Spike Lee has a handful of movies I like, but he usually disappoints me. He’s just not a very good storyteller.
This movie started with two things that didn’t work. Alec Baldwin playing a racist, 1950s academic, doing a PSA style video where he keeps flubbing his lines. He’s just got so much baggage (especially playing Trump on SNL), that it didn’t work. Then, right after this, these cartoonish letters pop on screen telling us something like “This story is fo’ real. This is fo’ real sh*t !”
The audience chuckled, and there are other times Lee goes for comedy, and it didn’t work with such dark and disturbing subject matter. The bigger problem I had with Lee telling us this is “fo’ real” is that it’s not. Sure, the incredible story of police detective Ron Stallworth is rooted in truth. He worked in Colorado, infiltrated the KKK, and with the help of a partner, got some info about these scumbags. Yet Lee and the four other screenwriters added a love interest named Patrice. She ended up being discovered by a KKK member, and a bomb is planted at her house and explodes, injuring her. Later, a cross will be burned on the field near her house. None of that happened.
There’s a racist cop that’s horrible to Stallworth. He’s so unrealistic, it makes you think of the fictional cop character created in Detroit (also based on a true story). That character pulls over Patrice, and threatens her in many ways. Didn’t happen. It was like Lee was trying to recreate a scene from the film Crash. In fact, I read an interview with Stallworth in Time magazine, and basically, most of this didn’t happen. I guess Lee didn’t think you’d have much of a story if it’s the fact that Stallworth and his partner get into the KKK, and nothing much really happens. Which is the true story. So instead, Lee can lecture us on why racism is bad, and how most cops hate African-Americans and treat them poorly. Heck, even the last 10 minutes, Lee devotes to video of Trump and beatings and violence at recent protests. It’s as if he forgot all about the Stallworth story he was telling, so again, we can be lectured. The credits come up as we see an upside down American flag. Seriously, how ridiculous is all this? It’s amazing that most critics are buying into this garbage and praising Lee.
I wouldn’t mind if Lee wanted to create a love interest and other things to fill out the story a bit more. Yet even the moments he does that are done poorly. For example, one of the KKK members (the same actor that played the big doofus in I, Tonya), talks as if he has an IQ of 75. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the average IQ of a KKK member, but they’re shown here in ways that just make me wonder if this is how these people even behaved. Not their racist rants over a game of pool, or playing poker. But they’d watch Birth of a Nation and cheer and shout, as if they were Mystery Science Theatre. Another KKK member demands someone drop their pants so he can see if he’s Jewish, because they’ve been “circumstanced.” Yeah, because…dumb people apparently don’t know the word “circumsized.”
Lee also had a few scenes that reminded me of things Tarantino has done (which is odd, considering how much he hates Tarantino). He had two characters talking about blaxploitation movies of the ‘70s. Now, in Inglorious Basterds, I didn’t think the scene worked when a young soldier and woman at a movie theatre, talked about their favorite Italian directors from the early 1900s. It’s a conversation I didn’t see them having, and one that wasn’t interesting. In this, Patrice and Ron talk about Pam Grier movies, and how these films represent their people. It’s a conversation I could see them having, and it was interesting. Then Lee decides to edit in clips that show us the actual movie posters. It was so dumb. Almost as dumb as the scene, in which the people behind me said, “It looks like those heads floating around in Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ video.” Someone is speaking, and you see these floating heads with afros, as they’re mesmerized.
Spike Lee is so preachy and heavy-handed, and it’s just not that interesting. It’s weird, because Jordan Peele (Key & Peele), did the terrific movie Get Out, and gave this story to Lee (they both produced). Perhaps he could give him lessons in subtly, and how to make an interesting movie. Heck, Lee could watch the recent Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You — two brilliant films that show us some of the crap African-Americans have to deal with regarding police and racism. This is just a messy, poorly done movie that muddies his own political discourse.
The movie starts with Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington) joining the Colorado Springs police. He works a lowly position in the records department, and is treated bad by one racist cop (who wasn’t a real character, but fictionalized for the movie). An officer named Jimmy (Michael Buscemi, the brother of Steve, who distractingly looks and sounds just like Steve) seems friendly to him, as does Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). It was smart that the script was written in a way that Flip doesn’t immediately flip over the idea of working on this undercover operation. After all, Ron is a rookie, and he wonders why he’s leading an investigation. Also, it seems risky. Ron tries to appeal to Flip’s Jewish side (as the KKK hate Jews as much as they do Blacks). Once they get things going, they seem to be having a blast doing it. And it’s mildly entertaining to watch, for awhile. That’s sometimes hard, with the over-scored (and poorly scored) work of Terence Blanchard. My wife and I were both disappointed by the ‘70s song selection (somebody needs to put Brandy into retirement from movies. It’s been used in about 25 films, last time in Guardians of the Galaxy 2).
Just as I was one of the few critics that didn’t think the racist dialogue worked in Three Billboards, in this it reaches the breaking point very quickly, too.
The scenes with Patrice, who is into the civil rights movement and has a matching ‘fro, are somewhat interesting. It’s fun to hear a woman complaining about the cops, to an undercover cop. He slyly smiles and tries to explain why he doesn’t use the n-word and why he doesn’t hate the police.
It’s also interesting to hear Flip go on a racist rant about the Holocaust, while trying to gain the trust of the KKK, and trick one member that’s convinced he’s Jewish. But Lee ends up getting redundant with these types of scenes. We have to constantly hear Stallworth talking about how he hates blacks on the phone, and Flip has to constantly talk about Jews. The tone of this picture is all over the place, and just doesn’t work. The edits are bad. The split-screen shots aren’t necessary and make it come off as something one of his film students would’ve done.
Topher Grace does a good job as David Duke, but his voice is distracting, as it sounds like Topher the entire time. That’s why he and Baldwin shouldn’t have been cast.
Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton, Kong: Skull Island) as Stokely Carmichael worked powerfully, as did Harry Belafonte telling a story about the lynching of mentally challenged young black man in the early 1900s in Waco.
I also wonder about Lee’s choice to have dialogue about things like O.J. Simpson. When Flip is talking about his favorite people being black (Willie Mays, Wilt Chamberlain — two of my all-time favorite athletes), why does the third have to be O.J. Simpson and dialogue discussing how great he is? For a cheap laugh? I’d think this subject matter would be too important to throw in goofy jokes like that (there’s another about David Bowie, who recently passed away). Another cheap laugh he went for, fails on two fronts. First, it never happened. Second, it’s a scene stolen out of All in the Family (when the bigoted Archie Bunker is taking a photo with Sammy Davis Jr., and he quickly kisses Archie on the cheek right before the photo is snapped).
And somebody needs to explain to Lee that, we already thought white supremacists were evil. He doesn’t have to try to spell the message out for us, and in doing so, he makes a weaker film. And by making them a bunch of dumb yokels telling idiotic jokes, we just think of them as cartoonish goofballs. Wouldn’t it be more powerful if he made them somewhat smart and sinister, and people we need to worry about? Or at the very least, more than just one-dimensional dummies.
Ryan Eggold does a good job playing the charismatic Walter Breachway, who runs the local KKK chapter, and has to constantly keep his ignorant goons in check.
Nicholas Turturro is decent in his part, but my wife asked, “Would the KKK be associated with a guy that looks Mexican?” It’s irrelevant as again, that’s just a fictional character Lee made up, so there could be added drama. You see, he’s the guy that knows Flip is a cop, since he busted him years earlier (that’s a premise that has been done in other gangster films, but hey…we’re supposed to all consider Spike Lee a genius).
The last 10 minutes of the movie show a white nationalist march in Charlottesville, cut in with Trump talking about it, as well as footage of the car that ran over the crowd, killing a woman. Spike Lee has said he hopes this movie “brings down President Trump.” Uh, shouldn’t he hope his movie tells a great story on Ron Stallworth, and in the process, opens some eyes on racism? No, Lee would rather you think that things are the same in the country today as they were in the ‘70s, or in 1903, or any time in history when blacks were poorly treated. And according to his logic — we should blame Trump. Lee actually accomplished none of the things he set out to do, and that’s a shame. My wife even said, “I would’ve liked the movie to end with them telling us how long Stallworth was a cop, and some of his other accomplishments.”
Lee instead opts to show Trump videos to get a few digs in, when if he wanted to do that, he should’ve just used video of David Duke singing his praises (which he also has in the ending). Basically, Lee undermines the story that he doesn’t know how to properly tell.
Skip this movie, and instead go see two of the best movies this year, that tackle these subjects much better — Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You. Those are films where characters weren’t caricatures. No one’s going to bogart this Spike Lee Joint.
This gets 1 ½ stars out of 5.