RACISM RECOUNTED

BlacKkKlansman recalls 40-year-old events and serves as a relevant message for confronting racism today

 

By Leonard Heldreth

The films this month include two movies that are oriented toward minority groups and a biopic of an alcoholic, disabled cartoonist.

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee returns to the top of his form as director with BlacKkKlansman. Angry, messy, using film history and current events to drive home points, sometimes in a ham-fisted fashion, he forces people to confront the racism that still thrives in today’s world.
Based on a memoir of the same title by Ron Stallworth, the first black policeman appointed to the Colorado Springs police department, the film tells how Stallworth and another undercover policeman infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s and intercepted some violence that the Klan had planned.
Responding by phone to an ad in the local newspaper, Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzil’s son) fakes a “white” dialect and is invited to attend a Klan meeting. Obviously, he can’t go without revealing his skin color, but he persuades another cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to attend the meeting.
While one klansman thinks Zimmerman may be Jewish, his marksmanship and racist comments convince them to let him join (“no Jew could be that good a marksman”). In the meantime, the real Stallworth is assigned to make a surreptitious recording of a speech by a visiting former Black Panther leader, Kwame Ture, a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins). Here he meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), whose Afro is twice as large as his, but fortunately, this relationship is not developed—it would have crowded out more important points that Lee wanted to make.
Stallworth and Zimmerman’s infiltration of the KKK 40 years ago forms the central core of the story, but Lee bookends the film with elements that emphasize its contemporary nature. An opening diatribe by a character named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) reminds the viewer that Baldwin is well-known for playing Donald Trump in comedy sketches and that Beauregard’s comments could be tied to Trump’s comments made after the 2017 events in Charlottesville.
Scenes from Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation illustrate how racist these films were; in one episode in which the current klansmen cheer their predecessors while watching Griffith’s 1915 film, black students and activists across town listen to Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) telling students in graphic detail about the lynching of a teenage boy in 1914. Lee focuses on how ignorant but dangerous the Klan members are; he includes appearances by David Duke (Topher Grace), the leader of the organization at that time and still a major figure today. He also includes an iconic cross burning.
Anyone looking for a subtle film about race relations today will not like BlacKkKlansman. Anyone looking for a take-no-prisoners indictment of the contemporary face of racism, both on the far right and in mainstream politics, will find much to admire in Spike Lee’s most recent film. Spike Lee returns to the top of his form as director with BlacKkKlansman. Angry, messy, using film history and current events to drive home points, sometimes in a ham-fisted fashion, he forces people to confront the racism that still thrives in today’s world.
Based on a memoir of the same title by Ron Stallworth, the first black policeman appointed to the Colorado Springs police department, the film tells how Stallworth and another undercover policeman infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s and intercepted some violence that the Klan had planned.
Responding by phone to an ad in the local newspaper, Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzil’s son) fakes a “white” dialect and is invited to attend a Klan meeting. Obviously, he can’t go without revealing his skin color, but he persuades another cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to attend the meeting.
While one klansman thinks Zimmerman may be Jewish, his marksmanship and racist comments convince them to let him join (“no Jew could be that good a marksman”). In the meantime, the real Stallworth is assigned to make a surreptitious recording of a speech by a visiting former Black Panther leader, Kwame Ture, a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins). Here he meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), whose Afro is twice as large as his, but fortunately, this relationship is not developed—it would have crowded out more important points that Lee wanted to make.
Stallworth and Zimmerman’s infiltration of the KKK 40 years ago forms the central core of the story, but Lee bookends the film with elements that emphasize its contemporary nature. An opening diatribe by a character named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) reminds the viewer that Baldwin is well-known for playing Donald Trump in comedy sketches and that Beauregard’s comments could be tied to Trump’s comments made after the 2017 events in Charlottesville.
Scenes from Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation illustrate how racist these films were; in one episode in which the current klansmen cheer their predecessors while watching Griffith’s 1915 film, black students and activists across town listen to Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) telling students in graphic detail about the lynching of a teenage boy in 1914. Lee focuses on how ignorant but dangerous the Klan members are; he includes appearances by David Duke (Topher Grace), the leader of the organization at that time and still a major figure today. He also includes an iconic cross burning.
Anyone looking for a subtle film about race relations today will not like BlacKkKlansman. Anyone looking for a take-no-prisoners indictment of the contemporary face of racism, both on the far right and in mainstream politics, will find much to admire in Spike Lee’s most recent film.

 

Crazy Rich Asians

Director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 best-selling novel, Crazy Rich Asians, falls within the genre of romantic comedy and is the first American studio film since Wayne Wang’s Joy Luck Club (1993) to feature an exclusively Asian cast. With this huge talented cast and stunning Singapore sets, the film hopes to be a breakthrough for Asian and Asian-American actors, much as recent films like Black Panther provided new opportunities for actors of other minority groups.
The plot of Crazy Rich Asians is comparatively simple. Nick Young (Henry Golding) lives in Manhattan but plans to return to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin (Chris Pang) and his fiancée, Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno). Nick invites the girl he has been dating for the last year, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economics professor at NYU and originally from Queens, to accompany him and meet his family. At this point a second wedding seems almost inevitable, but a well-made comedy requires obstacles to be overcome before the two can marry.
What Rachel doesn’t know is that one of the obstacles is money—too much money. Even though he has always lived quietly in the U. S., Nick’s family owns a good portion of Singapore, and he is expected to take over the family real estate business. Rachel’s first indication of Nick’s financial status comes when they board the plane and are seated in the ultra-first-class section. The film audience had been tipped off earlier when Nick’s mother, insulted by the manager of a fancy London hotel, phones her husband, buys the hotel and fires the manager.
When Rachel arrives in China, she meets her former college roommate, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), and learns the scope of Nick’s family fortune. Peik Lin Goh then teams with Oliver (Nico Santos), the flamboyantly gay “poor-relation rainbow sheep” of the Young family, to give Rachel the necessary makeover to pass muster with Eleanor, Nick’s aristocratic mother. Other supporting characters include Nick’s ex-girlfriend Amanda (Jing Lusi) and his glamorous cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), whose husband, Michael (Pierre Png), is also an outsider. Michael’s insecurity about his wife’s money and status sets up what could be a parallel plot to Nick’s and Rachel’s conflict, but it never really develops. Dominating the family is Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh, one of the great international movie stars), who creates a character who is formidable, frightening and yet sympathetic: she makes her position understandable if not convincing, as she tells Rachel she will never be good enough for Nick in the same way that she was never good enough to please her mother-in-law. During this disucssion, Rachel and Eleanor are playing a game of Mahjong, a convincing set piece to showcase the conflict between the women.
With lavish sets, spectacular clothing and impressive banquets, the film lives up to its title and permits viewers to indulge their fantasies of unlimited wealth (the upcoming wedding is expected to exceed forty million dollars). As the audience would expect, it all ends more or less happily when a jade ring that actually belongs to Michelle Yeoh appears in an unusual location.
Crazy Rich Asians provides humor, spectacular visuals, an unusual proposal scene and, ultimately, good feelings for the audience. For those wanting even more disgusting luxury, the next two volumes of Kevin Kwan’s novel are already being scripted.

 

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

The title for Gus Van Sant’s biopic about quadriplegic, alcoholic cartoonist John Callahan comes from one of Callahan’s own cartoons: a posse of men surround an overturned wheelchair in the desert, and one of the men says, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far.” This humor, often at the expense of the handicapped, is one of the ways Van Sant lifts this conventional tale of a crippled recovering alcoholic to something that approaches uplifting without getting sentimental or maudlin or even very sympathetic. While many people may not recognize Callahan’s name, many will recognize his unique felt-tipped pen cartoons, which were published by the Portland State University press and then in Willamette Week, The New Yorker, Penthouse and National Lampoon.
Callahan had been an alcoholic since age thirteen, and the film emphasizes how frustrating such a person can be. In 1972, thoroughly drunk with equally drunk buddy Dexter (Jack Black), he leaves one drinking party looking for another drinking party across town with supposedly better looking women. Dexter, driving a blue Volkswagen, wraps the car around a lamppost and flips it. Callahan’s spine is injured, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down; Dexter emerges from the accident with only a few scratches. The rest of the film follows Callahan’s attempts to deal with his injuries and his addiction until his death in 2010; the film is based on his 1990 memoir.
Little attempt is made to make the artist (effectively played by Joachin Phoenix) into a likable person. Even when he finally starts the twelve-step AA program, he remains a cynical individual who sees the ridiculous and absurd in his own predicament and those of similar individuals. He knows he could overturn his wheelchair (which happens in the film) or fall out of it or even slide back into alcoholism (which he does). Of course, it is exactly the ability to see that absurdity and to exploit it through his cartoons that makes him a successful artist. One of the recurring reproductions of his cartoons in the film is that of the Darwinian tiny creature emerging from the slime and slowly crawling uphill toward something like human status.
Although Phoenix is excellent as the inconsistent and unpredictable Callahan, the real surprise is Jonah Hill, slimmed down and playing John’s AA sponsor Donnie, a rich, bearded gay dude who embraces many of the counter-culture stereotypes without ridiculing them. His wardrobe and his skewed Zen philosophies provide a welcome relief from Callahan’s methodical struggles. Also interesting in the supporting cast are musicians Beth Ditto of Gossip and Kim Gordon (formerly of Sonic Youth); German actor Udo Kier (Dracula in Andy Warhol’s film) is appropriately odd as another AA member.
Although Don’t Worry manages to avoid most of the cliches of the “recovering-from-addiction” and “overcoming-this-disability” films, it occasionally hits one of these potholes with a resounding clunk (e.g., his hallucination of his long-absent mother), but the acting and the other aspects of the film generally offset the problems. It’s an offbeat look at an offbeat talent who coped with a disability and an addiction that would have finished most people.

(All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores.)

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