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New Escapist Column! On Spike Lee’s Cinema of Empathy and Allyship in “BlacKkKlansman” and “Da 5 Bloods”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. There’s actually a glut of new releases this week, but the one that felt most deserving of attention was Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, which is premiering on Netflix.

Early in his career, Lee developed a reputation as a filmmaker defined by his frustration with the way that things were, his films tapping into a real sense of righteous anger about the status quo. However, Lee’s films have always been defined by a strong sense of  understanding and compassion. This is true of both BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods, which are films that are largely about the need to come together and build coalitions in order to move forward. At their core, they are films about empathy and allyship. More than that, they are films about the power of cinema.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods argues that the wounds inflicted by the Vietnam War never truly healed.

The basic plot of Da 5 Plots is standard war movie stuff, recalling the set up of the classic Simpsons episode Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in “The Curse of the Flying Hellfish”, which itself drew upon a variety of inspirations including episodes of M*A*S*H and Barney Miller. The film follows four veterans who return to Vietnam ostensibly to repatriate the remains of their lost squad commander “Stormin’ Norman.” However, it quickly becomes clear that these former soldiers also have their eyes on a more lucrative prize.

The past never stays buried.

Co-writer and director Spike Lee uses the familiar trappings of war movies – and specifically of Vietnam War movies – to interrogate the legacy of the conflicts and the scars that it left on the national psyche. Indeed, one of the most interesting structural choices in Da 5 Bloods is to effectively invert the basic structure of BlacKkKlansman, which opened as a pointed genre tribute before seguing into actual contemporary news footage during its final act. Da 5 Bloods starts by offering a glimpse of the chaos of the early seventies before diving into the story that it wants to tell.

The result is to contextualise both Da 5 Bloods and its statement on contemporary American identity, drawing a strong line from the unrest and horror of the Vietnam era to the madness of the present moment. Da 5 Bloods was obviously written and filmed well before the latest crisis in the United States, but Lee is a shrewd filmmaker with his finger on the pulse. Da 5 Bloods feels like a movie that is both about the nightmare of this particular moment and the tragic inevitability of that moment as the outcome of unprocessed trauma that has been festering for decades.

Normcore.

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My 12 for ’18: The (Black) Power of Stories in “BlacKkKlansman”

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number nine.

At its core, BlacKkKlansman is a story about the power of stories. In particular, the power of cinema.

This is no real surprise. Spike Lee is an avowed cinephile with an incredible hunger and passion for the medium. Lee knows the history of cinema, and understands the historical context of cinema. BlacKkKlansman is alternately a loving homage to blaxploitation and a discussion of blaxploitation. It is a film that is fundamentally about the way in which the stories that people tell influence and shape the world in which they live.

At the heart of BlacKkKlansman is a sequence in which real-life Civil Rights icon Harry Belafonte plays a fictionalised activist. He recounts, in gory detail, the story of a horrific lynching that he witnessed as a child. He contextualises this attack by reference to the success of Birth of a Nation, which he describes using the (anachronistic) term “blockbuster.” This sequence is intercut with the induction of new members into the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, while gleefully rewatching (and cheering) Birth of a Nation.

The most interesting idea within BlacKkKlansman is the implication that it might be possible to counter-programme this. If narratives of hatred and violence can be perpetuated through cinema, then perhaps stories about collaboration and empathy can also be spread in that manner. Clever and self-aware, BlacKkKlansman feels like an attempt to construct one such narrative.

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New Podcast! Scannain Podcast (2018) #31!

It’s time for the latest Scannain podcast.

This week, I join Graham Day from Speakin’ Geek, Alex Towers from When Irish Eyes Are Watching and Grace Duffy to discuss the week in film. Topics for discussion include the subtle brilliance of Lorne Balfe’s soundtrack to Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the rebranding of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, the “ageing out” of kid actors in long-running franchises, the drama around Danny Boyle’s departure from the latest Bond movie and the possible casting of Idris Elba as James Bond.

New releases include Alpha, Slender Man and The Children Act; the tail end of the podcast includes an extended discussion of Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, which all four panelists have seen.

Give it a listen at the link, or check it out below.

Non-Review Review: BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman is an American tragicomedy.

The past few years have seen a heightening of reality, a blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction, an intrusion of the unreal into the real world. The President of the United States is effectively a reality television star, and is running the country as some sort of grotesque reality television show. “Truth is not truth”, to quote one administration figure, while another has peddled in the idea of “alternative facts” while alluding to a horrific terrorist attack that simply never happened while other supporters of the administration insist that other horrific events did not happen.

The two Ronnies.

With all of that going on in the background, soaking into the zeitgeist, BlacKkKlansman feels very much like a movie for the moment. It is – to quote the introductory text – “based on some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”, taking its inspiration from a memoir written by undercover police officer Ron Stallworth. However, it is also filtered through the hyperstylised cartoonish lens of a blackploitation buddy comedy, with Lee taking every opportunity to remind his audience that they are watching a piece of pop culture.

The premise of the film is so absurd that it’s almost impossible to play it as anything but comedy. The first black police officer in Colorado Springs launches an undercover sting on the KKK, using his own name to infiltrate the organisation through the telephone. Working with a fellow white police officer, this ambitious young go-getter manages to manoeuvre his way to the top of the organisation, fooling even the Grand Wizard himself. It’s a ridiculous story, one that seems inherently unreal. Even the name – “Stallworth” – sounds like something from a dimestore paperback.

Hitting all its marks.

Of course, in this era of unreality, it is entirely real. Indeed, the power of BlacKkKlansman comes crashing down on the audience in the final moments, when Lee brushes aside the heavy-handed references to contemporary politics that play through the narrative for something that is much more tangible and real, serving to throw the entire grim joke of the film into stark relief, suggesting that so much of the awkward squirming and ridiculous twists are all the foundation of the horror show through the audience are living.

BlacKkKlansman laughs in the face of horror and brutality. But only because the alternative is to cry.

The historical record.

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Watch! Spike Lee’s Oldboy Trailer!

If you haven’t watched the original Oldboy, you should really do so now. I’m not as head-over-heels in love with it as most, but it’s a stunningly powerful piece of film making, “visceral” in the strongest sense of the word. After years of trying to get the film off the ground, the American remake is incoming. I remember when there was gossip about a Steven Spielberg and Will Smith version, which it’s hard to imagine working anywhere near as effectively as the original. The team of Spike Lee and Josh Brolin, on the other hand, looks more likely to deliver something as twisted and bold as Pan Chan-wook’s original.

Anyway, the trailer’s below. So have a look and let me know what you think.