BlacKkKlansman [2018] – A Flawed yet Impassioned Look at U.S. Race Relations

Spike Lee’s brilliant biopic Malcolm X (1992) opened with the image of American flag burning into shape of X. In his latest witty as well as agitated crime-drama BlacKkKlansman (2018), Lee finishes with the shot of an American flag in black-and-white, depicted upside-down, underlining the country’s civic plus political distress of the past and present, and also sounding alarm bells for the future.  BlacKkKlansman, however, is not one of the director’s strongest works although it thoroughly entertains us with an intriguing serio-comic tone (and retains all his attention-grabbing stylistic flourishes). The film is based on stranger-than-fiction true story (or as the opening credits says, “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit”) about a African-American rookie detective in the Colorado Springs police department in 1970s who infiltrated the local wing of Ku Klux Klan by impersonating as a white racist over the phone.

John David Washington (son of Denzel) plays Ron Stallworth, who proudly wears his black identity and happens to be the first black police officer working at Colorado Springs police force. The Stallworth memoir this movie is based on is set in the late 1970s, but the director moves the setting to Nixon-era to easily extrapolate the messiness of early 1970s to the present. Assigned (condemned) to records room, Ron requests the chief for an undercover gig. Typically, his first task was to pose as an audience member at a speech delivered by civil rights-activist Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) and report for possible subversive activity. There he also meets student activist leader Patrice (Laura Harrier), who displays aversion for cops. Ture’s vibrant speech makes a huge impact on Ron and other young black men and women. Director Lee keeps cutting back to the black faces absorbing the fierce words, which ends with a pulsating chant “All power to all people!” This moment of awakening might be the reason why Ron picks up the phone at office next day and calls a number listed on a KKK ad published in the local newspaper.

Adopting an amiable ‘white’ voice, Ron begins to drop in slurs about how he hates Jews, black people and every other foes of the Klan. He also narrates an incident about an ‘n—er’ who put his “filthy black hands” on his “purest white-driven-snow” sister. Impressed by Ron’s rhetoric, the Klan leader of the local chapter (Ryan Eggold) offers an in-person invite. Of course, Ron can’t go to the meeting and he solves that problem by wiring and sending his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). The single undercover entity, played by two men, gradually takes steps to expose any violent plans hatched by the hostile and dimwitted racists. Eventually, the undercover job isn’t all just about Ron getting increasingly aware of his identity. Even the Jewish Flip confides how the Klan’s hatred contemplates his own identity (“I wasn’t raised with any real religion or sense of difference. I never thought about it before. Now, I’m thinking about it all the time”). Considering America’s revamped ethno-racial identity politics, it’s a resonant truth that’s casually tossed off.

Spike Lee largely wants us to laugh at the deceptively simple ploy: a black and Jew rooting out the absurdity and alarming misguided aspirations of the Klan. Back when Lee was a student at NYU Film School, his professors said to have lauded the formal brilliance of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) without touching upon the movie’s outright racist message. In fact, Lee’s student film that served as a response to this approach caused problem with his professors. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee brings in veteran singer, activist and actor Harry Belafaonte to insist on the silent feature’s poisonous effects (considered to have renewed the KKK when it was on the decline), which is still regarded as a formative film history text and landmark of narrative film-making (Lee also takes shots at the alleged Hollywood epic ‘Gone With the Wind’). He doesn’t care about getting under the skin of white racists. He makes those characters deliberately cartoonish in order to fiercely counterbalance the swaggering tone adapted by Griffith’s century-old movie. 

Like Do The Right Thing (1989), what lays beneath Lee's narrative surface is a boiling rage on the continuity of racial injustice. But unlike that masterful dark comedy, Lee goes for a purposefully palatable message for the mainstream viewers in BlacKkKlansman. Starting from the way the title is rendered to Alec Baldwin cameo as an unabashed bigot (who very much sounds like the guy desiring to “make America great again”) to using Charlottesville footage, the director avoids subtlety which he feels not the right tone to depict a society that’s imploding. Lee rather employs the tools of melodrama, put together for Griffith’s virulently racist content, to demonstrate how centuries of racial hatred have seared its way to the present (and would in the future), denying reconciliation and widening the rift.

Lee does struggle in handling the unsettlingly tense and comic quotient in the script (penned by Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott), even though he makes up for some of the tonal flaws with his trademark visual panache (the Klan initiation scene juxtaposed with Belafonte’s painful recollection was one such example). The writing too suffers from not providing a semblance of interiority to the characters. John David, Adam Driver, Jasper Paakkonen, Topher Grace, etc delivers commendable performance, but their respective characters are only explored on the surface level. Nevertheless, Lee’s pointed sociopolitical message throws gut-punches at the right occasions. Altogether, BlacKkKlansman (136 minutes) is an engrossing and galvanizing melodrama which gains its distressing, raw power by bitingly relating it to hot-button issues of Trump era.  


Burning [2018] – A Gripping Mystery with a Deeply Meditative Tone

Korean film-maker Lee Chang-dong makes the kind of simmering slow-burn dramas that keep haunting our mind long after the screen fades to black. Lee’s character studies, engulfed by humanistic concerns, unfold in a disquetingly naturalistic fashion. He painstakingly realizes his character, so much that their actions at some point in the narrative comes across as reflexive than dramatic. That also kind of explains the director’s slow working nature (six films in two decades) and his features' sprawling two-hour plus running time. Lee’s protagonists are very often troubled characters; the disabled, dispirited, and ostracized individuals, whose painful existence unmasks the callousness of modern society. Moreover, despite the very personal and realistic examination of outcast subjects, sharp sociopolitical critique throbs beneath the surface of Lee’s works. The same thematic preoccupations and rigorous style persists in the film-maker’s latest offering Burning (‘Beoning’, 2018), a brilliantly orchestrated study of contrasts at both micro (personal) and macro (social) levels.

Loosely based on Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s short story (‘Barn Burning’), Burning opens as a meet-cute love story, then turns into a love triangle of sorts, and before long becomes a spine-chilling mystery that seems both easily interpretable and  inexplicable. Lee opens the film in a bustling city street with Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young man moving around while carrying some merchandise on his shoulders. Surrounded by brightly colored advertisement boards and cacophony in the street, Jong-su meets Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a girl from his home-town. Jong-su is the underemployed (works part-time as deliveryman), aspiring writer son of a poor farmer. The striving and eccentric Hae-mi, estranged from her family, works part-time doing dance routines to attract the shoppers. She loves pantomime and showcases this love by peeling and munching on invisible oranges before Jong-su, who sits mouth with his agape. She remarks the trick isn’t pretending that the mango is there, but forgetting that it isn’t. Over their reunion drink, Hae-mi also explains the African tribe’s ritual dance of ‘little hunger’ – the physical needs – and ‘great hunger’ – a search for life’s meaning.

Lee Jong-su holds a degree in creative writing, but usually loses himself in the discordant mixture of thoughts, and lacks the drive to focus on particular subject for his first novel. Hae-mi is strikingly different as she is full of stories and goes after her desires. She lives in boxy, single-room apartment, but to satiate her ‘great hunger’ Hae-mi plans a trip to Kenya. Soon, the two youngsters mend the loneliness and emptiness in each other’s lives. They make tender love in Hae-mi’s little apartment, a beam of sunlight flickering on the wall above the bed. Before going to Africa, Hae-mi asks Jong-su to routinely feed her cat. Hae-mi says her cat ‘Boil’ is super-shy and the only proof that a cat exists is the droppings in a litter box. But, Jong-su dutifully visits the apartment and feeds the unseen cat. Jong-su also handles troubles back at his family farm in Paju, a city closer to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. His violent and untalkative father is caught in a legal trouble (mother is long out of the equation). 

Jong-su seems to have fallen for Hae-mi, but she returns from her North African trip with Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy socialite who drives a flashy Porsche. Hae-mi seems smitten by Ben’s lavish display of wealth (a high-end apartment in Gagnam, worlds apart from the dirty, impoverished Paju). Nevertheless, Hae-mi insists Jong-su to tag along with her to fancy restaurants and sophisticated parties, which only stokes Jong-su’s envy for Ben. What Ben does for a living remains a mystery. Accordingly, Jong-su compares the rich man to ‘The Great Gatsby’ and the subtle tauntings of Ben that threatens to overturn Jong-su’s love only intensifies. The imbalance of power in this relationship between the three is starkly felt in the scene Ben and Hae-mi visits Jong-su at his broken-down farm. Hae-mi, captivated by the unobscured view of the orange glow of sunset, goes topless to imitate the ‘great hunger’ dance. She seems satiated one moment, but in the next moment as the dwindling light in the sky turns dark, Hae-mi distressed by the anxieties and sorrow in her life begins to uncontrollably sob (on hindsight, the memory of this sequence would haunt us). She is laid to sleep and then Ben shares with Jong-su his secret hobby of burning ‘greenhouses’. Soon after this confession, Jong-su’s world begins to unravel as he scrabbles around to get a grip on his life’s biggest loss.

Murakami’s thin story is deceptively simple that’s actually a riff on William Faulkner’s 1939 story of the same name. Director Lee Chang-dong adds meaty layers to the story, channeling the hierarchies of privilege and class into Jong-su’s existential angst. The slow-burn realization of the characters, especially in the first-half, may frustrate some viewers. However, when the element of mystery rears its head into the narrative, director Lee makes us revisit in our mind the meaning of certain conversations and actions, elegantly pushing us to make the links like Jong-su. The director is also clever in the way he never provides answers to some missing links. We are convinced about what Ben meant when he talked of ‘burning greenhouses’, but Jong-su never confronts the guy about it. It forces us to think of the ‘there not there’ reference Hae-mi makes in her pantomime with invisible oranges. From the cat Jong-su feeds to the sinistral motivations we associate with Ben, the narrative alludes to the feeling of ‘there not there’. Furthermore, director Lee’s intricate crafting of Jong-su and Ben’s psychological dynamics plays a pivotal role in keeping us on the edge despite easily guessing the truth behind the central mystery.

The well-honed performances naturally smolders us with worry and rage. Yoo as the rudderless Jong-su perfectly showcases the dread and confusion of an emasculated individual. Newcomer Jeon earnestly captures the yearnings of an unprivileged girl, caught between hard reality and shiny dreams. Yeun of ‘Walking Dead’ fame effortlessly wears the cloak of arrogance and cockiness. Doomed romances are a constant thing in Chang-dong’s movies. But Burning boasts the most affective doomed romance of the director’s oeuvre, so distressing that my mind kept playing the last thing Jong-su says to Hae-mi. To better understand the mesmerizing complexity and lyricism of Lee’s aesthetics repeat viewing is necessary (masterfully lensed by Hong Kyung-pyo). What I especially loved about Lee’s images is the atmosphere of twilight that oppressively hangs over after Jong-su’s (late) epiphany. By the final image, when Jong-su sits naked inside the truck, obscured by windshield covered with snowfall, the twilight concludes and a sort of abyss opens and the image of Hae-mi doing the ‘great hunger’ dance becomes a distantly glowing memory. A car is burning at some distance from the moving truck, but it only brings coolness unlike the scorchingly hot memory of beatific Hae-mi.

Burning (148 minutes) is a discomfiting yet beautifully rendered love triangle mystery that subtly probes into the themes of class privilege and emasculation. Director Lee Chang-dong once again proves himself to be master in underlining the unexpressed and unseen forces of an unforgiving society. 


Possum [2018] – An Intriguing Exercise in Grim Atmospherics

Matthew Holness’ chillingly atmospheric directorial debut Possum (2018) tells the tale of a strange loner named Philip (an impressively unnerving Sean Harris), who carries an arachnid puppet with a human head, bundled inside a leather holdall. Through the voice-over recitations of a children’s poem, we comprehend that the puppet is called ‘Possum’ and it pretty much represents Philip’s distressing personal trauma. The polemical nature of his puppetry has driven Philip to retreat to his moribund hometown and dilapidated childhood home, still occupied by the repellent Uncle and puppeteer Maurice (Alum Armstrong). Earlier on a public train, Philip encounters an innocuous teenager who is soon pronounced ‘missing’. Gravelly voice, scouting tour of the town's squalid quarters plus the concoction of weird mannerisms naturally brings suspicion upon Philip. He seems to fulfill both the role of victim and perpetrator as the damaged childhood threatens to wholly poison his adulthood experience.

Comedian-turned-film-maker Matthew Holness joins the ranks of fellow Brits Peter Strickland and Ben Wheatley in demonstrating his unique skill to capitalize on an unwholesome atmosphere that's simmering with ambiguous terror. Blending the gothic scares of Hammer horror, these contemporary British horrors also fix their focus on social realism, bringing into view the derelict wastelands and stagnant lives (shot in bleak Norfolk locations). It is particularly interesting to see Holness debuting with a horror feature since his previous work include marvelous TV sitcom, “Garth Marenghi's Darkplace”, a horror spoof series. Holness’ deranged vision in Possum, however, is anything but comic. Furthermore, he tries to emulate the post-apocalyptic feel of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and psychological horror of David Cronenberg’s Spider (2002).

Heavy on macabre atmosphere and thin on plot development, Possum opens with silent-horror aesthetics, the opening credits unfurling against grainy images from the film. Much of the film’s narrative accounts Philip wandering around the empty, decaying fields of the town, which once harbored military barracks. He tries to find a place to dispose the leather bag and enough tension is generated from the question of what’s inside the bag: could it be the severed head or body parts of the teenager Philip gazes with his beady eyes? Nevertheless, the thing inside the bag comes across as reflection of Philip’s traumatic memories. The grotesque-looking puppet is made with realistically shaped spider legs and at its center is the pale, lifelike mask of a man’s face. Philip hides the bag amidst tangled, spidery branches of a tree, throws it into stagnant waterways. Despite the puppeteer’s fixation, the puppet returns back to his room or hangs on the wall. Gradually, as Philip finds it hard to relieve the trauma of the past, the arachnid puppet even appears to come to life. Such Jungian representations of the tortured protagonist are less ominous compared to true monstrosity lurking inside Maurice. He is bully as well as a comforting figure in Philip’s life and the murky nature of his relationship with Philip is eventually revealed through a schematic climax.

Possum is largely watchable for its perpetually unsettling surroundings that repeatedly showcase montage of neglected buildings, weedy gardens, and muddy landscapes. The creepy strangeness evoked by the amalgamation of stark imagery and dizzying sound design subliminally projects a language of unrest and mayhem. Unfortunately, the very thin plotting and unambiguous ending dilutes the overall effect of the movie. Rather than confronting Philip’s horrendous memories, Holness opts for unnecessary expository visuals in the final stretch to push it towards a smooth resolution. And for all its magnificent series of evocative visuals, the narrative’s emotional space seems to be as trapped as the puppet confined to the bag. Overall, Possum (85 minutes) is watchable for its sensorial intensity and knock-out performance from Sean Harris. 


Thunder Road [2018] – A Devastatingly Raw and Darkly Comic Take on the Realities of Grief

Jim Cummings’ tragicomic indie Thunder Road (2018) opens in a spectacular fashion: an unbroken, hilariously awkward as well as grief-stricken 10-minute take set inside a church as the lean, mustachioed patrolman Jimmy Arnaud delivers a rambling eulogy for his beloved mother. Jim says he is the only one of his mother’s three children to have made it out to the funeral. But looking from the devastatingly raw manner he processes his grief, Jim would have also liked to isolate himself from the outwardly sad yet fiercely judgmental crowd gathered before the altar. Jim starts his speech with simple thank-yous, then begins to clumsily reminisce about his mother’s talents (she ran a dance school), his bumpy relationship with her, his problems with dyslexia, and eventually the mother’s love for Bruce Springsteen (particularly ‘Thunder Road’ track), which he tries to play in a tape recorder that's busted. But without backing down from the attempt to perform good-bye dance, Jim begins to ungainly dance in front his mother’s casket, while the small crowd watch this meltdown with bafflement. Once Jim is done, his 10-year-old daughter clings to him, out of concern and shame, and he retires to back most pew of the church. What follows for the equally fascinating 80-odd minutes is the character study of this edgy cop, whose life seems to be unraveling day-by-day, vignette-by-vignette.

Based on 2016 Sundance-award winning short film of the same name, Thunder Road was written, directed and boldly performed by Jim Cummings. Much of the movie’s strength is derived from Cummings’ nuanced film-making style and serio-comic acting manners. Like Columbus (2017) or Krisha (2016), this is one deeply emotional American independent feature that has arrived out of nowhere. Thunder Road has some good supporting performances, but it’s largely a one-man show. Nevertheless, unlike many aspiring directors purporting themselves to be versatile craftsman, Jim Cummings has a very tight grasp on aesthetics and emotions (his beneficial long-takes – that gives less to edit – are staged in a pragmatic manner and works well with the story structure). Before picking up SXSW Festival’s Award for Best Narrative Feature, Cummings’ CV didn’t have notable credits, except for playing a small role in TV series The Handmaid’s Tale and serving as associate producer in Trey Edward Shults’ intense family-drama Krisha. But the positive momentum generated by the debut feature’s success, might push Mr. Cummings to make more galvanizing works that gleams with profound humanism.  

Raised by a single mom in a sleepy small-town Texas, Jim Arnaud is an incorruptible police officer who wears his emotions on sleeves. However noble his intentions are, Jim’s life for the past year has gone to hell. His uncaring wife Roz (Jocelyn DeBoer) has left him, taking their 10-year-old daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr) to her venomous boyfriend’s place. Not long after the bizarre funeral dance, Jim badly handles a drunk-and-disorderly call that gets him at trouble with his superior officer. Adding to the grief of losing the only care-taker in his life, Jim’s wife now proceeds for divorce and seeks sole custody on their daughter. The alleged ‘emotional problems’ Jim showcased at the funeral also comes back to haunt him during the family court case. The broken-hearted guy takes other missteps too, outcomes of Jim’s ill-equipped nature to process emotions of grief. A complete meltdown seems inescapable with only the warmth of friendship with fellow officer Nate (Nican Robinson) and love for daughter Crystal delicately keeps him at a balance.

Jim Cummings’ direction and script walks a tightrope between tangible emotional pain and cringe comedy. The most enticing aspect of the narrative is of course the characterization of man-child protagonist. Arnaud’s boorish exterior features serve as perfect antithesis to his naked emotionalities. Furthermore, Cummings marvelously pulls off the anguish and goofiness of Jim Arnaud, while splendidly executing plethora of details behind the camera too. It isn’t exactly a low-key performance like Casey Affleck’s showcase of frozen grief in Kenneth Lonnergan’s Manchester by the Sea (2016). Cummings often swings for theatricality -- for example, he delivers a shirtless rant to channel his character’s simmering frustrations with the world -- and absolutely aces it without overstepping a bit. The ensemble cast was charming enough, especially Kendal Farr as the reticent 10-year-old daughter and Robinson as the supportive pal. ‘Blue Ruin’ fame Macon Blair as the school teacher has one wonderful comedic confrontational scene with Cummings.

The protagonist’s wild mood swings and certain vocal inflections certainly adds funny quotient to the proceedings, although the messy, heart-wrenching process of grief is never downplayed for laughs. The chuckles come from us relating to the whole spectrum of feeling sad and being absurd at the same time. I particularly liked the seamless way Cummings captures the disorderliness of bereavement. In the opening scene, after finishing his dance and carrying his daughter back to the pew, Jim consoles the girl ‘It’s ok honey’, and adds in the same sentence, ‘Oh, Jesus fucking Christ you’re heavy’. This nature of brushing up with on-the-moment emotions and at the same time getting pricked by one’s immediate reality is well-etched throughout such small moments. It persists in the scene Jim howls at his police buddies or when he comforts his daughter in the back of an ambulance; built-in awkwardness & anxiety wrestling with the cruelty of circumstances. Jim’s writing and his camera mesmerizingly attunes to such turbulent emotional grounds, making us to wonder about our own often unfathomable grieving pattern. Eventually, Thunder Road (92 minutes) comes across as a subtle psychological portrait of a broken man which doesn’t dispel inky-black void of sadness through illusory and instantaneous healing process. Altogether, it's a purely spellbinding stuff!