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Five Cent Cine (At Home): BlacKkKlansman

Dumb white guys

Director Spike Lee brings his narrative genius to the true story of rookie black cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who with a white surrogate infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado in the 1970s. Although Lee cannot resist being didactic, he tempers this impulse in small ways, while the point of the film is writ large.

Based on Stallworth’s 2014 book, “BlacKkKlansman” opens with Alec Baldwin as a fictitious white Southern bigot filming a racist infomercial. He resembles Bull Connor, who turned police attack dogs on Alabama protesters in the 1960s, although the audience is more likely to conjure Donald Trump, whom Baldwin has often impersonated. The film ends with real footage of the 2017 murder – by an alt-right supporter — of a protester in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Between these bookends is the nerve-wracking story — as those of undercover agents usually are — of a white cop (Flip Zimmerman, played credibly by low-affect Adam Driver), standing in for the black cop who by phone joins the KKK. David Duke (Topher Grace) comes across as an earnest and naïve ideologue, and the Colorado Springs KKKers can seem like a sinister version of the Keystone Kops: one is paranoid, another an overweight drunk, a third functions as the rational organizer.

Lee highlights the drama by cross-cutting between Harry Belafonte as Jerome Turner, narrating the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, and the KKKers gleefully watching D.W. Griffith’s racist classic, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). Both scenes end with raised arm salutes — the Nazi salute for the KKKers, black power for Belafonte’s audience. Look for an ingenious use of Blacksploitation films as well, including a Pam Grier-like sequence, guns drawn.

In several tense scenes in which the most suspicious of the Klan members accuses Zimmerman of being Jewish, Lee reminds us that the KKK is as anti-Semitic as it is racist.

In several tense scenes in which the most suspicious of the Klan members accuses Zimmerman of being Jewish, Lee reminds us that the KKK is as anti-Semitic as it is racist.

Unlike Lee’s masterpiece, “Do the Right Thing,” there’s little subtlety in this film, but lots of entertainment — including more than a little humor — and messaging.

Availability:  For rent or purchase almost everywhere (except Netflix, it appears), FandangoNow, AppleTV, AMC On Demand; see JustWatch here.

Date: 2018

Director: Spike Lee

Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Harry Belafonte, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Jasper Paakkonen.

BlacKkKlansman ★★★ (out of 4 stars)

Oscars: Won: Best Adapted Screenplay (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee); Nominated: Best Original Score (Terence Blanchard); Best Picture (Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Raymond Mansfield, Jordan Peele, Spike Lee); Best Director (Spike Lee); Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver); Best Achievement in Film Editing (Barry Alexander Brown).

Other Awards: More than 200 nominations and more than 40 wins, including BAFTA Best Adapted Screenplay

Runtime: 135 minutes

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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