I'm reminded of an old joke: One guy holds up a quill pen and proclaims, “The pen is mightier than the sword!” A guy facing him, brandishing a sword, smiles (they both have some kind of English accent and are wearing funny hats). He then runs through (you know, with the sword) the guy with the pen, who crumples to the ground, dead. The man with the sword then says, “That may be...”
Take that as you will, but you must ask yourself, why do we take that old saying to be true, just because it's been around? Maybe the sword is mightier than the pen. And what if the pen is education and the sword is wealth, or the pen is the short story and the sword is the cinema, or the pen is journalism and the sword is politics, or the pen is the legal profession and the sword is the military? What does “mightier” mean, in the end, anyway, and why do we care? And what's this have to do with my review of this movie? The answer to that is that I'm not going to write about this movie, and the reason is because—even though I promised myself I'd write about every movie I see at a theater—I went out and broke another promise I made to myself. I said that I would see movies without reading about them first (that's always my promise to myself) and then I would get up the next morning after seeing the movie and write about it without reading anything about it. But this morning... what did I do? I stayed in bed with my phone and looked up a review of this movie, and then another, and another. Some of these were intelligent, really well-informed, and interesting. So I went on, realizing I must refer to this movie writing in whatever I wrote, agree or disagree, and alas, my bed because a deeper and deeper hole, and to try to escape, I switched over to Instagram, made a lot of red hearts, then to today's top three (determined by my phone) news stories. My comfortable little rabbit hole then became a coffin. Send flowers! Just kidding—I finally (thankfully, and with monumental effort) climbed out of it. And I got out on the wrong side.
Those articles and discussions—many of them about the political nature of this film, its effectiveness or lack of effectiveness, and Spike Lee's massive career, and future hope or despair—can be found on your phone or reading device, or even a newspaper, and I'd encourage you to see this movie while you can see it on a glorious large screen with good sound, then read to your heart's content. I'm going out for a walk, while it's still summer, and watch those new students, full of hope and despair, head off for the first day of school. But first, during my coffee, I'm looking up Spike Lee's filmography online. There's a lot of stuff there. He's just a few years older than me, but it feels like he's been around forever. Though I remember vividly when She's Gotta Have It (1986) came out, how fresh it seemed—I'd like to see it again, now. Do the Right Thing (1989) is one of my favorite movies, and I've seen it repeatedly over the years. I still feel like it's powerful and thought-provoking, and it's always highly entertaining, funny, quotable, and disturbing. I say disturbing in that it made me examine a lot about myself: prejudices, fears, and perceptions; not exactly a feel-good reaction, but one of growth, hopefully (as opposed to the kind of disturbing that a lot of movies try to be: disturbing for the sake of being disturbing). For whatever reason—I'm really not sure—I stopped seeing very many Spike Lee movies. I'm guessing there isn't just one reason, but a combination of: his really wide array of styles and subjects might have felt intimidating? Or maybe his movies stopped getting the screen time they once did? Or maybe (I'm sure this is part of it) I started seeing less and less movies—a trend which continues, with me. Anyway, it occurred to me, as a mad list maker, that Spike Lee would be another good person to focus on, see all his work (or at least the features) and consider it as a whole. So maybe he'll be next (after Robert Altman, and, and...)
That “based on a true story” thing is usually a red flag with me—or else I just ignore it—but seeing that this movie is based on a story set in Colorado Springs in 1970, that got me out of my chair and to the movie theater in the rain. It turns out that you need to have some faith that this story is based on a true story (based on Ron Stallworth's book), because it's so outlandish. It's about the first black detective (played by John David Washington) with the Colorado Springs police, infiltrating the local Ku Klux Klan chapter—by calling on the phone, then getting invited to join. So naturally he had to get another detective (played by Adam Driver) to be him when meeting “The Organization” in person—which ends up being somewhat comic, harrowing, horrifying, and just very satisfying—as a story, a yarn, a kind of tall tale (but that really happened, right?—as nuts as it is). Also, something that could never happen in these internet, cell phone days. Spike Lee does some cool film things here, too, like showing the Klansmen (including our infiltrator) shooting guns out in the woods—always a lot of fun, right, watching dudes shoot guns—but then, when they leave the woods, the camera moves around to see that the metal targets are racist black caricatures, kind of permanently out there, full of bullet holes—purely visual storytelling that's chilling and disturbing. As far as the reflection you will inevitably have watching this movie, you will ask yourself (as we all keep asking ourselves) are things getting better or are things getting worse? Who can answer that? One thing that popped into my mind was that old saying, “One step forward, two steps back”—which seems like how we go, sometimes, as a society. That is kind of pessimistic, I guess, but look at it this way—even though the two steps back part is tragic on some, and many, levels, that still doesn't totally negate the one step forward part, without which we wouldn't' survive. The work is never done, it never will be done, and why would you think it ever would be?
Ultimately this is a pretty lengthy and convoluted story, I'm not going to go on about what I think worked and didn't work (a lot of both). I had an enjoyable time at the movies, and the parts I didn't like didn't infuriate me—so it was a successful outing. When you're watching a movie, there are just so many levels of involvement and appreciation—from the drama to the story to the performances to the art—all of which can be appreciated or criticized on their own. And then there's the music, also a big deal—I was really excited to hear almost the entire Temptations song, “Ball of Confusion,” because it brought back my 10-year-old self buying that as a single, with the lyrics on the sleeve (what other 45 had the lyrics printed?), analyzing it line by line. The movie is also, ultimately, entwined with its political message, and the degree to which it's powerful or important or works for you necessarily has to do with where you are at. It's not going to be the last word on the subject. Why would it be, or why would anything be the last word? It's part of an ongoing conversation. With movies, it's okay to have a lot of different conversations that don't even have anything to do with each other. Movies are huge, expensive, and powerful. It's also interesting that Spike Lee uses several references to Birth of a Nation, which adds complexity on several levels—even possibly as a self-critique (of the filmmaker and the audience). Movies are also, you sometimes forget, a short form, and if they try to do too much, sometimes fail their ambition. And also, movies, many of them, especially the expensive ones, we should remember, are often made for a more general, not very esoteric audience. It's a difficult arena to work in, for the artist. Sometimes you've got to think—especially if you've ever tried to make one—it's a small miracle movies even get made at all.
Randy Russell 9.5.18