Blackkklansmen (Movie Review)
--- 4/10 - Bad -
This is going to be a difficult review. It is always hard for me to describe my dislike for a film whose ideas I agree with. This film was the most exhausting experience I have ever had in my life.
Let’s start with the director, Spike Lee. This is my second experience with his work. The first ‘oldboy’ was a terribly uncreative adaption of a Korean pulp masterpiece. I went into this film excited and ready for the concept. The first black officer in a city goes undercover to infiltrate the KKK. It’s a sublime concept and it’s based on a true story. With today’s political climate how could it not be a masterpiece? Well, I’ll start with the technical stuff.
Spike Lee has filmed one of the ugliest films shot in celluloid that I have ever seen. I know that sounds bad and well, it is. Look remove politics and content and the visuals of this film are just bad. Lee is constantly shooting with ‘extreme close-ups’, ‘close-ups’ and just badly framed compositions. His medium shots and wides look fine but everything else just feels exhausting. I can only compare this style to an amateur. Which is odd because he is a veteran filmmaker with dozens of films under his belt. I haven’t seen enough of his filmography to call him a bad filmmaker, but this film is hard to watch. Let me give some specifics. There is a dance sequence early in the film and he shoots the dancing between two lead characters so insanely tight (close) that I literally had to look away because I got frustrated looking at it. If that wasn’t enough nearly every single shot of this sequence was out of focus. Which only added to its lack of quality. There are so many moments where this happens. He fills the screen with someone’s face or features to highlight something but the more he does it the less impact it has. Especially when the image is constantly out of focus. There is another shot where the two leads are walking on a bridge. It’s shot big and wide, we track them up as they talk about films they love but again nothing is in focus besides the railing of the bridge. What??
The focus problem is severely highlighted by the fact that Lee chose to use high grain film. Which makes sense for films where exposure to light is minimal. I assume he used it to represent the time this film is set. The other big issue I have with Lee is that he is just excessive in repeating shot designs that kills the momentum and emotions they create. There is this beautiful sequence in a student center where a black activist meeting is being held. A man is giving a fantastic and rousing speech. Lee constantly cuts to various angles seemingly at random while the speech is being given it was distracting until we see this shot design that is marvelous. Hands down the best shot in the film. It’s simple and I think I’ve seen it before in a Beatles music video or some other artist. Anyway, he shoots these beautiful black women and men in essentially a portrait shot, but everything around them is pure darkness. It gives off this great sensation of solitude. Then he fades them in and out at times having two, three even four on screen at a time as if they are floating together all coming together in understanding and strength. This shot was powerful and a brilliant moment. But then Lee cuts and cuts and cuts and he inserts this shot into the sequence about 5-8 times all during this one speech. By the last two times it was used I was just confused. The shot had lost its effect on me and the cutting distracted me from the speech. Why ruin your beautiful shot by using it in excess? I wish he would’ve either started, ended or shot the entire sequence with that shot design and then maybe cut to the big auditorium for the reveal that we are with them in solidarity. Instead, we get this choppy overkilled sequence. There are other sequences and shots where I felt the same confusion. Spike Lee’s eye just feels obnoxious on the big screen. The visuals of this film truly exhausted me like no other. Some blame might go to the cinematographer ‘Chayse Irvin’ as well.
Now to the cast who all did wonderful on screen. The lead played by ‘John David Washington’ gives a simple and good performance. His love interest played by ‘Laura Harrier’ carries her character's style with ease. ‘Adam Driver’ also nails his supporting role. The only problem with the acting is that they were given little to work with which leads me to another issue...
The script by 4 writers including ‘Lee’ suffers the same obnoxious quality as the image. The film has this odd meandering sensation to it. The only films I can compare it to are religious films. What I mean to say is that this film is preachy and dare I say it pandering to its audience. This is where the review gets hard because I love all the ideas, themes and emotion that story is meaning to portray.
I understand why people love this film. It’s showing the disgusting vomit of racism and how America has turned to a shithole run by a racist president. Like I said above, I agree and love all of that. Trust me I’m A Mexican-American living in the ass crack of Alabama. There are about 15 chapters of KKK in about a 50-mile radius of me. My political preference and opinions are remarkably in line with this film.
But hear me out. This film is pandering and unrealistic in so many ways. Firstly, the film constantly shows the bad guys getting what they deserve in an almost comedic way. The resolutions to everything are so simple. A racist cop gets arrested at the end in a set up that can only be described as forced and pandering. Everyone knew it was him so why wasn’t he arrested before that? The entire final act was played up so hard, yet it breezes through the aftermath as if it hadn’t happened. What were the effects, consequences or results of that? The film plays with threads of Judaism and accepting what you are but then midway through it ditches those ideas completely. We are told that this first black cop will suffer from the onslaught of racist remarks and criticism, yet only one cop and one confusion at the end really show any signs of that. We are shown a lot from a racist character’s point of view seemingly to make us hate the character and I assume to build an arc, but then at the end, we don’t even see the characters final moments, or the fallout of their disgusting nature. The lead character has literally no arc or internal conflict during the entire film. There is only one scene where the Jewish cop asks if the operation will even do or change anything. Which is an interesting idea that could’ve added drama and conflict but then it’s also dropped? The entire side plot with the Jewish cop had more development and character growth than the protagonist even had. The relationship with the lead character and the student activist seemingly existed only so they could reference other films? We are never shown any honest intimacy between them besides that dizzying dance sequence. Their relationship ends because he’s a cop but even that moment seemed rushed and inconsequential. Their investigation getting uncovered also played a big driving force, but nothing came from that but a joke, which granted was funny. The more I try to break this film down narratively the more I realize that none of these threads add up to a good story. There are only threads of interest and a catering to the themes of the film.
The best threads like I said above are the Jewish cop subplot mainly because it was nuanced and peppered in an interesting way. There are interesting discussions and history shown in the film. For example, the second student meeting was a tragic story and intercutting that scene with the Klans viewing of ‘birth of a nation’ was a brilliant way to highlight the disgusting nature of racists. I just wish there was a good story here about characters growing, changing, or being challenged.
The score is also repetitive and annoying for the most part, mainly because the same theme was played in different scenes that didn’t seem to match up emotionally.
So, let’s get to the ending of this film. Which is literally a collection of YouTube videos showcasing the KKK and trump. I will admit I felt heavy and sad watching this. I even felt wowed and floored by it. I left the theater heavy and exhausted ‘what an experience’ I found myself saying, but then as that sensation faded. I realized that it was just manipulation. Imagine watching a film about terrorism and then it ends with real footage of the 9/11 crash.
That to me is borderline disgusting, manipulative, cheap and uncreative. That is what documentaries are for. Now saying that there’s probably a hundred and five examples where this does work in a film but in this one, it doesn’t, for me at least.
Now to my final distaste for the film. Most of the events and drama of this film which is based on a true story are entirely fake...
There was no bombing or attack or act of violence. There was no girlfriend. There was no Jewish cop. The investigation lasted 9 months. I mention this last because a lot of films alter the truth and I get it. But during this climate? With this subject matter? It just feels weird. This element really makes me understand why I feel like this film is manipulative, pandering and forceful. It’s because there’s so much fakeness added to expound on the themes. Why do this when you have already had an interesting story with an interesting character in an interesting time? Why not do a character study? Or something lower key and character focused. Lee and his three writers add all this fluff and buff that equals to nothing. It only makes this film feel manufactured and fake in the end.
So, in Ending.
This film has the kernel of a beautiful film. The interior of a film that is all too familiar for our time. It has moments of true beauty and shows disgust. Yet, I can’t possibly call this a good film. Subject matter and themes aside this film is visually ugly. The framing is claustrophobic and dizzying at times. It’s constantly out of focus. The story opens multiple threads and subplots and does little to address them in the end. The characters are drawn and expounded to the point of interest but then they’re dropped. There is no real growth or motivation with most of its characters. To make matters worse the entire propulsion of the plot is fake and not based in reality. The film feels like a pandering excess of confidence from the director Spike Lee. As much as I love the idea, themes, and politics of this film, it’s not a good film, if anything it’s bad.