Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)


Title: BlacKkKlansman
Release Date: August 10, 2018
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: Blumhouse Productions | Monkeypaw Productions | QC Entertainment | 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Legendary Entertainment |
Perfect World Pictures
Summary/Review:

Inspired by actual historic events, or as the opening titles state “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit,” BlacKkKlansman is the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first Black police officer in Colorado Springs.  Assigned to the intelligence division, Stallworth spots an ad for a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and calls for more information, using a white voice just like in Sorry to Bother You. Stallworth also accidentally uses his real name so a fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), ends up meeting with the Klan members using Stallworth’s name. Flip is a composite character and in the film he’s made an unobservant Jewish man to raise the stakes of his interactions with the bigots.

Meanwhile, Stallworth continues his investigation by phone, eventually beginning a series of conversations with the KKK’s national director, David Duke (Topher Grace).  Concurrently with the investigation, Stallworth begins a relationship with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a Black liberation activist from Colorado College (Patrice is also invented for the film).  He meets her at at a rally where Kwame Ture (brought to life in an excellent short appearance by Corey Hawkins) is the speaker. Michael Buscemi, Harry Belafonte, and Alec Baldwin also appear in small but memorable parts.

The movie is based on absurd events and some of the wildest details are true to life.  The characters seem to be aware of the absurdity, especially late in the film when the essentially dunk on David Duke. Some of the changes are odd, like moving the events to the early 70s when they took place in the late 70s.  But as is typical for Spike Lee films, there is great attention to period details especially the fashions and music.

The movie talks about complex issues in interesting, if not subtle ways.  For example, Ron’s earnest but perhaps naive hopes of being able to change things from the inside are contrasted to Patrice’s more revolutionary approach. Lee also uses excerpts from Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation to critique how popular entertainment reinforces white supremacist mythology.  Finally, the film also incorporates footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia as a chilling epilogue to a mostly comical look at the past.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline


Author: Eric H. Cline
Title: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
Publication Info: Princeton University Press, 2014
Summary/Review:

The Late Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean met with a catastrophic collapse in the 12th century B.C.E. Historians commonly attribute this to an invasion of people called the “Sea People” overwhelming Egypt’s military in 1177 B.C.E. In Cline’s evaluation of the evidence, the Sea People may have actually been refugees of war, natural disasters, and/or a climate crisis.  Evidence exists for a cluster of earthquakes, droughts, and internal rebellions at the time before the arrival of the Sea People.  The combination of the multiple catastrophes could have lead to the collapse.

The book is sprawling in both time in place as Cline sums up several centuries of history leading up to the collapse of several civilizations including the Greeks, Myceneans, Minoans, Hittites, Assyrians, Cypriots, Canaanites, and Egyptians. Along the way Cline explores the historic origins of the famed stories of Exodus and the Trojan War.  Cline is good at explaining what we can learn from written records and archaeological finds, and how both of these have to be interpreted.  He’s also good at noting that there typically isn’t enough evidence to know what happened precisely and how historians develop theories based on the facts we know.

Other interesting facts I learned from this book:

  • Hatshepsut, who ruled as Pharaoh upon the death of her husband, wore a Pharaonic false beard and men’s clothing and was addressed as “His Majesty.”
  • Kings of different nations who were not related used kinship terms like “father” and “son” when addressing one another, creating an artificial family relationship.
  • a new type of glue was invented for archaeologists recovering copper ingots from the Uluburun shipwreck to allow them to bring the artifacts up in one piece.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Da 5 Bloods (2020)


Title: Da 5 Bloods
Release Date: June 12, 2020
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Rahway Road | Lloyd Levin/Beatriz Levin Production
Summary/Review:

Four African American veterans reunite in Vietnam in order to recover the remains of their inspirational squad leader Stormin’ Norman (played in flashback scenes by Chadwick Boseman, whose death in real life adds gravitas to the character who never lived to see old age).  Their ulterior motive is to also recover a cache of gold bars they hid almost 50 years earlier.  Spike Lee intercuts the narrative with documentary footage of the various injustices of the war in Vietnam and violence against Civil Rights and anti-war activists in the 60s & 70s.  The movie is kind of a bizarre combination of Apocalypse Now, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The Black Power Mixtape. And Lee has some fun by making some very obvious allusions to older films.

The main cast is made up of veteran actors, some who’ve worked with Lee before, but none of them superstars.  It’s good to see them all get a chance to demonstrate their acting chops.  Delroy Lindo plays Paul, who suffers from severe PSTD which contributes to his anger and paranoia, as well as contrariness such as supporting Trump.  Otis (Clarke Peters) is a calmer presence who also uses the trip to Vietnam to reunite with a Vietnamese girlfriend, Tiên (Lê Y Lan).  Eddie (Norm Lewis) is a successful owner of car dealerships and likes to show off his wealth, but is also the most adamant about using the gold for Norman’s vision of supporting Black Liberation. Melvin (Isaih Whitlock Jr.) is the rock of the group who tries to hold the Bloods together when things get strained. Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors), is the uninvited guest on the expedition adding additional tension to the movie.

There is a lot going on this movie, so much it feels like it’s bursting out of the film’s 2-1/2 hour length.  It’s impossible for this movie to do justice to so many threads ranging from PTSD to landmine clearance to Black Lives Matter.  The movie is also more brutally violent than I expected and ends up a bummer despite the oddly-victorious tone Lee takes in the finale.  Although it’s a sprawling mess, the Da 5 Bloods still works, something I credit to the great cast. Despite this being a long movie, I still wish I could spend more time with these characters.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Zambia

Author: The Old Drift
Title: Namwali Serpell 
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This is an epic novel that attempts to depict the history of Zambia through the fictional stories of several generations of a few interrelated families.  The characters are a mix of Black African people native to the region that would become Zambia as well as European colonizers and expatriates.  The novel begins with explorer David Livingstone seeing Victoria Falls for the first time.  This is ironic since later in the novel a character says that when telling stories to white people you need to always start with a white person “discovering” something. The novel ends in a near future time when biotechnology has become commonplace.

The stories in this novel draw on the traditions of magical realism.  For example a woman’s hair grows so fast so as to constantly cover her entire body.  Her daughters, on the other hand, have fast growing hair on their heads that they are able to profit from by selling for wigs.  Some parts of the story seem ludicrous but are drawn from actual Zambian history, such as the plan for a Zambian space program in the 1960s to send a woman to Mars with several cats.  This may or may not have been a joke in real life.

The novel is sprawling and it includes a large cast of characters and I found it hard to remember who is who. The novel is also written in a style more akin to history than a literary narrative which made it hard for me to hold my attention.  I would chalk this up as a reader issue than a flaw of the book, though.

Overall, this is a weird and wonderful work of fiction.  Serpell is a young contemporary author and it will be interesting to see what she produces next.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 17


Best of the Left :: Our Democracy is Filibusted, Time to Kill the Filibuster

The filibuster is a tool of white supremacy and it must be eliminated to allow the United States to pursue freedom and equality for all.

99% Invisible ::  Welcome to Jurassic Art Redux

The best way most people have to understand how extinct animals like the dinosaurs lived is through art.  Over the years, paleoart has transitioned from maintaining outdated ideas, to illustrating new understandings of dinosaurs, to entirely speculative art of different possibilities of how dinosaurs looked and acted.

Throughline :: The Real Black Panthers

If your understanding of the Black Panther Party is informed by depictions like Forrest Gump of a group of radical Blacks who hate white people, it’s worth listening to this podcast to learn what they actually understood.  In reality, the Black Panthers were seen as a threat by the FBI, and others, due to their radical vision of cross-racial activism.

The Story Collider :: Stories of COVID-19: Teachers

Teachers have dealt with a lot during the pandemic, from the brunt of redesigning education for remote learning on a moment’s notice to being the target of anger from parents and politicians.  Here are some of their stories.

Unf*cking the Republic :: AOC & the Lying Men Hydra

New York congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the target of rage from Republicans, establishment Democrats, and Leftists alike.  This podcast explains what they have in common.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 10


99% Invisible :: The Real Book

How a book of pirated sheet music became a must have for students in jazz music programs.

Throughline :: Policing in America

A history of police in America and how it has served the purposes of white supremacy.

Unf*cking the Republic :: Mass Incarceration: The War on Drugs

A  profanity-laden summary of the work Michelle Alexander and others have done to detail how increased policing and imprisonment is being used to infringe the rights of Black Americans.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 3


Fresh Air :: The High Stakes Of Amazon’s ‘One-Click America’

The vote to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama and what that means for labor in America.

Planet Money ::  Socialism 101

A primer on a widely misunderstood economic theory.

Radio Boston ::  New Study Supports Suffolk DA Rollins’ Focus More On Serious, Violent Crimes

Rachael Rollins ran for and was elected as Suffolk County District Attorney promising not to prosecute many nonviolent offenses and focus on more serious crimes.  Newly released data is proving her approach to be correct.

Radiolab :: What Up, Holmes?

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes originated a metaphor for free speech as “the marketplace of ideas,” but is there a better way to conceptualize freedom of speech?

This Day in Esoteric Political History :: Three Mile Meltdown

A partial nuclear meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania was apparently not as bad as it is always made out to be.

Throughline :: Our Own People

The story of a social justice activist I’ve never heard of before, Yuri Kochiyama. A Japanese-American woman who fought for Asian American equality, Kochiyama allied herself with numerous liberation movements. She was friends was Malcolm X and held him as he died.

What Next :: Can a Highway Be Racist?

There’s a long history in the United States of working class BIPOC communities being leveled to build and enlarge highways.  The freeway revolt against this practice continues in Houston.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Podcasts of the Two Weeks Ending March 27


Best of the Left :: Democracy Under Siege

Republicans are attacking the right to vote in order to retain power and maintain white supremacist fascism.

Code Switch :: Lonnie Bunch And The ‘Museum Of No’

An interview with the first Black Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution focusing on his work in bringing the National Museum of African American History and Culture to fruition.

Have You Heard? ::  What They’ve Lost

Boston Public Schools students talk about their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and not being able to attend school in person. Also includes a good discussion of why the focus on “learning loss” only adds to the trauma rather than addressing students’ real problems.

Hub History :: Disaster at Bussey Bridge

134 years ago, corporate malfeasance lead to the death and dismemberment of several railway commuters at a site not far from where I live today.

Planet Money :: The Even More Minimum Wage

The history of the tipped minimum wage and how it maintains inequality. I was particularly stunned by how tipped employment is often the first jobs for young women and that it conditions them to accept sexual harassment in order to get tips.

Seizing Freedom :: Interview: Rhiannon Giddens

For the second POTW post in a row I’ve found a fascinating podcast about the banjo in Black music, this time an interview with the contemporary folk musician Rhiannon Giddens.

This American Life :: The Campus Tour Has Been Cancelled

Many colleges and universities have suspended using the SATs and other standardized tests for admissions because of the COVID pandemic. Tests like these have a gatekeeping effect and this podcast explores how their absence can open up college opportunities for poor, BIPOC, and first-generation applicants.

Throughline :: Chaos

Stories of humanity and chaos, including the real life The Lord of the Flies.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: 20th Century Fox

The composition and history of the deceptively simple 20th Century Fox fanfare.

The War on Cars :: Jamelle Bouie Has Seen the Future of Transportation

Journalist Jamelle Bouie talks about his experience using an electric bike in Charlottesville, VA and the future of transportation and housing in the United States.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Movie Review: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)


Title: The Passion of Joan of Arc
Release Date: April 21, 1928
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Production Company:  Société Générale des Films
Summary/Review:

This is a movie about faces. Renée Jeanne Falconetti, in her only film role, stars as the French heroine of the Hundred Years War who thinks she’s 19.  This is a silent film, for her eyes express her fear, wonder, and faith. Meanwhile, her judges’ faces are often shot from below, appearing grotesque, deceitful, and cruel.

The movie begins in an archives showing the actual trial records of Joan of Arc that the movie is based upon.  Joan is interrogated, tortured, deceived, and ultimately put to death by an ecclesiastical court of French clergy loyal to the English invaders.  Joan of Arc is notably burned at the stake, and that is shockingly depicted on film, but outside that gratuitous detail this is a personal, intimate depiction of the great woman’s final hours.

By the way, I only just learned a fascinating historical tidbit: Joan of Arc was only canonized as a saint in 1920, just a few years before this movie was made.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 13


Sidedoor :: Reservation Math: Navigating Love in Native America

The story of “blood quantum,” a concept used to define Native American identity from it’s colonialist origins to the personal impact is has on indigenous peoples today.

Throughline :: ‘Black Moses’ Lives On: How Marcus Garvey’s Vision Still Resonates

The history of Marcus Garvey and his vision of pan-Africanism and the Black Star Line.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Sound 101

The science of sound with Bill Nye.

 

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021