Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman isn’t a remake of Ted V. Mikels’ infamous 1966 grindhouse staple. Rather it’s based on true events (“Dis joint is based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit,” reads the title card, because Lee is apparently a 12-year-old boy), the story of how rookie cop Ron Stallworth (played here in a star-making turn from John David Washington, son of Denzel) became a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1978, despite being an African-American.
After being taken off undercover duties and frustrated with his desk jockey role in the intelligence department of the Colorado Springs Police Department, Stallworth comes across an advertisement taken out by the Klan in the classifieds section of a local newspaper. Posing as a disgruntled white man, Stallworth dials the number and begins the process of infiltrating the local chapter of the racist organization.
Trouble is, there’s no way Stallworth can meet up with the local Klan-bangers, so he coerces a white cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into taking over the role for face to face meetings. However, Zimmerman is an equally unlikely Klansman, as he’s Jewish! With Zimmerman as the face and Stallworth the voice, our black and Jewish heroes begin the task of taking down the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK from within.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a true story with as much dramatic potential as Stallworth’s, but in this sloppy, ideologically contradictory, tonal mess, it’s sadly a case of squandered potential. The script boasts four writers, two of whom are experienced African-American auteurs (Lee and Kevin Willmott, writer/director of the sharp satire Confederate States of America), two of whom are inexperienced white-American writers (Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz). I can’t help wonder if the latter pair were brought in to ensure Lee and Willmott wouldn’t write a film that might make middle class white Americans feel uncomfortable. As such it often feels like a movie made by two different creators, and it’s no surprise that the most successful moments are those that exclusively feature black faces on the screen.
Lee gives us three great scenes that remind us of his ability to use the screen to grab an audience and pull us into his milieu. Early on, while working undercover, Stallworth attends an appearance by civil rights activist Kwame Ture (played in rousing fashion by Corey Hawkins), finding himself torn between Ture’s militant rhetoric and his own conservative beliefs. Lee shoots it like Keith Carradine’s ‘I’m Easy’ performance in Robert Altman's Nashville, showing us the many faces in the crowd being individually impacted by Ture’s words. Later, Lee throws a bone to exploitation cinema fans with a great debate between Stallworth and love interest Patrice (Laura Harrier, whose angelic features shrouded in a giant Afro made me think of Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago) on the merits of blaxploitation.
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The most gripping scene comes towards the film’s climax, as Harry Belafonte (seemingly playing an anachronistic version of himself), recounts a heart-breaking and anger-inducing lynching anecdote to Patrice and her activist friends. It’s a scene that might (and should) inspire righteous fury, but it loses much impact by being intercut with the film’s KKK villains, a bunch of broad Southern white trash caricatures designed to make middle class white viewers feel like they’re distanced enough from them to not have to question their own ingrained prejudices.
Elsewhere, Stallworth has to contend with the bullying of a racist white cop (only one?) who is practically a double of the awful character Sam Rockwell essayed in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He’s the sort of borderline mentally-challenged oddball who could never really become a cop, but I guess he’s easier to write than the more nuanced racist cops found in too many police departments. Ironically, the film ends with real life footage of the Charlottesville protests, when a bunch of affluent, well-heeled young white men led a racist, anti-semitic march, a million miles away from the Cletus and Earl types of BlacKkKlansman.
The quartet of writers also appear to frequently contradict themselves, not just ideologically (the message of the film is as much Blue Lives Matter as Black Lives Matter), but in plot continuity. Early on we learn of Zimmerman’s Jewish heritage when it’s revealed (through a line of dialogue rather than simply showing us - really Spike?) that he wears a Star of David around his neck, yet later, after he’s had a few meetings with the Klan, he tells us his parents didn’t raise him as a Jew and it’s something he hasn’t ever given any thought to. Wait, what?
Beginning with an incredibly cringe-worthy Alec Baldwin cameo that recalls the funny-as-cancer sketch show SNL at its worst, BlacKkKlansman frequently interrupts its potentially compelling scenario with the broadest of comedy, giving us racists so broadly sketched they make the WASPish antagonists of your average ‘80s Rodney Dangerfield comedy seem well observed. Targeting racists through comedy is a dangerous exercise, as comedy is subjective, and the most difficult of genres to pull off. Comedy also requires an element of recognition, which is why most stand-up comics make their audiences laugh by giving them uncomfortable truths. Unlike last year’s Get Out, which made liberal white audiences laugh while also making them examine their own brand of bigotry, BlacKkKlansman is unlikely to make any white viewers leave the cinema questioning their prejudice, as its villains are unrelatable cartoon figures, and it ends on a scene that pushes the dubious idea that racist cops are a minority that the rest of the boys in blue are committed to flushing out. There was a time when Hollywood enabled Lee to make movies like Malcolm X, films that made no concessions to comforting white viewers. How we could use such movies now.
2 1/2 stars out of 5
Directed by: Spike Lee; Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte
2018 Westfield International Film Festival To Take Place September 20-23 (WESTFIELD, NJ) -- Anybody can go to a movie theater to watch a film, but the Westfield International Film Festival is bringing movies to the mansion with its sixth season at the James Ward Mansion in downtown Westfield from September 20 - 23, 2018! The festival will span a four day weekend and will include Q&A sessions with actors and filmmakers, networking opportunities, and red carpet parties.Lighthouse International Film Society Presents A Screening of "Half Empty / Half Full" (LONG EACH ISLAND, NJ) -- Lighthouse International Film Society will present a pre-release screening of Half Empty/Half Full on August 18 at 8:00pm at The LBI Historical Association at 129 Engleside Avenue in Beach Haven. The director, Andy Gershenzon, will be on hand for a Q&A following the screening. Admission is $5 and free for Lighthouse Film Society members.JCTC FILM Premiers DEKA-LOG, New Series Depicting Contemporary Urban Life (JERSEY CITY, NJ) -- A new anthology web-series by an up and coming, Jersey City-based filmmaker, premiers at Merseles Studios on August 23rd when Jersey City Theater Center presents DEKA-LOG: a Finding Me story. Doors are at 6:30pm, screening at 7:00pm. Admission is $10.The Newton Theatre Presents a Silent Film Halloween With A Live Orchestra (NEWTON, NJ) -- The Newton Theatre presents a trio of ghostly silent films paired with the original historic orchestral scores on Saturday, October 27 at 3:00pm. Travel back to the early 1900s to cheer and hiss with Buster Keaton in The Haunted House (1921), Laurel and Hardy in Habeus Corpus (1928), and Charlie Chaplin in One A.M. (1916). Between the films, enjoy the rollicking rhythms of the early 20th century as played by The Peacherine Ragtime Orchestra, featuring favorites by Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin, and more! Fun for the whole family!A Look At New Jersey Film Festival's Fall 2018 Lineup (NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ) -- The 36th Bi-annual New Jersey Film Festival Fall 2018 will take place at Rutgers University in New Brunswick from September 14 - October 26. The festival showcases new international films, American independent features, animation, experimental and short subjects, and cutting-edge documentaries through over 30 film screenings. The Festival will run on select Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. The festival is presented by Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, in association with the Rutgers University Program In Cinema Studies.
Newark Black Film Festival Richard Wesley is a playwright, screenwriter, and professor of Dramatic Writing at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and has been involved with the Newark Black Film Festival for well over three decades. A Newark native, he’s currently the Chairperson of the festival’s Selection Committee. The NBFF is currently in full swing, with a screening of Cadillac Records tomorrow, and the biennial Paul Robeson Awards for young filmmakers taking place on Wednesday, August 8. This season’s program also features the films Selma, I Called Him Morgan, The Art of the Journey, Coco, and Hidden Figures. We recently spoke with Wesley about the history and mission of the Newark Black Film Festival, the role it plays in the lives of young filmmakers, and a chance encounter with Sidney Poitier that launched him into the film industry.REVIEW: "Skyscraper" Over the last half century, the concept of blockbuster spectacle has flipped on its head. In the 1960s, big budget spectacle meant Steve McQueen jumping over a barbed wire fence on a motorcycle without the aid of a stunt double, or Julie Andrews screaming her lungs out on a Swiss mountainside. Science fiction was relegated to Saturday morning screenings of b-movies, which parents would use to relieve themselves of their tykes while they went shopping. George Lucas changed all that a decade later, and now sci-fi and fantasy dominates the multiplex, while the only movies featuring practical stunts are those low budget straight to VOD action movies designed to showcase the athleticism of former MMA fighters.REVIEW: "BlacKkKlansman" Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman isn’t a remake of Ted V. Mikels’ infamous 1966 grindhouse staple. Rather it’s based on true events (“Dis joint is based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit,” reads the title card, because Lee is apparently a 12-year-old boy), the story of how rookie cop Ron Stallworth (played here in a star-making turn from John David Washington, son of Denzel) became a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1978, despite being an African-American.REVIEW: "When I Sing" Most of the world learned of Linda Chorney in 2012 when her name was listed as one of the Grammy nominees for Best Americana Album. Her film, When I Sing, not only follows her rise from obscurity to the Grammy Awards, it goes much further. It’s a love story between a die hard Red Sox fan and a Yankees fan; a spotlight on how indie artists survive on the road; and a deeply, revealing portrait of how the media and the music industry turned what could have been a wonderful Cinderella story into a very hurtful experience.REVIEW: "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" I recall hearing an anecdote concerning a society of pranksters in 1970s London who would take trips en masse to the cinema, only to walk out when or if the title of the movie in question was spoken by a character. That lot would get their money’s worth with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, as it’s not until the closing minutes that a returning original cast member (in a blink and you’ll miss it cameo) informs us that we’re now living in a “Jurassic World.” It’s the sort of cringeworthy moment that would normally cause me to groan, but I was so broken down by the laziness and ineptitude of this fifth installment in the franchise that I couldn’t even muster a sigh by that late point.
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Newark Black Film Festival
Richard Wesley is a playwright, screenwriter, and professor of Dramatic Writing at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and has been involved with the Newark Black Film Festival for well over three decades. A Newark native, he’s currently the Chairperson of the festival’s Selection Committee. The NBFF is currently in full swing, with a screening of Cadillac Records tomorrow, and the biennial Paul Robeson Awards for young filmmakers taking place on Wednesday, August 8. This season’s program also features the films Selma, I Called Him Morgan, The Art of the Journey, Coco, and Hidden Figures. We recently spoke with Wesley about the history and mission of the Newark Black Film Festival, the role it plays in the lives of young filmmakers, and a chance encounter with Sidney Poitier that launched him into the film industry.
Winners of the 2018 New Jersey International Film Festival Competition Announced!
Winners of the 2018 New Jersey International Film Festival Competition Announced!
The 2018 Lighthouse International Film Festival
Passes are now on sale for the 10th annual Lighthouse International Film Festival, which takes place on an idyllic barrier island in the Atlantic Ocean: Long Beach Island, aka LBI. – Some film buff trivia: it’s where one of the infamous Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 happened, which inspired the infamous “Jaws.”
Evelyn Colbert On The Montclair Film Festival
The seventh annual Montclair Film Festival kicks off this Thursday with a world-class program, featuring more than 160 films, special events, parties and discussions with Jeff Daniels, Ethan Hawke, Rachel Weisz, Claire Danes and Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons. The festival will also feature a performance from MacArthur Genius Award-winner Taylor Mac – “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged)” – which The New York Times writer Wesley Morris called “one of the great experiences of my life.” We spoke with Evelyn Colbert, President of the Board of the Montclair Film Festival – and wife of Stephen Colbert – about this year’s crop of new films, and how sharing stories can strengthen a community – and maybe a country.