BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Part of the allure of genre filmmaking is that it provides a built-in satisfactory payoff in narrative that frees up directors to experiment in tone & aesthetic without worrying about storytelling basics. Slapstick comedies, revenge films, zombie horrors, and outer space creature features all have well-worn narrative patterns in their basic storytelling structure, each with a built-in release of tension in their final acts that, if handled well, satisfy through familiarity. The latest Spike Lee joint, BlacKkKlansman, is well aware of audience expectation for that familiar, comforting payoff in its chosen genre(s) and happily delivers it – at first. As its buddy cop & blacksploitation throwback narratives power through their natural conclusions, BlacKkKlansman pretends to be a straight-faced, well-behaved participation in old-fashioned genre tropes meant to leave audiences entertained & satisfied. Then all of that easy, comforting payoff is swept away with an epilogue that effectively punches the audience in the gut, reminding us that we’re not supposed to feel good about the way the past has shaken out, that the modern word remains messy & nauseating in a way that can’t be captured in a fully satisfied genre exercise. Spike Lee knows exactly how storytelling conventions have trained audiences to expect easy, comforting resolutions to even the most sickening thematic territory, and he’s found potent, purposeful ways to weaponize them against us.

John David Washington stars in BlacKkKlansman as Ron Stallworth, a real-life Colorado Springs police officer who was assigned in the 1970s to go undercover in investigations of both the local university’s radicalized Black Student Union and, more unbelievably, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth, a black man, mostly investigates the KKK via phone (for obvious reason) and relies on a (Jewish) partner played by Adam Driver to serve as his white body double for more hands-on portions of the investigation. It’s a story that’s presented somewhat glibly as “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit” in the opening title cards, but is overall depicted in terms not at all resembling a historically-minded biopic of Stallworth’s exploits. Lee fractures Stallworth’s story into a multimedia approach that incorporates 1970s blacksploitation homage, Shane Black-style buddy cop thrillers, film school lectures on racist cinema relics like Birth of a Nation & Gone with the Wind and, most curiously, slapstick farce. Each of those specific genres & tactics reach their own respective built-in payoffs in the way you’d expect them to, with the undercover cops effectively solving racism with their victory over the KKK and that grotesque prejudice being contextualized as a vestige of a long-gone past. After that narrative fully concludes, however, a rug-pull epilogue comprised of modern cell phone footage & news coverage fully undoes that satisfaction, effectively staging a political prank that demonstrates in clear terms how small-scale, individual victories like the ones depicted in the film mean nothing in the face of the systems that maintain the status quo.

There’s nothing subtle about the prankish, sickening epilogue that concludes BlacKkKlansman, just like there’s nothing subtle about the blacksploitation, cop thriller, or slapstick farce genre beats that precede it. Nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times. Racism in the 2010s is as public & as overt as ever, represented here in public-record statements from politicians like David Duke & Donald J Trump. Lee’s subtlety is neither thematic nor in choice of form, a reflection of how glaringly racist discourse has been allowed to thrive in the public sphere; his subtlety is in criticism of naïve do-gooders who feebly attempt to “change things from the inside,” something not allowed by the racist power structures that maintain that system from on high. All the film’s traditional, genre-faithful heroics are contextualized by the epilogue to be minor, unimportant victories in the face of larger, systemic oppression. In BlacKkKlansman’s main narrative, David Duke is portrayed (by Topher Grace) to be a cartoonish buffoon whose blatant villainy is befitting a racist authority figure in a 1970s blacksploitation pic. He gets his comeuppance as such, and the small-scale embarrassment he suffers being fooled by Ron Stallworth feels incredibly good in the moment of its third act payoff. That payoff is easily undone by Stallworth’s higher-ups, however, and a real-life Duke is shown thriving long after the fallout of the petty road-bump framed earlier as the ultimate victory. His hateful rhetoric remains just as blatant & ridiculous, but fully supported by the white men in charge. If there’s any subtlety in that dichotomy, it’s in Lee’s critique of the audience’s desire for a cleanly wrapped-up ending to a problem that has unsubtly, publicly persisted with full, systemic support.

It’s been a while since a movie had me ping-ponging from such extremes of pure pleasure & stomach-churning nausea. What’s brilliant about BlacKkKlansman is that it often achieves both effects using the same genre tools. Even when it’s taking the structure of an absurdist farce, its humor can be genuinely funny or caustically sickening. Racism is delivered kindly & with a wholesome American smile here, without apology; shamelessly evil bigotry is presented in the cadence & appearance of a joke, but lands with appropriate horror instead of humor. Lee only further complicates his genre subversion by mixing that horror with actual, genuine jokes, so that the film overall maintains the structure of a comedy. It’s a deliberately uneasy mixture that makes the victory-subverting epilogue feel like less of an out-of-nowhere sucker punch than a necessary, realistic addendum. The film’s general tactic from start to end is to offer the built-in satisfaction of throwback genre structure, only for the poison of our modern, grotesque reality to ruin the party. The ending only reinforces that tactic by dislodging systemic racism critiques from the distant past with a nauseous, necessary update.

-Brandon Ledet

Pam Grier’s Undervalued Career in Witchcraft & Voodoo

I often complain about how much of a shame it is that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they both suck. One of the all-time great personalities in genre filmmaking, Grier deserves so much better than the likes of the late career Eddie Murphy comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash and the nu metal era John Carpenter misfire Ghosts of Mars. If we’re only going to launch Grier’s visage into space twice in her career, she deserves a fate far more badass. It turns out, though, that her out-of-orbit sci-fi career isn’t even the most frustrating undercutting of her genre film potential. What’s even worse is the way Grier’s few performances as a witch or a Voodoo priestess have been deflated & underserved, when the idea of a Pam Grier Witchcraft picture should be instant B-movie gold. It’s not even that the movies where Grier dabbles in the art of magic are bad; they’re actually quite enjoyable. It’s that they don’t deliver the full power & glory that a Witchy Pam Grier should be able to command with ease.

My frustration with this witchy deficiency began with our current Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned 1983 Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes. In the film, Pam Grier plays The Dust Witch, a mostly silent agent of dark magic who commands immense power & beauty, but isn’t given nearly enough to do as a character when compared to her overlord, Mr. Dark. Grier elevates every scene she’s in with just her mere presence. An image of her in a white veil overlayed with flying shards broken glass is just as intense & effecting as any of Mr. Dark’s fervent monologues. Still, it’s a shame that for an actor who had proven before in films like Foxy Brown & Coffy that she could hold down a picture on her own, there was no room in the film’s dialogue for her badass, attention-grabbing voice. I love the witchy image Grier strikes in Something Wicked; watching her collect souls of hapless male victims while adorned in gold paint & black lace is enough to get me excited for her performance. It’s just frustrating that she isn’t given much to do outside that physical presence. I would have readily traded all of the film’s other pleasures to watch a movie centered entirely on The Dust Witch instead.

It turns out that wasn’t the first or last time Grier’s career in magic would be undercut. The only other time the actor appeared in a straightforward horror picture, ten years before her appearance in Something Wicked, she was cast as a Voodoo priestess named Lisa Fortier. Scream Blacula Scream, the 1973 sequel to the popular blacksploitation horror Blacula, opens with Grier, as Lisa, preforming a Voodoo ritual on her recently deceased mentor. According to other characters in the film, “When it comes to Voodoo, Lisa has more Natural Powers than anyone in the past ten years.” It’s instantly believable. Lisa’s study of the “extremely complex science of Voodoo,” which she treats with the proper reverence as a religious faith, is unquestioned, making her the most obvious candidate to replace her local sect’s recently deceased high priestess. Unfortunately, one of her fellow practitioners wants to jump the line of succession and raises Mamuwalde (Blacula, for the laymen out there) from the dead to get her out of the picture. The plan backfires, obviously. Mamuwalde builds a new little vampire coven, inducting nearly everyone he meets into his mind slave army, everyone except Lisa. Recognizing her power & beauty, Blacula instead ropes Lisa into performing a ritual to cure him, a ceremony that’s broken up by the cops, who he promptly murders much to Lisa’s horror.

Scream Blacula Scream should be the perfect vehicle for delivery on a Pam Grier With Magical Powers premise, but somehow her Voodoo priestess practices are just as undercut here as they are in Something Wicked. As Lisa, Pam Grier commands a quiet strength & skepticism that perfectly matches the movie’s oddly quiet, somber tone. Outside a scene where she’s walking arm in arm with Blacula like a power couple and the final, interrupted Voodoo ritual to kill him (which looks like the standard dolls, candles, and chants image you’d expect), however, she isn’t given much to do in way of practicing her craft. This is Blacula’s film, after all. The best Lisa could do is wait for her climactic ceremony to test her skills, a scene that isn’t even allowed to fully play out.

A better-realized version of Pam Grier’s brief career as a Voodoo priestess would have had her waging a supernatural war against a foe like Blacula instead of meekly attempting to serve him from a victim’s position. There was a moment in the early 90s where that dream more or less came to life, but it unfortunately served a platform much less prestigious than a live action Disney horror or even a blacksploitation horror sequel. Grier appeared again as a Voodoo priestess in an episode of the syndicated horror anthology television series Monsters, a direct descendant of Tales from the Darkside. In the episode “Hostile Takeover” a business dick attempts to take the Reagan-coined term “Voodoo economics” literally, by employing Grier’s priestess to help him cheat his way to the top. Like all EC Comics/Tales from the Crypt descendants, this thirst for power obviously comes with a price and he’s ultimately punished at the hands of the demon Grier’s priestess worships. Here’s where Grier gets to really practice magic, having great fun with the power she visibly commands. She drinks a white businessman’s blood, forms a pact with an all-powerful demon, sends faxes from beyond the grave, hacks computer screens through the power of her Voodoo, etc. The only shame is that the product this witchy Pam Grier free for all serves is sadly short & embarrassingly cheap. Grier only appears in a couple scenes in this Monsters episode and although she looks badass smoking a cigar in the Party City Voodoo priestess costume they afford, even she can’t elevate the show’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level budget, it might just have been the Witchy Pam Grier project of my dreams.

Something Wicked, Scream Blacula Scream, and “Hostile Takeover” are all enjoyable genre fare. Even though her power is undercut in all three instances, watching Pam Grier practice witchcraft & Voodoo is a large part of their fun. It’s just frustrating in each case that her power wasn’t put to better & more prominent use. The good news is that Grier is still working. She seems to have mostly moved on from the genre film roles that defined her career in the 70s & 80s, mostly playing police detectives now, but she’s still out there. If there’s even a small chance that the magic potential Grier showed as The Dust Witch could be developed in a much better realized Witchy Grier project, I’m going to keep the hope alive. Her brief forays into witchcraft & Voodoo have created an itch I didn’t even know I had, but I’ve yet to find a movie that satisfactorily scratches it.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its Bette Davis-starring predecessor The Watcher in the Woods (1980), and last week’s comparison to Bradbury’s other suburban horror feature adaptation, The Halloween Tree (1993).

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #6 of The Swampflix Podcast: Women in Captivity Cinema & Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

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Welcome to Episode #6 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixth episode, James & Brandon discuss the last year’s unexpected trend of movies featuring women in captivity with friend & photographer Hanna Räsänen. Also, James makes Brandon watch Melvin Van Peebles’s eccentric opus Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Trash Trash Trash.

– James Cohn & Brandon Ledet