Published on: February 1, 2019
I found BlacKkKlansman
, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, to be a problematic but entertaining piece of work … but not because it diverges too much from the true story the first African-American cop in the Colorado Springs, Colorado, police department, who infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan; he does so with the help of a white, Jewish detective who interacts with the KKK on a live basis, while the black detective handles the phone conversations and mail interactions.
The film, in fact, is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, and a memoir he wrote a couple of years ago, though it detours from the true story in order to make dramatic and narrative points along the way. Directed by Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
is as stylized as you would expect, and does an excellent job of portraying the cultural realities of the early seventies. Stallworth, played by John David Washington, finds himself betwixt and between - while he sympathizes with black protesters, he is unwilling to subscribe to their facile characterization of the police as “pigs.” And Adam Driver, playing the physical embodiment of “Ron Stallworth,” is equally good - he is a cultural Jew who never thought about his heritage until running headlong into the corrosive attitudes of the KKK.
I have no particular problem with stylized filmmaking, but what bothered me about BlacKkKlansman
is that it served to underline the polemical aspects of the narrative, when the last thing it needed to be was underlined. And then, at the end, the stylized approach gives way to a more documentarian approach, which further underlines the firm’s political points in ways that I found unnecessary. I got the point the first few times, I agreed with it every time Lee made it, and then he hit me over the head with it again.
That said … I recognize that maybe I’m the wrong guy to suggest that underlining salient points about race and bias isn’t necessary. Maybe Spike Lee feels he can’t make the point too often, because too many idiots (as the film’s coda shows us) simply don’t get it.
I’m okay with that. I liked BlacKkKlansman
. Didn’t love it, but liked it, and thought it was an interesting story worth telling. In the end, passion wins out.
HBO this week has been featuring a fascinating documentary, “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists,” that looks at the lives and careers of New York journalists and columnists Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, each of whom at pretty much defined different and wonderful aspects of the New York tabloid business.
While both were children of the New York area who grew up in poverty, Breslin and Hamill were very different writers. Breslin was a machine gun of a writer, with little about his life and work that was subtle; he was all seething resentment and moral outrage, but he channeled those emotions into often unforgettable columns that trained a spotlight on people he thought were ignored or disenfranchised. And he had an indisputable gift for the dramatic - his column about the black man digging John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery is just one of his many classics.
Hamill, on the other hand, was a kind of urban poet - deeply in love with the city of his birth, with its people and buildings and streets and attitudes, and able to write spellbinding columns about all of them and more; his pieces about Vietnam and Robert Kennedy were remarkable. (Both Hamill and Breslin were with RFK on the night of his assassination.) Hamill was an elegant and probably the more versatile writer, capable of columns, book-length nonfiction, and some pretty great novels. (For my money, Hamill’s memoir, “A Drinking Life” and collection of journalism, “Piecework,” are two of my favorite books. Ever.) Hamill also, at various points in his life, dated Shirley MacLaine and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis … so it has to be said that he had game.
If I have a problem with the documentary, it is that too much attention is paid to the romance of the fifties and sixties and seventies, and not enough to the actual writing; this may be because writing is harder to illustrate in the video medium. But maybe this isn’t so bad, since the film also illustrates the degree to which Hamill and Breslin understood that they had brands that needed to be nurtured and even exploited as they plied their craft - their images as passionate, hard-working, hard-drinking, and even hard-living New York City columnists served their ability to do their jobs. It fit their images - and their professional goals - when they said that “the most interesting story always is in the loser’s locker room.”
I’m old enough to remember when New York had more than a half-dozen newspapers; we read three of them at home, and I can remember being sent down to the local newsstand to pick up the New York Times
, the Daily News
and, I think, the . And I can remember immersing myself in their pages, mostly the sports and comics sections, and somehow sensing that this was more than just paper and ink … it was the lifeblood of a specific place and time. (I even remember a kind of withdrawal during the 1962-63 newspaper strike.) From the opening moments of the documentary to the wistful closing scenes, Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” shows us two people of extraordinary talent, who helped to define the art of the newspaper column and the possibilities and heartbreaks of the greatest city on the planet.
That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.