the-top special effects and lavish production design. At their worst, they’re, mean-spirited, nihilistic meditations on hopeless cynicism. When’s the last time you saw a super hero movie that made you feel good about yourself, about life and the potentials of humankind to save itself from its own madness? Patty Jenkin‘s Wonder Woman is such a film and it couldn’t have come at a better time. As the leader of the free world continues to thumb his nose at long-held democratic conventions and purposefully sows seeds of division among his own people, so comes the unbridled feminine energy of Wonder Woman as a perfect panacea to our spiritual pulp-entertainment woes.
Leave it to a woman to set us straight. Or should I say women? For it’s not just Diana Prince who’s come to save us from our treacherous, violence-loving selves, but Jenkins herself. Her uncanny ability to balance grim reality with hope and relentless violence with compassion is no small feat and it’s what makes this film so special. Jenkins begins her tale with a dazzling first act. The royal child, Diana, lives on a mysterious island of Themyscira, populated by the Amazon, a race of female warriors, and hidden, as in Black Panther’s Wakanda, from the rest of the world by a force field. There the child is trained as a fighter by Antiope (the glorious Robin Wright) through adolescence to adulthood. When the hunky British spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) suddenly breaks through the barrier followed by German soldiers from the first world war, the adult Diana (Gal Gadot in a bit of casting surely ordained by god) has her first encounter with men and her first real battle. Determined to help humanity, Diana follows Trevor back to the world of chaos and mayhem.
This first act of the film is pure cinematic enchantment and glorious to look at. Jenkins and her production designer paint their mythological canvass with epic strokes. There are breathtaking landscapes of mighty cliffs and waterfalls, with vivid blue waters and Roman style architecture. It reminds me of those old Hollywood epics set in Greece and Rome, particularly the Ray Harryhausen classic, Jason and the Argonauts, but with a modern CGI sheen. When the queen tells Diana the origins of her people, of how they were created by a dying Zeus to defeat the evil Aries, it’s illustrated with a magical pop-up book meets CGI sequence that evokes both the innocence of childhood and the grandeur of the Greek mythology on which the origin story is based.
Wonder Woman is the least “pure” of the four films reviewed here. Though it was directed by a woman, the script was written by four men and it has its forays into silly macho fantasy. An early scene implies that Trevor is well endowed, an action movie cliché meant to indulge the egos of male audiences and presumably the screenwriters. It’s done tastefully and with a kind of old-Hollywood panache, but it’s cheesy and the kind of thing no woman would ever write. Still, there’s a real feminine spirit to this Diana. She’s not just a recycled male hero with boobs and a hot outfit. She’s a woman and she acts like one. She’s tender, forgiving, compassionate, strong and determined, and unwavering in her faith in humanity. As she first visits the outside world, we see the innocence of someone who has only known love. In an amusing sequence, Trevor tries to keep her warrior nature hidden as the two of them journey through dreary London with Diana’s full Amazon getup covered only by a trench coat. Her innocence is played for laughs in these scenes, but soon Trevor introduces her to the horrors of war.
Diana senses the work of Aries, the God of War, who sees humans as irredeemable and worthy of destruction. Here the film refuses to turn its back on human darkness. This is no caped hero rescuing cats from trees and delivering bumbling henchmen behind bars. The evil is real – War, gas attacks, dead children. And there are no simple divisions between good and evil. The duality of human nature is fully acknowledged. But through her horror at the carnage, Diana refuses to give up on mankind, convinced that destroying Aries will save mankind and bring peace to the world. There are a couple of exciting and cleverly filmed action sequences to come. But the film loses a bit of steam mid-way as it shifts its focus to a plan to defeat the evil scientist (Elena Anaya), a female Phantom of the Opera whose grotesque disfigurement is hidden by a mask, before she can develop chemical weapons that may imperil the allied forces. Fortunately, the film recovers with a powerful finale.
Wonder Woman’s real significance lies not in the fact that its director, its superhero and one of its villains are female, or even that the millions of masculine-toxic adolescent males who helped make this film a huge hit, got to see a positive female role model that wasn’t lame. Its real significance is its message of love as the real motivation behind Diana’s actions. The film’s thrilling, if overlong, showdown between Diana and Aries (David Thewlis, a great actor, here burdened with some unbearably cliched bad-guy banter), is visually disappointing in that it’s drearily filmed at night in dark blacks, grays, and browns, lit by ever-present balls of fire and the bright electrical beams that seem to always occur during your typical Hollywood God-fight. But the big fight itself is spectacular, and emotionally the scene truly delivers. As Diana and Aries duke it out, surrounded by flames, Aries insists mankind is not worth saving. “They do not deserve your protection,” he screams. “It’s not about deserve,” she replies, her dark black hair billowing in the fire-wind. “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”
A superhero movie about love? Now that’s a revolution.
Sorry to Bother You: 88/100
Black Panther: 86/100
Wonder Woman: 83/100