In this review, let’s have a look at two films:
As one of the most political filmmakers in mainstream cinema, Spike Lee has spent much of the past three decades chronicling the African-American experience. His twenty-plus films touch upon many topics, but race relations and social issues are often core to his work. And when it comes to those subjects in particular, Lee is a director who likes to get stuck in.
Take his latest film, BlacKkKlansman. Based on a true story, it’s ostensibly a period piece about a black detective infiltrating a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, but Lee uses it to take several potshots at Donald Trump, including the suggestion that the current US President is at least some way supportive of white supremacist groups.
It also reaches back over a century, linking the pioneering but horribly racist The Birth of a Nation to BlacKkKlansman‘s ’70s set events, then all the way to the present day to make a chilling wider-ranging point: this shit has been going on forever, and the fight is still happening now.
While the topics Lee tackles are often weighty, his major talent as a filmmaker is his ability to entertain and agitate in equal measure. Some of his best work, like his masterpiece Do the Right Thing, maintains a level of righteous anger while also being incredibly vibrant and funny.
BlacKkKlansman is close to Lee’s best, and although it makes a devastating point he’s a wily enough director to make sure that first of all, it’s a really fun movie to watch. It’s clever audience management, making sure the viewers are fully invested before delivering the knockout punch.
Set in the late Seventies, John David Washington (possessing his dad Denzel’s sense of innate dignity) plays Ron Stallworth, Colorado’s first black detective. After a spell in the records room, he gets his chance on an undercover mission, to infiltrate a rally for a radical civil rights activist.
Next up Stallworth spots an advert in the local newspaper from the Ku Klux Klan, who are starting up a new chapter in the area and looking for new recruits. He gives them a call, and before he knows it, he’s arranged a meeting with the chapter president Walter (Ryan Eggold). Given the colour of his skin and the nature of the KKK’s business, there’s a bit of a snag with this setup, so Stallworth enlists a Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to pose as him in face-to-face meetings with the Klan members.
It’s one of those “so strange you couldn’t make it up” kind of true stories, with a dash of buddy cop caper thrown in. Lee keeps the tone of the main storyline fairly light, playing it as a standard police procedural thriller, and keeping the comedy coming even as the danger to our protagonists grows. Lee’s adept at cranking up the tension and the laughter dies in the throat in the final act, which is when the film really catches fire. I won’t give too much away but the final scenes of BlacKkKlansman feature some of the best film making of Lee’s career, and his use of footage from last year’s riots in Charlottesville is absolutely shattering.
2. Sweet Country
Sweet Country, an Australian western set in the 1920s about an Aboriginal farm worker on the run after killing a white man in self defense, is an interesting counterpoint to Spike Lee’s crowd-pleaser. Although well received on the festival circuit, it gives the impression of a film that couldn’t care less if anyone likes it or not.
Directed by Warwick Thornton, an Aboriginal man himself, it’s a somber, meditative piece that harks back to violent, hard-bitten masterpieces of the Australian New Wave like Wake in Fright or Walkabout. Films where white people are trying their best to survive in an environment where they don’t belong and the environment regards them with utter, lethal indifference.
In Sweet Country the white man’s attempts to make a livelihood out in the Bush also includes mistreating the locals. The film’s nominal protagonist, Sam (Hamilton Morris) is a farmhand working for a kindly middle-aged Christian, Fred (Sam Neill). Fred is quick to point out that he regards everyone as equals, but there is clearly a bit of master-servant thing going on between him and his aboriginal employees.
Whatever the truth about their relationship, Fred is certainly more benevolent than new neighbour Harry (Ewen Leslie), an openly racist war veteran still suffering from PTSD after his experiences in World War One. Fred agrees to send Sam over to Harry’s ranch to help him fix the place up, along with Sam’s wife and sister, and things deteriorate quickly from there. Harry’s a violent drunk, and Sam ends up gunning him down to protect himself, then going on the run in the Outback with a posse in pursuit.
Sweet Country is not an easy watch, not least because Thornton is totally unconcerned about giving us anyone to “root for”. In a conventional film, Sam would be our hero, but we find out very little about him, and he’s not the most pleasant person to spend time with. The pace of the film is deliberate and Thornton continually disorientates the viewer with flash forwards, which give the story a sense of grim predestination.
I saw Sweet Country the same day as The Guardian ran an article about the 147 indigenous Australians who have died in custody over the past decade. BlacKkKlansman is dedicated to Heather Heyer, who lost her life in Charlottesville when a white supremacist rammed a car into a crowd of counter-protesters. Both films have a historical setting but are also very much about the fight against racism that’s still going on today, and the fight is literally a matter of life and death.
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