Spike Lee uses D. W. Griffin’s incendiary Birth of a Nation in quasi-meta fashion in his masterful comeback film about racists getting their comeuppance, the wildly entertaining yet sobering BlacKkKlansman. If the former film was “history written by lightning,” then the latter might be “satire written by thunder.” But while Lee and his screenwriters are thunderous in their political leanings, the filmmakers are most effective in delivery of the message because of how taut, understated and meticulous they are in the weaving of their storytelling craft.
BlacKkKlansman is a procedural undercover cop jawn about Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington in a “star is born” type performance and a chip off the old block of his dad Denzel) who infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK (almost on a lark, in prank-phone call style) in the 1970’s. When the KKK agrees to meet him in person for the purpose of initiation, he convinces his sergeant to let him use his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, shockingly good) to pose as the eager new racist recruit. Thus we end up with Jewish cop pretending to be a black cop pretending to be a white supremacist…and getting away with it…and stopping a terrorist bombing to boot. It would all be ludicrous if it wasn’t true (though apparently some of the details of the actual case are played with loosely here for the purpose of entertainment and message delivery). There’s a lot more going on in the film, and it’s tonally played to expert effect flipping between a satirical comedy of manners and a cop thriller about the worst kind of criminals.
And then Lee pulls off a masterstroke of sensationalist filmmaking, inter-cutting between an elder civil rights statesman describing how his falsely accused and convicted friend was murdered and mutilated by a mob in 1917 Waco Texas to the Colorado Springs Black Student Union in the 1970’s, and Flip (with Stallworth looking-on) sitting through a screening of Birth of a Nation (the film that revitalized the Klan and some would say led to the fervor of just the type of mob that would do what it did in Waco) with the local Klansmen and David Duke (played with a feckless aplomb by Topher Grace). The white supremacists gleefully hooting and hollering over the propagandist film is juxtaposed with the looks of sobering horror on the student union’s faces during the most lurid details of the aforementioned heinous crime.
The film closes with a small victory for our valiant undercover heroes, but reveals an ongoing war as Lee draws the clear line from the Civil War (the film opens with a scene from Gone with the Wind playing in the background of a white supremacist played by Alec Baldwin making a propaganda video), to the lurid crime in 1917, to the events in Colorado Springs in the 1970s, to the white supremacist march on Charlottesville just last year. The KKK in Colorado Springs gets their comeuppance thanks to our heroes, but that was just one small flame briefly extinguished amidst a raging fire of hatred that brews to this day.
Meanwhile, on the small screen on HBO, Gillian Flynn’s novel Sharp Objects has been casting a spell on viewers this summer. In this lurid Amy Adams led detective story / psychological thriller (where Adams plays a reporter named Camille who returns to her creepy hometown to write about the recent murders of two young girls and revisit the demons of her family’s past), all the tropes of the genre are gender-flipped. The female characters are multi-layered, troubled and deranged, and the male characters are one-note supporting players mostly clueless and helpless in both stopping and solving the crimes committed. It shares this flipping of genre conventions with Lee’s film where similarly black characters are multi-dimensional and strong, while the white characters (with the exception of maybe Driver’s Flip) are mostly one-note, taking on the roll of either support, comic relief, or deranged antagonism. Yet in both films, it’s the white males who arrive at the climax to rescue our protagonists.
Much of the Jean-Marc Vallee directed series plays like another season of True Detective, matching that serial note for note in its seamy underbelly of society sensationalism while visually and auditorily going tete-a-tete with the recent Twin Peaks revival in quasi-dreamy weirdness. What makes it so palpable and engrossing is how solvable the crimes are, and how clearly woven is the lace-like thread from “who dunnit?” to “AHA!” Much like Lee posits with his mirror holding on the Trump presidency…when it comes to the disturbing facts of Sharp Objects, we’re left asking with exasperation, “How in the hell did we not see THAT coming?”
In Flynn’s twisted environs, females are just as capable as men of doing horrible things, and what we’re left with is a cycle of uniquely female abuse that leaves one woman stunted and turning inward on herself to inflict harm and another emboldened and turning outward to others upon which to inflict her rage. Unlike Lee’s film where the deranged racists elicit no sympathy, in Flynn’s jawn you end up feeling sorry for all the troubled women.
If BlacKkKlansman vividly shows that even when the worst people are capable of legitimizing their awfulness there are good people to call them out on it, Sharp Objects posits more intimately and disturbingly that the worst people sometimes still have (or at one time had) some good in them.
Written by David H. Schleicher