Film review of BlacKkKlansman

August 19, 2018

This film review of BlacKkKlansman appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 16 August 2018.

Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay by Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott, based on the book Black Klansman, by Ron Stallworth. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace and Jasper Pääkkönen


Few films resonate with the American “current political moment” of increased overt racism and demonisation of minorities as Spike Lee’s film “BlacKkKlansman”. The film opened this week, purposefully aligned to the one year anniversary of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Just to be certain we don’t miss the point, Lee – a film-maker never accused of subtlety – ends “BlacKkKlansman” with graphic news footage from that event, including violent confrontations and President Trump’s “good people” comment. In the cinema preview when I saw the film, the audience didn’t emit a sound: we all “got” the point.

Set in 1972, “BlacKkKlansman” tells the incredible-but-true story of the how the first African-American policeman to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel, complete with large rounded “Afro”) successfully joined the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth needs a white guy to “play” him in person with the Klan, so works closely with Jewish fellow policeman “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a secular Jew whose awareness of his religious identity grows as the film progresses. Unlike Stallworth, Zimmerman can “pass” as a white Christian, even though Jews are number two on the KKK enemies list. Flip almost too convincingly plays the role of antisemite while being challenged possibly being Jewish: his response to a Holocaust denier where he excitedly elaborates on the achievements of the Holocaust is chilling in the extreme.

From it’s opening moments with a clip from “Gone with the Wind”, “BlacKkKlansman” illustrates its themes with powerful imagery, marking it as one of the best cinema releases this year (it won the “Grand Prix” at Cannes in May, and is running 97% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). A fictional white power character played by Alec Baldwin (the actor who plays President Trump on “Saturday Night Live”) rages straight to camera how “blood-sucking” Jews sponsor the “commie” civil-rights movement.

The language is shocking, but the message – repeated during the film numerous times in different ways – is clear: racism and antisemitism are integrally connected. Spike Lee has not previously been known for his sensitivity to Jewish issues – his “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990) stereotyped Jews as untrustworthy capitalists – but “BlacKkKlansman” marks new ground. The film’s two original writers – David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel – are both Jewish. They placed the Jewish condition front and centre in the story, including making the Flip character Jewish (which he was not in real life). Lee took their original story and ran with it, both emphasising and deepening the connection. The result is a well-argued plea for black-Jewish rapprochement and partnership, one of the best in decades.

One of the film’s most Jewish moments occurs with no Jews on screen: an articulate speech given by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), a black radical previously known as Stokely Carmichael, quotes Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” He then adds a fourth question, summing up the movie’s message: “And if not you, who?”

An upside down American flag – an officially recognised signal of dire distress – fills the screen at the film’s very end, and the colours slowly turn from red, white and blue to black and white. The effect is both profound and thought-provoking, underscoring Lee’s urgency of the moment.

The direction, acting and casting in “BlacKkKlansman” are all exquisite. Although the white supremacists are sometimes played as naïve fools (watch Topher Grace as the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke), they are deadly fools, as a bombing subplot illustrates. The setting looks nothing like Colorado (in was shot in upstate New York), but no matter. This film is a strong drama about American racism (watch the scene where the undercover Ron Stallworth is beaten up by fellow policemen for being black), with numerous comic overtones and an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Jewish journalist Abraham Riesman has written a passionate essay on why “’BlackkKlansman’ is required viewing for Jews”. I agree.

(photo above: Adam Driver and John David Washington)


Read my review of Spike Lee’s film “25th Hour”, released in June 2003.

Film review of Indignation

August 27, 2016

(This film review of “Indignation” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 18, 2016 in a shorter form.)

Directed and written by James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth

Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield, Pico Alexander, Philip Ettinger and Noah Robbins

This week’s release of the film “Indignation”, based on a 2008 autobiographical Philip Roth novel, calls our attention to this pre-eminent American-Jewish novelist of the late twentieth century.  Without exception, each of his more than 30 novels and collected stories exist in a Jewish world and Jewish framework of reference.

He also holds the record for more film adaptations than any other American-Jewish author.  Starting with “Goodbye Columbus” in 1969, seven other Roth novels have been turned into movies, including “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1972), “The Ghost Writer” (TV, 1984), “The Human Stain” (2003), “Elegy” (2008, based on “The Dying Animal”) and “The Humbling” (2014).

“Indignation” the film closely follows the plot of the book and is based on Roth’s experiences studying at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.  Set in the early 1950s, 19 year-old Marcus Messner – the only son of a Newark kosher butcher – leaves home to study at “Winesburg College”, in itself a fascinating reference to Sherwood Anderson’s early twentieth century short story collection.

Jumping from Jewish New Jersey to Gentile Ohio is a shock for young Messner: of 1400 students on campus, only 80 of them are Jewish.  Upon his arrival, Messner finds himself rooming with two other Jewish students.  He rebuffs attempts by the only Jewish fraternity on campus (as did Roth in real life) to try and make his own way, quietly and calmly, skipping the opportunity to try out for the baseball team to focus on his studies.

But Messner (played by Jewish actor Logan Lerman) – who is haunted by excessively anxious parents back in Newark – does not count on meeting the wealthy, blond-haired and very beautiful WASP, Olivia Hutton.  Hutton is played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, who brings a sassy but delicate beauty to her “femme fatale” role that is reminiscent of the young Lauren Bacall.

After a sexual encounter with Olivia, Messner muses in a voice-over, “In Newark, it was inconceivable that girls like Olivia Hutton could do such a thing.  But in Newark, there were no girls like Olivia Hutton.”

These lines are indicative of Roth’s excellent original writing, nicely adapted for the screen and directed by James Schamus.  Although this is Schamus’ directorial debut, he has had a sterling film career as a producer, writer and film academic, frequently working with Ang Lee on projects such as “Brokeback Mountain”, “Lust Caution” and “Taking Woodstock”.  Schamus – who is also Jewish – has assembled an extraordinary cast of unknown faces that bring a real freshness to this film.  In addition to Lerman and Gadon, Tracey Letts plays the antisemitic Dean of Students of Winesburg College, and Danny Burstein and Linda Emond play Marcus’ parents.  The two tense scenes between an increasingly stressed Marcus and a cool, calculating and dogged Dean Caudwell, are masterpieces of writing, acting and directing.

“Indignation” carries a certain old-fashioned quality, with its concerns for the 1950s American-Jewish experience and the genteel antisemitism faced by American Jews at the time, topics that were popular in the 1960s but have mostly faded from cultural consciousness.  This film’s closest cinematic relative is “School Ties”, an inferior and less intellectually complex 1992 movie about a Jewish football player at a very non-Jewish college who also faces antisemitism.  That film was also a “throw back” to the era of “Marjorie Morningstar” and other films that explored the American-Jewish post-war suburban experience of assimilation and suburbanisation.

Because “Indignation” is far from capturing our current Jewish “cultural moment” in the way that television series such as “Transparent” have done, it may not grab a large audience.  But that’s a pity, because it is one of the finest coming-of-age dramas released in cinemas in 2016, made with great care, attention and devotion to Roth’s excellent prose, all done from a thoroughly Jewish perspective.

If I were now – as I once was – an American-Jewish college student on campus now, “Indignation” could very well have become my favourite film of the year, in the way that “Goodbye Columbus” captured my attention so many years ago.  Yet I am thoroughly taken by the charms and emotional depth of “Indignation”, a major achievement by Schamus.

Logan Lerman Sarah Gadon2(photo above: Sarah Gadon and Logan Lerman in “Indignation”)

Film review of “Wagner and Me”

March 10, 2011

This film review of “Wagner and Me” appeared in the Australian Jewish News print edition on March 10, 2011

The new documentary “Wagner and Me” is a deceptively simple feature length film.  Simply put, if you like (a) British Jewish actor and entertainer Stephen Fry, (b) the music of Richard Wagner, and (c) watching documentaries about musicians, this is a “must see” film.  If you do not fall into at least one of these categories, this is one to skip.

Stephen Fry is one of those modern British media personalities (think David Attenborough, Simon Schama) who seems to be just about everywhere at the moment:  at least two films each year plus untold amounts of TV, including more than 100 episodes of “QI”, plus four novels, two autobiographies, his travelling America documentary series (recently screened here) – and, possibly most significantly, he has been the reader of all seven Harry Potter novels for the British audio book versions.

The BBC co-production of “Wagner and Me” was made both as a television documentary (there is an hour-long version which premiered on the BBC in 2010 and is likely to come to Australian TV eventually) and for theatrical release in this 89-minute version.  This is Fry’s second foray into quality feature documentaries:   his 2008 “Stephen Fry & the Gutenberg Press” won a “BAFTA”.

In the course of the documentary, Fry visits the 2009 Bayreuth festival of Wagner’s music where he meets the composer’s great grand-daughter; Switzerland, the location of the “Ring Cycle”; St. Petersburg, interviewing conductor Valery Gergiev and visiting the Mariinsky Theatre; and Nuremberg – location of the famous Hitler rallies.  Finally he goes to London to interview a Holocaust survivor who actually played in the Auschwitz orchestra, where – we also discover – a number of Fry’s relatives perished.

The German composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner, of course, is a musician fraught with controversy, both during his lifetime (he died in 1883) and ever since.  He was a strong German nationalist, whose writings included explicit antisemitic themes and attacks on the likes of Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn, and he was acknowledged to be a major influence on the philosophy of Adolf Hitler, who adored his music.  For Jews Wagner is problematic, and will always be so:  the few performances of his music in Israel have all been the subject of extensive controversy and major protests.

As an explicitly Jewish – and gay – entertainer, Stephen Fry “knows a thing or two” about being a member of minority groups.  But Fry also loves Wagner’s music, and it is this adoration of the music that gives this film some tension.  But despite Fry’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject, he only touches on some of the “big” issues of Wagner; I was left wanting much more depth, more analysis and more insight into how we Jews can truly bridge the conflicts between our love of music and our abhorrence of a musician’s politics.  Those looking for an historical documentary about Wagner and the Jews will be disappointed, but those who secretly (or guiltily) enjoy Wagner’s music will find in Stephen Fry a soul-mate.

Oliver Stone’s anti-Jewish rave

October 9, 2010

I am a bit late in reporting this, but it is worth noting that on July 26th of this year, another chapter in Hollywood personalities and Jewish controversies unfolded, with director Oliver Stone being quoted in an interview with The Sunday Times of London in which he stated:

Hitler was a Frankenstein but there was also a Dr Frankenstein. German industrialists, the Americans and the British. He had a lot of support …. Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than [to] the Jewish people, 25 or 30 [million killed]…. Why such a focus on the Holocaust then? The Jewish domination of the media…. There’s a major lobby in the United States. They are hard workers. They stay on top of every comment, the most powerful lobby in Washington. Israel has f***** up United States foreign policy   for years. (see Haaretz 2010, West 2010, Barnes 2010)

Stone’s comment on July 26, 2010 was immediately followed by condemnations from the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League and a number of other commentators, almost all of whom compared the outburst to Mel Gibson’s 2006 antisemitic comments. Stone to issued a retraction statement the next day. There were a number of differences from Gibson’s 2006 outburst, including Stone’s background and political persuasion: he is Jewish on his father’s side (the family name originally was Silverstein) and he is avowedly left-wing. The fact that both the “Jewish domination” theme and the skirting close to Holocaust denial seem to cut across the political spectrum worries a number of observers.

Los Angeles Times
Danielle Berrin in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
Ed West in UK Telegraph
Soraya Roberts in New York Daily News
Alana Goodman in NewsBusters
Brian Levin in The Huffington Post
Haaretz online (Israel, in English)
John Nolte in Big Hollywood
David Bernstein in the Volokh Conspiracy
Brooks Barnes in The New York Times

The Merchant of Venice film review

June 25, 2009

Directed by Michael Radford

Written by Michael Radford, adapted from the play by William Shakespeare

Starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins and Zuleikha Robinson

This review appeared in the June 25, 2009 edition of the Australian Jewish News.

The Australian cinema release of Michael Radford’s version of  The Merchant of Venice sets a new modern record for the delay in a film reaching Australian shores:  it was originally released in the USA in late December 2004.  You read that right – 2004, five and a half years ago.

Some might recall that 2004 was not a particularly enlightened year for Jewish representation in mainstream film.  It was the year of Mel Gibson’s highly popular The Passion of the Christ, a film which was roundly criticised and became highly controversial for its antisemitic elements, including a pre-Vatican II approach to Catholic teachings on the Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus.

Aside from the death of Jesus (which Gibson’s film showed in breathtaking and sickening goriness), few stories contain such potential for antisemitism as William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, in which Jewish money-lender Shylock (played here by Al Pacino) insists on extracting his literal “pound of flesh” from Venetian merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons) who does not repay a loan on time.  The play has a long history of being used for antisemitic purposes, notoriously by the Nazis after they took power.  Thus this film version – reportedly only the second “big screen” adaptation since a musical made in 1932 starring Bing Crosby (the latest screen version to reach Australia was by the BBC in 1980) – is certainly a subject of great interest.  As a play, it is an odd hybrid, both a romantic comedy (including Shakespeare’s favourite mistaken identities) and tragic drama of prejudice and revenge.

The history of and controversy over the portrayal of Shylock is extensive, and the debates still rage on.  He is one of the most recognised Jewish caricatures in dramatic history, possibly exceeding Charles Dickens’ Fagin from Oliver Twist.  His fate in the play (spoiler alert: don’t read on if you don’t want to know the ending) is tragic:  he not only loses his only daughter Jessica (played by Zuleikha Robinson), but is later humiliated and forced to convert to Christianity.  Notably, Shakespeare gave Shylock certain redeeming qualities, particularly his famous “Hath not a Jew eyes ….” speech, and almost all modern staged versions of the play show him in a reasonably sympathetic light.

Radford introduces the play in an unusual way.  Prior to the first spoken lines, he shows scenes of Venice (most of them beautifully filmed on location) with titles on screen explaining how the 16th century Jews of Venice were discriminated against and marginalised from society, forced into occupations such as money-lending.  He tries very hard to set a social, political and historical context for the story, which has rarely been done – and which many commentators have complimented him on.

The production is outstanding, with great scenery and luscious costumes.  Radford’s deft editing (at more than two hours, he still dropped some scenes) and the outstanding cast (which also includes Joseph Fiennes – brother of Ralph – as Bassanio in one of his best performances to date) make this a strong and engaging piece of cinema.  He neatly incorporates subtext, suggesting a strong homosexual attraction between Antonio and Bassanio. But it is Pacino’s strong performance as Shylock that grounds the play.  Pacino can be tough (he has been called “scene chewing”), and it is his creased, bearded and anguished face that you remember long after viewing this film.

Radford’s positive efforts notwithstanding, as Hamlet says – “the play’s the thing”.  And no matter how well-intentioned the production (and this one genuinely is), the basic story of The Merchant of Venice is deeply problematic.  Even with the most sympathetic interpretation, the Jews fare very badly in this story and the Christians all live happily ever after.