' ' Cinema Romantico

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Preparing for the Possibility of a Lady Gaga Oscar Nomination

Hi, friends. It is merely mid-September and so most of you, if not all of you, have no interest in a State of the Oscar Race missive. The Academy Awards, after all, are but a faraway Alpha Centauri-ish glimmer in the sky, and so there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of films striving for critical and peer praise that have yet to be released. But there have been significant developments in the last couple weeks. “A Star Is Born”, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut and remake, of sorts, of the 1978 movie which was a remake, of sorts, of the 1954 movie which was a remake, of sorts, of the 1937 movie which was a remake, of sorts, of 1932’s “What Price Hollywood?” screened at the Venice Film Festival and then at the Toronto International Film Festival and was met with critical rapture, believe the hype tweets, and standing ovations. “A Star Is Born Looks Like An Oscar Contender”, brayed The Atlantic. “Oscar Voters Are Sure to Go Gaga for Bradley Cooper’s ‘A Star Is Born,’”, declared Variety in what sounds like a headline straight outta Tronc-approved journalism school. The latter is what interests us. Is it true? Might one Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta earn an Oscar nomination?


We are not here to say yay or nay. And we are definitely not here to say whether or not she will win if she is nominated. No, Cinema Romantico is merely here to prepare you for the possibility that Lady Gaga will be nominated for an Oscar. What, you might be wondering, will the pop culture landscape look like in the wake of such an event? Awards Backlashologists are already predicting the adverse response might be beyond the the damage assessment measuring capabilities of The Hathaway Scale. However, this blog is in a unique position to answer the most pertinent questions in the face of this suddenly very real possibility – that position being a person with a picture of Lady Gaga and Bruce Springsteen stuck to his refrigerator (which his Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife lovingly tolerates). We feel like any worries you might have should the name Lady Gaga be called the morning of January 22, 2019 are worries we can talk you through.

You Are Worried That….. Lady Gaga Will Wear A Meat Dress To The Oscars. Hey, you’ve lived through Barbra’s mauve cape, and Bjork’s swan, and Juliette Binoche draping herself in velvet, okay, so you’ll be fine wehther Gaga quotes Mitzi Del Bra, or shows up in a Gaultier sack-back gown, or, evoking her 60 Minutes interview, shows up sans makeup and drinking whiskey.


You Are Worried That..... Lady Gaga Will Make Some Sort Of Overdramatic Entrance. This is a problem? Give me a choice of Jimmy Kimmel dropping candy from the sky for the third straight Oscars or Gaga channeling her Venice entrance where she perched on the edge of a taxi boat wearing black stilettos and blowing kisses, her hair up in victory rolls like she was Betty Grable on her way to the premiere of “Song of the Islands”, and I’m taking the latter in a heartbeat. I hope she shows up to the Oscars riding a giant mechanical dragon puppet breathing foam fire. Try and ask the dragon a question before it eats you, Seacrest.

You Are Worried That….. Lady Gaga’s Acceptance Speech Would Be Over-Earnest, Cringe-Worthy Dreck. I was at Lollapalooza 2010 when Ms. Gaga had but one and a half albums at her disposal was forced to significantly banter between songs to fill time, though her banter was less Neko Case-y comical than counting her blessings, over and over, which struggled to blend with declarations of taking a ride on other people’s disco sticks, and such. It didn’t really work, even for me, person with Lady Gaga on his refrigerator, and I can only assume if she did somehow win the Oscar that her speech would last way too long and get way too emotional. She already went Sally Field at TIFF. But Sally Field went Sally Field at the Oscars and the world’s still turning.

You Are Worried That..... Lady Gaga’s Oscar Nomination Will Complete Her Mainstream Ascension. Ah, I see you original Gaga fan! You, Little Monster, before Little Monsters became as trendy as Hufflepuffs. And you should know better than anyone that Gaga is neither Mainstream nor Punk Rock; she is Artpop. An Oscar nomination will merely make her more powerful.

You Are Worried That..... Lady Gaga’s Oscar Nomination Would Inevitably Lead To A Lady Gaga Jukebox Musical. Too late! I am already shopping my “Highway Unicorn” script around Hollywood!

You Are Worried That….. Lady Gaga Will Get An Oscar Nominaton Before Kirsten Dunst. This is a very real fear, and it is a very real fear that I understand. I am, after all, a Dunst Completist, a Kiki Enthusiast. That she has not received an Oscar nomination is a literal crime in the kangaroo court of Hollywood. And yet, if in the wake of a Gaga Oscar nod I was called to testify on behalf of Ms. Dunst, given my long-standing love of her acting and steadfast belief she gave the best performance of 1998, I would raise my right hand, swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and then tell everyone clamoring for Stefani’s head, in my official capacity as a Dunst Devotee, to just, like, chill out, okay?

You Are Worried That...... Lady Gaga Can’t Act. That’s probably only because you think Lady Gaga can’t sing.

You Are Worried That….. Lady Gaga’s Nomination Will Push Out A More Deserving Performance. For the love of god, this happens every year. Remember when Cinema Romantico was convinced two years ago that it was Annette Bening’s “time”?

You Are Worried That….. It’s Supposed To Be Glenn Close’s “Time”. If it’s her “time”, it will be. A Gaga nod will not impede Close.  It’s not Gaga’s “time”; it’s Gaga Time. It’s always Gaga Time, at least in Little Monster Land, perched beneath the big rainbow between Mountain and Pacific. And if she gets that Oscar nod, whether you like it or not, all time in the United States, from coast to coast, will be governed according to Gaga too.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians

Though Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians”, based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 book of the same name, is decidedly a rom-com, heavy on the com, a little too ineffectual in the rom, it often feels just as much like some old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama in its exploration of class and identity. The latter is what makes it so profound, then, that “Crazy Rich Asians” is the first Hollywood production since “The Joy Luck Club” 25 long years ago to feature an entirely Asian cast. Inserting this cast into a movie that easily could existed in the Golden Age, when an all-white cast would have been a foregone conclusion, merely illuminates the ease of representation. And in a way, the film’s resolute predictability is enhanced by that representation, a demonstration of anything you can do we can do just as well. And if “Crazy Rich Asians” leaves you wanting more as much as feeling satisfied, well, hey now, doesn’t every rom com?


As “Crazy Rich Asians” opens, Nick Young (Henry Golding) asks his girlfriend Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) if she will come home with him to Singapore, not just to attend his best friend’s wedding but to meet his parents. If this sounds straightforward, it grows complicated as the aristocratic realities of Nick’s family gradually make themselves apparent to an increasingly overwhelmed Rachel. Those realities are intensified by Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), yearning not simply for her son to move home and assume control of the family business but to marry right, which means not marrying Rachel.

If this generates tension, it is rarely felt between Rachel and Nick, not least because Golding’s overly polite performance fails to evince any internal anguish this position as unwilling heir would seem to suggest. Of course, ten million movie rom coms have left the female character out in the cold, and so perhaps this is poetic justice, since the real tension is within Rachel, and between Rachel and Eleanor. The latter is glimpsed straight away in mom and significant other meeting in the kitchen at a lavish family party where Eleanor continually interrupts their getting-to-know-you chit-chat, tending to a plate of food or consulting with a cook without so much as an “excuse me”, signaling her role as party host comes first, before labeling Rachel’s pursuing of her passion as “American.” It’s a wicked line reading by Yeoh, one verbally putting an icepick in the age-old notion of having it all, and it lays bare the dividing line between Asian and Asian-American values.

That dividing line was apparently examined in greater detail in Kwan’s book, and you wish the movie delved it into more deeply. A comical moment in which a character scolds a child for not finishing his meal by saying “There are starving children in America” seems ripe for all sorts of societal unpacking but is merely left as a punchline. Indeed, there is so much opulence left unscrutinized that the film might have just floated away into excess, like Baz Luhrmann’s version of “The Great Gatsby”, if not for Yeoh, who evokes less cutout villainy than resiliency in a cultural belief that familial obligations supersede independence. You see this, too, in Astrid (Gemma Chan), the Youngs’ oldest daughter, who is introduced hiding purchases from her husband for fear of financially emasculating him, setting the tone for a subplot in which she suffers through him projecting all his insecurities onto her. Maybe I was just yearning for her to wield a nine iron, Elin Nordegren style, but the sadness of her subplot seemed for more than a Prince Charming-ish wrap-up.

If Astrid is evocative of what comes with old money, Rachel’s best friend Peik Lin Goh is evocative of the insecurities of the new. She is played by the Asian-American Awkwafina, who only fails to steal the movie outright because of Yeoh. Compared to the asinine narrative constrictions of the misguided “Ocean’s 8”, here Awkwafina is unleashed, giving the interloping nature of the nouveau riche a wry self-effacement but also a distance from the real thing affording acerbic observation of how the system works; she is the living embodiment of the old Chris Rock bit about the difference between rich and wealthy. She is not just comic relief, however, but the conscious, pushing Rachel toward a better self, particularly in prompting her friend to get done up for Nick’s best friend’s wedding which doesn’t play like Pygmalion but Rachel reveling in her own power. The film’s climactic moment, in fact, is not the airplane proposal torn from a thousand rom coms but Rachel pinning Eleanor to a spot between a rock and a hard place over a game of Mahjong. You almost wish the movie could have ended there.


Then again, in the wake of the airplane proposal torn from a thousand rom coms, Yeoh gets one more moment, seen from a distance, a respectful look in Rachel’s direction, that is not unlike the one the athlete gives the other athlete in a sports movie upon being competitively vanquished though Yeoh, brilliantly, withholds in such a way that she isn’t tipping the cap so much as waving a variation of a white flag. She’s been bested. The game’s changed. Watching that, I wondered if maybe one day the same expression would apply to Hollywood’s white-centric casting agents.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Saturday's Hero (1951)

“Saturday’s Hero” was released in 1951 and into the midst of the Army Football academic scandal, a fact which makes one wish for a present-day film to really challenge college football rather than re-issue standard sentimental underdog claptrap. Because even if the term “student-athlete”, one born less of noble deeds than clever, if dastardly, means to prevent college football players from getting theirs, was 13 years away when “Saturday’s Hero” was being screened in theaters, David Miller’s film, based on Millard Lampell’s 1949 novel, already knew that term was bunk. And the eponymous hero of autumn Saturdays, Steve Novak (John Derek), finds that academics and athletics do not mix, not when his Coach and his benefactor don’t want them to, that is, and rest assured it is to them that Steve belongs. And though Steve eventually finds the means to live his life his way, this is where the film’s parable falls apart, at least on an aesthetic level.


We are introduced to Steve through his dexterity on the gridiron, which is celebrated by the Polish-American immigrant inhabitants of his New Jersey hometown, one where every male’s fate seems to be working in the local mill. Not Steve, however, and as he, his brother, and father (Sandro Giglio) stroll past the mill in an early scene, Poppa Novak wags his finger at the grimy place of industry, taunting it, saying it won’t get Steve. If a certain pride is typically attached to the notion of working towns and the entities sustaining them, this moment exposes that inherent lie. And after Steve leaves, occasional cuts back to his hometown show the residents discussing Steve like a savior, portraying football as deliverance for them as much as him.

If the college football stars of so many honest cinematic evaluations of the sport were portrayed as clueless yokels or smugly superior, Steve is deliberately written as an All-American, or yearning to be. He spurns tried and true football schools for Jackson, a southern university touting its credo of a Jackson Man, a well-rounded sort of lad who excels equally in the classroom and on the football field. Living up to that lofty ideal, Steve surprises his English teacher, Professor Megroth (Alexander Knox), in wanting to learn, though there becomes something brutally ironic about Megroth, sensing a soul under Steve’s football jersey, giving his young charge Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to read. Steve contains multitudes, which, while theoretically defining a Jackson Man, reveals itself as less an attribute than an issue.

This comes through in Steve’s benefactor, T.C. McCabe (Sydney Blackmer), required to pay Saturday’s Hero’s way since Jackson offers no athletic scholarships. Introduced in basically every other scene by pouring brown liquor from a decanter, the universal symbol of fat cat, McCabe is an evocative illustration of the modern day booster, defined, per NCAA.com, as “representatives of the institution’s athletic interests.” Indeed, in financially sponsoring the young, ahem, student-athlete, he more or less takes, ahem, ownership of Steve, just as he demonstrates ownership of his daughter, Melissa (Donna Reed), telling her in no uncertain terms to keep away from the athlete under his quote-unquote care. And rather than act as a check against the oft-overwhelming demands imparted by the game, McCabe eagerly consorts with the hard-driving coach, Preacher Tennant (Otto Hulett).

The football scenes were shot on location in both The Rose Bowl and the Los Angeles Coliseum, and while there is some solid ground-level in-game camera work that is much more than the from on-high newsreel sort of footage you often find in these movies, the gridiron action is most effective in a twilight sequence when the stadium is empty and Tennant forces the team to practice the same play, over and over, deep into the night. It is, essentially, the scene from “Miracle” where Herb Brooks drove the US hockey team to skate from one end of the rink to the other again and again, endlessly, even after the stadium lights were turned off. But if that was presented as necessary back-breaking work to construct a Team, the scene in “Saturday’s Hero” demonstrates how a similar cinematic scenario can be twisted into something else, less necessary than hotheaded irresponsibility. Besides, the football squad of Jackson is not representing America; it is representing its employers.

As the film goes on, Steve finds himself torn between honoring his employers’ orders and living up to the faux ideal of being a Jackson Man, the latter eventually tied up in his courtship of Melissa, much to his benefactor’s chagrin. She is played by Reed less as Alma Burke and more as Lorene, for all you fellow “From Here to Eternity” acolytes, which is to say a little more like a rebel. Both characters are under the thumb of institutional control – a football factory and the patriarchy. Together they find the wherewithal to bust loose and take charge of their own lives, which sounds inspiring but is mostly limp. That is because while Derek’s dim star power is credible in sequences where he is essentially a rag doll between politics, it is much less successful in the already under-developed scenes between he and Melissa. The romantic tension is minimal; his going against the grain barely registers. It is a disappointing denouement, one draining a fairly damning movie of a good chunk of its righteous fury, going to a show that a message is only as effective as the movie peddling it.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Picturing Actors Doing Things

“Step Brothers” (2008) did not overwhelm nor underwhelm me; I was just kind of whelmed. Even so, a lot of people seem to love it, as evinced by The Ringer’s recent Oral History of it, gathering most everyone to discuss its making, from leads Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly to the Queen Steen herself. And even if I was not particularly passionate about the movie itself, I still found this inside look enjoyable, particularly director Adam McKay more or less boiling the movie’s conception down to this astonishing remembrance: “I do remember saying to Will and John, ‘I just picture you guys in bunk beds.’ And I was like, ‘Is there a way to have that?’” STOP THE TAPE!


Is there any way to have that? Movies, I dare say, have been made for far less than “Is there a way to have that?” If anything, movies should be based less on formulating accurate cinematic alignments through core competencies and functionalities and more through people on filmmakers on barstools wondering aloud if there is any way to have some such thing. In that spirit...

Is there any way to have...Jeff Bridges with a hot dog gun?

Is there any way to have...Sam Elliott at a Putt-Putt?

Is there any way to have...Christine Baranski doing yoga in a neck brace?

Is there any way to have...Kevin Corrigan explaining the Townshend Acts?

Is there any way to have...Peter Stormare giving air traffic instructions?

Is there any way to have...Matt Malloy as a soda jerk?

Is there any way to have...Michael Shannon in an IKEA?

Is there any way to have...Parker Posey drinking a hipster cocktail out of a vintage Edison Light Bulb?

Is there any way to have...Tiffany Haddish just, like, hanging out in the middle of a renaissance fair?

Is there any way to have...Keira Knightley reading a book in the fire escape of the Libreria Alta Acqua?

Is there any way to have...George Clooney pacing in front of the Jet d’Eau and arguing on a cellphone?

Is there any way to have...Angelina Jolie breaking into a submarine while it’s submerged?

Is there any way to have...Nicole Kidman as a mermaid? (And I’m not talking about “Splash”, man, I’m talking about some real arty song of the siren stuff here.)

Is there any way to have...Colin Firth & Jesse Eisenberg in a city where they’ve never been trying to decide where to go for dinner?

Is there any way to have...Ashley Judd & Mira Sorvino on a movie poster in patterned jumpsuits standing back-to-back with their arms crossed?

Is there any way to have...Penelope Cruz & Javier Bardem wearing designer sunglasses and jaunty hats drinking red wine & lemon Fanta in an outdoor plaza since every fifth movie each of them make should feature them together wearing designer sunglasses and jaunty hats drinking red wine & lemon Fanta in an outdoor plaza.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Imagining More Film Director/Pop Star Friendships


This past weekend my friend Jaime directed me to the Alex Pappademas (friend of the blog who doesn’t know he’s a friend of the blog) piece in The New York Times on former Journey frontman Steve Perry winding his way back to the spotlight. The piece was excellent, but the most righteous takeaway, as Jaime noted, was the revelation that Perry was good pals with Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman.” “He’d become acquainted with Patty Jenkins,” Pappademas wrote, “who’d befriended Mr. Perry after contacting him for permission to use ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ in her 2003 film ‘Monster.’ (When he literally showed up on the mixing stage the next day and pulled up a chair next to me, saying, ‘Hey I really love your movie. How can I help you?’ it was the beginning of one of the greatest friendships of my life, Ms. Jenkins wrote in an email.)” Immediately Jaime, along with My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife, begin lobbying for the sort of blogging hypothetical in which Cinema Romantico specializes, speculating about what other film directors and pop stars might have become fast friends.

When I read the article, it was the revelation that Jenkins and Perry became friends after she asked him for permission to use “Don’t Stop Believin’” that led my mind to the only place it could possibly go – that is, what other directors might have contacted pop stars about using their songs leading to eternal friendships. A few ideas:


Kathryn Bigelow + Tracii Guns. L.A. Guns is not the band even the most generous critic would credit for anything approaching introspection, but I imagine Kathryn Bigelow telephoning Tracii Guns sometime in 1991 anyway and explaining that his band’s “Over the Edge” was the only song that would do in metaphorically connecting her “Point Break” protagonist’s transition from agnostic detective to spiritual surfer. And perhaps, impressed, Guns might have struck up a friendship with Bigelow, one that blossomed in all manner of underground L.A. rock clubs, all of which went unseen in those halcyon pre-social media days. So unseen, in fact, that years later, during a Q&A, jaws drop when Bigelow cites “Hollywood Vampires” as her prime inspiration for “Strange Days.”


Nancy Meyers + Brandon Flowers. Flowers doesn’t strike me as the sort of chap who would give a director a hard time for wanting to use a piece of his music, and so I imagine that if Meyers had contacted him to use “Mr. Brightside” for “The Holiday” that he not only agreed but that he asked Meyers if they could become pen pals. And that awhile after becoming pen pals, Flowers invited Meyers to a Killers show at Madison Square Garden, and that at some point in the night Flowers pulled Meyers onstage to help sing a duet of “Mr. Brightside.” And that through their penning of letters Meyers was inspired to write a movie called “The Intern” which did not star Anne Hathaway as an E-commerce CEO and Robert DeNiro as her retired intern but Flowers as a successful pop star and Roland Gift (whom Meyers befriended upon calling to ask if she could use Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing” for “It’s Complicated”) as his out of the limelight intern.


Amy Heckerling + Thom Yorke. One day a grainy smartphone photo begins making rounds that seems to show Heckerling and Yorke having coffee. Eventually, through their reps, Heckerling and Yorke issue separate statments confirming that, yes, they are friends, and that they have been friends for 23 years since Heckerling checked in with Yorke about using Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” for “Clueless.” “You know that story about me randomly putting lyrics together on ‘Kid A?’” Yorke rhetorically asks in his statement. “Amy actually wrote those lyrics.”



Rebecca Miller + Bruce Springsteen. I like to think that the current version of The Boss, the version of The Boss getting acquainted with philosophy, would not just reply “Yeah, sure” if Rebecca Miller dialed him up for permission to use “Dancing in the Dark” for “Maggie’s Plan.” No, I like to think The Boss would be interested in picking the brain of such a celebrated writer. And since Kathleen Hanna was actually employed to the sing a cover of Bruce’s song for “Maggie’s Plan” then perhaps Miller, Hanna, and Bruce formed a version of the Algonquin Round Table. Can there be any doubt of that being the brightest timeline?


Barbra Streisand + Richard Marx. THEY’RE ALREADY FRIENDS!!!!!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Summer of Dreams

Debbie Gibson is giving it her all in the Hallmark Channel’s “Summer of Dreams” (2016), that’s for sure, and in giving it her all she is, frankly, giving almost too much. This is maximum over-acting. And that is not an insult. For every Hallmark Channel movie featuring a present, considered Alicia Witt performance there are 22 more with fly-by-night-leading turns, so many unremembered acting cars whooshing past you on the interstate, never mind the feckless Ken Dolls from office furniture catalogues meant to approximate co-stars. But Gibson, bless her heart, is here for director Mike Rohl, punctuating every one-liner she is made to utter with an over-eager laugh and refusing to remain wooden by outfitting performance with all sorts of eager bits of physical business that might’ve made a Billy Wilder tsk-tsk but probably only brightened Rohl’s day. I once listened to Brian Koppelman interview Gibson and she kept peppering her sentences with high notes and breaking into bits of songs throughout, as if what she wanted to explain she could not do so by simply speaking. For the better, she brings that air to “Summer of Dreams.”


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A pop singer who struck it rich young in the 80s has failed to musically progress with the times and is ditched by her record label. That is how “Summer of Dreams” starts, though in this case it is not Debbie Gibson who is ditched but Debbie, ahem, Taylor (Gibson) in a scene where the record label exec telling her to hit the road looks like he’s about nineteen years old which is one of the movie’s most wonderful bits, evincing an industry where the (really) young is ousting the old. In no time, Debbie’s romantic relationship with some dull so & so has gone under and she is forced to move out of her apartment and flee the city, leaving her with nowhere to turn but her hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.

That’s where Debbie’s sister Denise (Pascale Hutton) still resides, with her husband and young daughter, and some of the best stuff, in a manner of speaking, in “Summer of Dreams” is the standoffish way that Denise greets her sister upon coming home, seeming to try to usher her out the door before she’s even walked through it. This behavior stems, we learn, from Debbie’s self-absorption, one that no doubt led to and was furthered by pop stardom, and which Gibson’s actorly over-eagerness plays straight into, talking and moving so fast when she first arrives that it evinces an obliviousness to the lack of welcoming warmth. This character defect will have to be corrected, of course, and the device through which it is (or, is intended to be) is Denise, a teacher at the local high school, getting her sister the job as choir teacher. It is contrivance, to which the critic can only say, yeah, so?

This means Debbie plays the role of Dewey Finn (Jack Black) in “School of Rock”, faltering and then picking herself back up again as she molds this gang of singing youths, though she also falls in love with the guidance counselor (Robert Gant). The latter actually puts into context how nice it was that “School of Rock” did not force a love interest onto Dewey; his love was only for the kids. And there emerges the preeminent paradox of “Summer of Dreams” — that is, even as Debbie is supposed to realize that everything is not about her, it sort of still is all about her. “Lose the hand gestures, Mariah,” she instructs one young burgeoning diva, which is far and away the best line in show, and the ultimate Maybe You Should Look In The Mirror moment.

Rather than standing back and letting the kids take center stage, the kids, upon discovering who their teacher is, push Debbie to the center and let her take over as a means to re-ignite her career, a mixed message that the movie either does not realize or does not care is happening. Not that you care either. Why would you? You come to “Summer of Dreams” for Debbie Gibson, and for a cover of “Only in my Dreams.” All kids are special, yes, but Gibson remains the youngest female artist to write, produce and perform a Hot 100 chart-topper. Can any of the kids in the choir say the same? Didn’t think so.

Monday, September 10, 2018

BlacKkKlansman

Is it any wonder that Spike Lee would be drawn to the true-life tale of “BlacKkKlansman”, in which Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) became, in 1972, the first black Colorado Springs police officer? Stallworth sought to elicit change from within an institution that Black America has long viewed with suspicion; Lee has never shied away from laying the oft un-inclusive Hollywood industry bare. The first image of “BlacKkKlansman”, in fact, is not an image from “BlacKkKlansman” at all but one from Hollywood’s famous ode to the Old South, “Gone with the Wind”, followed directly by clips from “Birth of a Nation” (original title: The Clansman). Lee deliberately connects, as Ava DuVernay did in her documentary “13th”, the institutional rot of Hollywood with America, which denotes Lee’s intentions as larger than simply re-telling Stallworth’s admittedly scintillating story of infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. And that is why Lee mostly employs Stallworth’s memoir as an outline, eschewing narrative cinema for a movie of ideas and images, and employing the movie’s oft-exaggerated tone to intensify its reality.


Precisely what drives Ron to be a cop is something of an oversight, his backstory a big fat blank, just showing up at the CSPD to apply, a scene where those interviewing him are seen first, underscoring the inevitable forthcoming scrutiny. In that way, Ron is not unlike James Meredith enrolling at Ole Miss, who saw himself less an individual seeking an education than a symbol making a point. Granted, this lack of dimension somewhat counteracts the philosophical quandary of Ron’s belief in the role of policing despite so many African-American attitudes to the contrary, but the follow through in which the bad apples theory of policing is first embraced and then rejected still rings true. Washington’s performance sells the character anyway, evincing affliction but also allowing a distinct joyfulness to filter through that anguish, a juxtaposition in tune with the movie’s alternating drama and comicality.

To that last point, his undercover scheme is both presented and played as something of a lark, with Ron flipping through a local newspaper and coming across a Klan recruiting ad. So, he dials them up, not even bothering to conceal his identity, a true fact forcing him to enlist fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), white and Jewish, to assume the identity of Ron Stallworth to go undercover. If the obvious dramatic connotations this might elicit are occasionally present, Lee mostly dispenses with those to hone in on notions of identity and voice. Indeed, even as Flip plays the part of Ron, the real Ron keeps taking phone calls from the Klan, including Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), a sly flouting of the oft-touted, always unbelievable idea that people don’t see color.

“BlacKkKlansman” sees color. That’s why Ron’s superior, Chief Bridges, a deft turn by Robert John Burke of grudging empathy, assigns his young charge to covertly patrol a local Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) rally where the film momentarily gives itself over to the pulpit. If Ture’s oration touches multiple bases, it is highlighted by him imploring the audience to chant “Black is beautiful”, which Lee accentuates with shots of black faces against a blacked-out backdrop staring directly into the camera, reveling in the beauty of their dark skin, cinematic evocations of a Charles White portrait. Later, after Ture and the Black Student Union activists who have helped put on the rally are pulled over and threatened, Lee allows the characters a brief reprieve through a jubilant dance sequence. If his tableau of black faces pushes back against the notion of blackness being ugly, this semi-sing-along to the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose pushes back against daft Angry Black Man stereotype to which Lee himself has so often been subjected.

At the rally is where Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), an activist in the local chapter of the Black Student Union. Though she dismisses police as “pigs”, which unsettles him despite keeping his identity secret, their relationship never really crackles with tension, sexual or otherwise. It is more like a conduit for political thought, which makes them feel like a couple students working more on an intellectual level than an amorous one, like differing opinions about the worth of Blaxplotiation movies leading Patrice to cite DuBois’s theory of double consciousness, of African-Americans only seeing themselves through the lens of an oppressive society, both sides of which Ron deliberately inhabits.

That sort of dimension is conspicuously lacking in the film’s presentation of the Klan, not all of whom are caricatures necessarily but are fairly one-note in their hatred nonetheless, leaving a little too much space for cheap liberal laughs. Though these Klansman hatch a bomb plot, the capper is not the eventual explosion so much as a sequence cribbed from The Jerky Boys with a long shot punchline where the Grand Wizard of the KKK is made to look like Edward R. Rooney, Dean of Students, his cheese left out in the wind, signaling what Lee thinks of them. Then again, this Klan chapter is dismissed several times as a clownish fringe organization unable to manage the terror they seek to unleash even as they come close to pulling it off anyway. Ignore them, in other words, and they will not merely melt away but hang around, which is why the concluding clips of the tragic 2017 events in Charlottesville, Virginia are not auteurist indulgence but evidence.


“BlacKkKlansman’s” most powerful passage involves a KKK initiation where members munch on popcorn while screening “Birth of a Nation”, hooting and hollering, as Lee mimics Griffith’s famous cross-cutting technique by switching back and forth between this white supremacist spectacle and a Black Student Union event where an activist, Jerome Turner, speaks. If at first this seems like a counter-myth being raised to combat “Birth of a Nation’s”, it is notable that Turner is played by Harry Belafonte, a real-life black activist, and that the lynching he recounts is the one of Jesse Washington in 1916. This is not myth; this is real; this is Spike Lee ramming the two together until all that we can see, so long as we choose to look, is what’s right in front of us.