Produced by Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Directed by Spike Lee
Screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Spike Lee
Distributed by Focus Features
Crazy Rich Asians
Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers
Directed by John M. Chu
Screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim from Kevin Kwan’s novel
Produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures
Directed and written by Christopher McQuarrie
Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, is an adaptation of Ron Stallworth’s memoir of his experiences as Colorado Springs’ first black policeman in 1972. As you might imagine his tenure was not without its trials. At first Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel’s son) is relegated to the records department, where he’s treated so shabbily by his fellow officers he decides to get uppity. He asks to become an undercover detective. Unexpectedly, his white precinct captain grants him his wish. His first assignment is to attend a black student-union rally at which Stokely Carmichael gives an incendiary speech calling upon the students to arm themselves for the coming race war. Stallworth reports to his captain that Carmichael was just venting hot air. Not surprising. He’s been smitten with the union’s lovely president, Patrice Dumas (played by Laura Harrier), and doesn’t want to offend her. As a career move, his behavior is less than auspicious.
A few days later, Stallworth sees a classified ad in the local newspaper inviting interested folk to contact the local chapter of the KKK. Seeing his opportunity, he calls the Klan’s number, pretending he’s a disgruntled white fellow who wants to take action against “niggers.” In response, the chapter leader invites him to come to his office to discuss the matter. And so we’re off to the races. Since Stallworth cannot show up at KKK headquarters himself without giving the game away, he appeals to a Jewish officer named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go in his place. Soon Zimmerman’s regularly meeting the town’s Klan members while Stallworth’s conversing with them over the phone. Their plan is to entrap the Klansmen by urging them to set off a bomb with the intention of killing black students.
What impressed me most about the film is its portrayal of the Klan members. It’s long been standard in films to portray the Klan as a vicious organization wielding incalculable resources to inflict terror and harm on those they disapprove of, principally blacks, Jews, homosexuals, and Catholics. Indeed, through its various incarnations, the Klan earned its reputation with cross burnings, mayhem, and lynchings. By 1972, however, its membership had diminished markedly from tens of thousands to just 3,000 nationally, comprising uneducated lunkheads. The Klansmen we meet in the film are hapless nitwits incapable of executing the simplest of their nasty plans. Their chapter leader is so desperate to recruit new members, he lets Zimmerman-playing-Stallworth snooker him easily. One of his underlings, however, tries to execute due diligence. He suspects Zimmerman is a Jew and wants to take a gander at his penis to see if it’s “circumstanced.” Even national director David Duke (believably played by Topher Grace) is easily hornswoggled when Stallworth calls him, asking if he can expedite his admission into the Klan. It makes you wonder how this subversive organization survived at all.
Lee’s take on Stallworth’s story is confused to say the least. At times he portrays the Klan members as pathetic losers, and yet he envisions a time when David Duke might be elected America’s president. Stallworth scoffs at the notion. Then, in the film’s one interesting shot, Lee puts Stallworth and Dumas in a long, dark hotel hallway and with focusing trickery has them glide toward a window from which they see hooded Klansmen burning a cross in a park outside. He then fuses this with television coverage of the Unite the Right meatheads who demonstrated for white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and includes video footage of James Fields driving his car into a crowd of counter protestors, injuring as many as 35 people and killing Heather Heyer. This is followed by Donald Trump’s impolitic comment that there were good people on both sides of this contretemps. Lee’s point is that, with the election of Trump, Americans have put a Duke-like racist in the White House. This seems overly facile to me.
There’s another film currently in the theaters that deals with race, but on a far happier note. Crazy Rich Asians tells the tale of some extraordinarily wealthy Asians. How wealthy? The film’s opening scene answers the question. Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) has just arrived at a swank London hotel in 1986 with her son. Although she’s made reservations, the manager, seeing that’s she’s Chinese, tells her he has no rooms left and that she might find accommodations in Chinatown. With that, Eleanor asks to make a call. But the manager won’t oblige her. So she goes outside into the street during a rainstorm to find a pay phone (remember those?). She puts a call through to her husband, a fabulously wealthy real-estate developer in Singapore. A few minutes later, she re-enters the hotel and announces that she now owns the establishment. That’s how wealthy. It’s a nice piece of business and, I imagine, only a tad exaggerated. Yeoh, formerly a screen martial artist, pulls it off with an insouciant hauteur worthy of a consummate dragon lady. In the 2017 present tense of the film, Eleanor continues to wield her dragon lady bona fides. Her son Nick (Henry Golding) is planning to marry Rachel (Constance Wu), a young woman of modest means who, like himself, teaches at New York University. Eleanor thinks it an unsuitable match and strives to undermine it. She objects to Rachel on grounds that she’s too Americanized to abide by acceptable Chinese values. When Rachel tells her that teaching economics at the university is her passion, Eleanor frostily replies that, in Singapore, “Family comes first, not passion.” The dragon lady clearly means this to draw a forbidding line between East and West, one she’s adamant her son not cross.
How will things turn out? We don’t have to wonder for long. The answer comes in the person of Golding, whose father is English, and mother Malaysian. He’s exceedingly handsome by both Asian and Western standards and seems blessed with the kind of charm that the world’s movie audiences love. Indeed, he’s Prince Charming to Rachel’s Cinderella, so the narrative’s outcome is never much in doubt.
The romance between the Chinese professors becomes the occasion for overturning some common occidental assumptions about our Eastern brothers. For one, the older Chinese generation living in Singapore don’t, as we imagine, fully trust the Chinese who have decamped to America. For another, the young and affluent throughout the Pacific rim no longer nurture ancestor worship. In a whirl of affluence, they’ve turned their backs on tradition, upsetting their stodgy parents. In some ways, this Asian story has a familiar American ring to it.
The film is not much, but it’s pleasant, colorful, and filled with Asian popular music. What’s more, the food served at a seemingly unending series of parties and feasts looks utterly delectable. You might want to see it at a theater near a good Chinese restaurant.
Now for a film blessedly free of anything serious to say. That’s Mission: Impossible—Fallout. Before I say anything about it, I must first confess I couldn’t follow its plot. Not that this disqualifies me from reviewing the film. Plots in this franchise don’t matter much beyond affording Tom Cruise (as Ethan Hunt) the opportunity to prove he’s capable of zipping through traffic-clogged avenues on his motorcycle and sliding down the sides of glass skyscrapers, pausing once in a while to pull a rubber mask over his head so he can pass for one of his enemies when necessary. Does it matter why he is performing these stunts? Barely. In this outing he’s after a crazed scientist who’s committed to establishing world peace by means of terrorism. His plan couldn’t be simpler. It calls for exploding a plutonium core in the Himalayas, thus contaminating the water supply of India, Pakistan, and China. What could be better than creating havoc for a third of the world’s population? It’s sure to bring on a new world order that will certainly ban nuclear weapons altogether. (He means well, doesn’t he?)
Whom do you call when something like this arises? Silly question. It’s Cruise and his Impossible Mission Force. And that’s just what the CIA does despite its new director, Angela Bassett, mocking the IMF team for the harebrained stunts they’ve pulled in their previous outings. Nevertheless, three plutonium cores have gone missing. As the story’s McGuffin, they must be recovered pronto. To rein in the IMF’s thrill-a-minute tactics, Bassett puts Superman on the case in the person of Henry Cavill. Well, not Superman actually. Here the man of steel is a ruthless member of the Special Activities Division, and he’s fully ready to kill to achieve his goals. This establishes his difference from Hunt, whose weakness is precisely that he won’t murder to accomplish his ends. Nor will he countenance the death of his team members. When his comrade Luther (Ving Rhames) is wounded, he chooses to save him. In the ensuing kerfuffle, the explosive materiel falls into the hands of someone or other, let’s say the bad guys. Of course, the steely Ms. Bassett roundly chastises Hunt for his sentimentality.
Still Ethan is in fine form once he mounts his motorcycle and chases the evildoers across Paris with an especially fine display of his high-speed skills doing circles around the Arc de Triomphe. This and innumerable other displays of heroic derring-do manage to let the filmmakers off the hook. There’s little need to maintain believability when your star is, say, defying gravity parachuting into Paris from 1,500 feet.
The film did, however, test my patience. The Swedish maiden Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) who had appeared so winningly in the last Mission outing has returned, but here she’s shorn of her earlier gravitas. Unlike so many actors today who prefer to lard up in the service of their art, Ferguson’s lost a good deal of weight. This has had the unfortunate effect of making her look much too delicate to roar about on her motorbike and pummel villains. She’s restored her girlish comeliness but, in the process, she’s unfortunately struck a blow against what had been her formidable feminism.