Black KkKlansman (2018)

Black KkKlansman (2018)

With the release of Black KkKlansman, Spike Lee once again steps into his rightful place as a maker of bluntly provocative (and, incidentally, hilarious) films about race in America. The film follows the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), one of the first black police officers in Colorado Springs. Apparently on whim, Stallworth calls an advertised number for information on the KKK, posing as a white supremacist, and strikes up a rapport with the local chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold). Stallworth eventually infiltrates the local chapter with the help of his sergeant and white detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who acts as Stallworth in face to face meetings, eventually working his way all the way up to conversations with David Duke (Topher Grace) himself.

As with this year’s Sorry to Bother You, Black KkKlansman is very much about the nature of voice and the formation of identity out of voice. Ron speaks for himself – or rather, the white man he’s pretending to be – over the phone, while Flip has to speak for him in person. In one telling exchange, Ron and the police chief argue over Flip’s ability to sound like him, the chief implying that Ron’s voice must be far different from Flip’s simply because of his race. “Some speak the King’s English, some speak jive, and I happen to be fluent in both,” says Ron. But as a character, he’s not entirely comfortable in either milieu – he has difficulty matching the proper rhetoric in an initial meeting with a black student organization, and he ultimately has to teach Flip to sound more like him. The layers are multitudinous – Ron is performing as a white man, but he’s using his own voice; Flip, a white man, has to sound like a black man speaking “white.” Those separations of identity and how voice and identity coalesce is fundamental to the film – David Duke (Topher Grace) claims that he can tell simply by someone’s speech whether they are black or white. Ron is both cop and black man; not a “pig,” as his girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) claims, but a cop, and also uncomfortable in his treatment at the hands of other white cops. Flip’s identity, in turn, is split between performing as Ron with the KKK, a world where he’s treated as a friend and brother, his identity as a Jewish man (which, until the job, he claims never formed much of an identity), and his personal, apparently non-racist beliefs.

Black KkKlansman situates itself where the real story occurred – in 1970s Colorado Springs. So often stories about racism in America occur either in inner cities or in the deep South; here, to a 2018 audience, we have a story in the “real America” of the Midwest, in a relatively safe liberal enclave, in which the KKK are the smiling next door neighbors. This is most clearly emphasized in the form of Connie Kendrickson (Ashlie Atkinson), the wife of a KKK member and a Midwest homemaker who becomes instrumental in the film’s final act. The result speaks clearly to white liberal America, that the people beneath the hoods are not others in some distant or backward past, but our friendly, innocuous neighbors.

Lee employs a blunt arc under which he conceals layers of characterization and complexity, drawing very clear parallels between the 1970s narrative and America in 2018. And the references he makes are not ahistorical – “America First” was indeed a rallying cry of white supremacists, and it has also been employed by Trump. David Duke himself has been a recent feature in American politics, endorsing Trump’s candidacy and speaking openly about the rise of white supremacy during the Nazi march in Charlottesville. The parallels between the contemporary moment and the events of the film are made explicit – a chilling speech by Ron’s sergeant hammers this home – but more than that, this is about the development of white supremacy in America. Posters of Richard Nixon are on the walls of a clubhouse during a KKK rally, a brief reminder that Nixon was the one to institute the “Southern strategy” and solidly identifying the formation of the modern GOP with support from white supremacists. David Duke wanted to make the KKK a viable political entity, and has done just that, normalizing that which should be abhorrent.

As with many of Lee’s works, media is as culpable in its representation of race as people themselves.  The movie opens with a sweeping Technicolor shot as a Confederate flag waves above fallen soldiers, and a pivotal scene includes the KKK chapter watching, and cheering on, Birth of a Nation, a film credited with giving new life to the KKK. David Duke references Gone with the Wind as support for his beliefs, and Ron and Patrice discuss the depiction of black people as cops and pimps in films like Shaft and Superfly. Blaxsploitation references abound in camera techniques and music. The importance of cinema and how it represents race and reinforces or comments on racial prejudice runs throughout the film, reminding us that film does indeed have power to reignite racial hatreds, and provide inspiration for revolution. Lee is giving his audience a film history lesson in American racism, in white supremacy and racial conflict, in the Black Panthers, and in the responsibility of media itself in the portrayal of both black people and the KKK.

Black KkKlansman speaks to people who already agree with its central point, which is both its strength and its weakness. It plays like a call to arms, to stand up against racism not in the abstract past but in the here and now, by emphasizing just how dangerous the KKK truly are. The white police officers and even Ron himself initially downplay the danger the KKK poses – Flip dismisses them at first as grandstanders, hicks with nothing better to do. But as the film proceeds, we see the reality of the “organization,” in the charismatic and horrifying presence of David Duke, in the KKK’s willingness to use violence and intimidation to achieve their ends, and in their complexities of racial biases, theories, and hatreds. “They aren’t The Beverly Hillbillies,” says Flip after his first meeting with the local Klan. The film runs the gamut, showing us both the stupid “hicks” and the charming, “respectable” men like Duke and the country club set. It even establishes some Klan members as apparently “normal” men, all of them with regular jobs, some of them military. The film represents the KKK as being more than just a bunch rednecks playing dress-up. They are a group of people hysterically dedicated to subjugating and then eradicating everyone they deem of a “lesser race” (here, the film avoids making this a solely black/white issue, and spends some time on depicting the Klan’s hatred of pretty much everyone not of white European descent).

Lee employs all of his considerable skill and filmmaking prowess, developing a narrative that is at once blunt and nuanced, horrifying and funny in the most unexpected ways. It shows the soul-eating nature of racism without asking us to sympathize with racists. There’s little joy to be found among the members of the Klan, all of whom seem to spend most of their free time talking about how much they hate everyone else. But Black KkKlansman pulls no punches, at one point cutting between a Klan inauguration celebration and the black student union listening to a talk by an elderly man who witnessed a friend mutilated, lynched, and burned. The images of the lynching are juxtaposed with the seething hatred of the Klan in its faux Christian pomp and circumstance, bringing home the reality of violence, the reality of hatred, the deep-seated racial divisions at the heart of America. It reminds us that, for all that they might seem ridiculous, the Klan is real and powerful and violent, a true danger, a true force for evil. And beneath those hoods are men and women that we stand next to in the grocery store, and that now sit in the White House.

Black KkKlansman opens nationwide today.

The Firemen’s Ball (1967)

The Firemen’s Ball (1967)

Milos Forman’s bizarre political comedy The Firemen’s Ball is as well-known for the controversy surrounding its release in 1967 as it is for its content. But the content shouldn’t be ignored—The Firemen’s Ball is a brilliant film, its understated comedy inherent in the events as a group of firemen throw a ball in their small town, where they plan to award their former chairman a ceremonial axe.

The Firemen’s Ball is about bureaucracy run amok, as the governing committee are unable to make such simple choices as what girls to put in a beauty contest or how to run a lottery without resorting to roundabout discussions and payola from concerned mothers, fathers, and boyfriends. As “the people” get drunker and rowdier, the committee breaks down—those tasked with guarding the lottery watch as more items disappear, while the discussions over who is to present what and when comes nearer to fisticuffs. The whole thing culminates in a ridiculous attempt at having a beauty contest in which all the contestants refuse to go onstage.

This is absurdism at its finest. The film is shot through with the darkest of Czech humor—everyone, from the committee to the people to the landscape itself is the butt of a joke, representative of petty rivalries, drunken idiocy, and smug leadership that cannot lead. Forman’s roaming camera captures faces young and old as they slowly devolve into drunkenness and competition, the disgust of young women for the group of old men trying to figure out how to judge their beauty, the palpable sense of the absurd. While the film never explicitly attacks the Communist party, it is self-evidently a condemnation of the bureaucracy, corruption, and squabbling within Czechoslovakia at the time.

The Firemen’s Ball plays like a documentary, with the camera catching the apparently unguarded moments of the crowd. Many of the actors are non-professional (most of the firemen are played by actual firemen from the town), and the humor of the film lies in even its extremity being believable—none of the slapstick elements are overplayed or come off as merely comic vignettes. As the ball breaks down into absurdity and chaos (including an actual fire), the underlying commentary lies in the ineptitude of the firemen to accomplish even the smallest tasks. The fact that it doesn’t purport to be a pure allegory (of Communism, of Czechoslovakia) means that the film extends itself to universality—it encompasses a petit bourgeois smugness and bureaucratic nonsense that would say as much about the United States or Soviet Russia as it does about Czechoslovakia.

After the release of The Firemen’s Ball, Forman left Czechoslovakia to discuss financing the film, and the Soviets invaded. The film was “banned forever,” Forman chose to remain outside the country, and The Firemen’s Ball was eventually nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. With a scant running time of barely more than an hour, it stands up as one of the finest, funniest political allegories ever filmed and a seminal event in the Czech New Wave.

The Firemen’s Ball is available to stream on FilmStruck.

Elmer Gantry (1960)

Elmer Gantry (1960)


Big-tent evangelism is a very American form of religion, a combination of populist Christianity and salesmanship that could only exist in a sprawling country that relied on religious freedom as one of its founding tenets, right next door to aggressive individualism and free enterprise. Elmer Gantry, therefore, is a story that can only happen in American, with a hero as complex and morally ambiguous as the land itself.

Burt Lancaster is Elmer Gantry, a traveling salesman, huckster, and former seminarian who hitches his wagon to Sister Sarah Falconer (Jean Simmons), the leader of a traveling revivalist church. I use the term church loosely, for Sister Sarah has no denominational affiliation to speak of: she’s selling her own brand of Christianity to the rural masses. Gantry proves to be a sort of godsend to Sister Sarah’s organization: he’s a rousing speaker, summoning visions of hellfire and damnation to ignite the congregation while Sister Sarah offers them peace and salvation. As their organization grows, Gantry and Sarah decide to push into the (bigger) city with their revivalist meeting, heading to Zenith, Winnemac (a fictional city and state that could be any large populated area across the Midwest), where Sister Sarah hopes to build a permanent tabernacle. Gantry runs afoul of his past, however, in the form of Lulu Baines (Shirley Jones), Gantry’s former lover turned prostitute.


Elmer Gantry could have played like a straight moral tale, with the shady salesman duping the small-town folks into buying his religious snake-oil until finally exposed by a more moral crusader (or, alternatively, by his nefarious past). But the film refuses to offer such an easy answer to the questions it poses. Gantry is a huckster, no doubt, yet he comes to believe or, at least, to understand the need for belief in those around him. Sister Sarah is no doe-eyed idealist dreaming of salvation; she’s a complex figure, with both a strong understanding of what it means to sell religion, and a true belief that she’s saving souls. Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), a newspaperman and resident symbol of atheism and cynicism, is repelled by Gantry but respects his intellect all the same; nor is Lefferts’ disbelief any better or more realistic than the evangelical fervor of Gantry and Sarah – it’s just another side of the same coin. Even the wronged and cynical Lulu hides a complicated soul: rejected by her reverend father after she’s seduced by Gantry, she still loves the man who wronged her.

If this film could have had a better cast, I’d like to see it. Burt Lancaster is the center of this whirlwind: charming, cunning, half-sincere and half-joking, he charges into each scene with his head down and his teeth gleaming. A salesman for Jesus, he waves his Bible with all the conviction of a true believer, and talks town officials into allowing the revivalist meeting by appealing once to their avarice and twice to their faith. Yet Gantry isn’t insincere in his religion, or in his burgeoning love for Sister Sarah; he just bends the world to accommodate him, mostly unaware of those he walks over to get there, and never willfully harming anyone. He might seem almost Satanic at times, but we should not forget that Satan has always believed in God.


Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah is in stark contrast to Lancaster’s bellowing Bible-thumper. Sarah is the other kind of true believer, a woman whose faith is so engrained in her identity that to think that God isn’t speaking to her would be to destroy her own soul. She recognizes Gantry as a charlatan, making use of his charlatanism to advance her ministry. When Gantry’s roving past is revealed, it’s Sister Sarah who suffers willingly, as she finally steps into the role of martyr. But again it would be a mistake to dismiss Sarah as someone searching for personal aggrandizement: this is a film about faith, and Sarah’s is as real and as palpable as Gantry’s.

Elmer Gantry‘s great strength is that it neither dismisses evangelism as cynical chicanery, nor does it embrace the Bible-thumpers as the true heralds of God. It’s not about the rightness or wrongness of religion or atheism, or about where religious truth actually lies. If anything, it’s about America: about the soul of a country and of a people, about searching for answers to questions that have none. Is Gantry a huckster or a preacher? Does Sister Sarah perform a miracle or is it just random coincidence? How far does faith go and can we justify the ways of God to Man?