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The Fyre Festival Documentaries and the Late Capitalist American Moment

February 9, 2019 Leave a comment

If any one contemporary event can be said to come closest to embodying a succinct-yet-nuanced summation of the semi-fraudulent, endlessly aspirational, wildly unmoored state of American Late Capitalism at this moment in history, it is surely 2017’s Fyre Festival. As depicted from differing, distinct, and uniquely compromised angles by a dueling pair of streaming documentary films released this year – Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud – Fyre Festival promised to be an exclusively, luxury music festival on a tropical island in the Bahamas that would play out in the e-spotlight of social media, a baccanalian carnival of online influencers, beautiful people, celebrities, swimsuits, alcohol, and popular music. A sort of Coachella in the Caribbean for wealthy millenials, Fyre Festival was supposed to be the next big thing in terms of culture and online buzz and profit, but sputtered out in a spectacular implosion of shoddy half-completion, cut corners, disorganization, and rampant financial crimes.

It’s important to have a solid grasp of the narrative fundamentals of what happened leading up to and on a desultory April weekend on the Bahamanian island of Great Exuma in 2017 before leaping off from those happenings to a wider understanding of what they reveal about the contemporary American social economy. For that purpose, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened on Netflix, directed by Chris Smith, is a more detailed blow-by-blow chronicle and thus worth watching first.

In broad strokes, American entrepreneur/serial con artist Billy McFarland masterminded Fyre Festival, with the support of rapper and public hype-man Ja Rule, his overstretched staff at Fyre Media, Inc. (the company behind a semi-successful talent-booking mobile app that the festival was conceived of to promote), patchily-paid international event professionals and local Bahamanian labourers, and controversial social-media marketing firm Jerry Media (a.k.a fuckjerry, who are the problematic co-producers of the film). What followed was a litany of foolish decisions, shambolic planning on an unrealistically compressed timeline, an endemic lack of funds, and above all a virulently fantastical tone of upbeat positivity and yes-man assurances that it would all work out no matter how disastrous things seemed to be trending. When paying festival attendees and complimentary-admitted social media influencers arrived on Great Exuma, they found a half-finished festival site in a construction quarry dotted with disaster-relief tents, bad food, no running water or portable toilets, and a slate of cancelled performers. The situation dissolved into chaos quickly, attendees struggled to return Stateside as social and traditional media erupted with schadenfreude mockery of the shambles of an event, and McFarland’s astoundingly-scaled crimes of fraud and misreporting would land him in prison.

Fyre makes this all abundantly clear and entirely wacky and entertaining. There are countless mad details dropped by the cadre of half-bemused, half-ashamed interview subjects from whom Smith cobbles together the festival narrative. There’s the initial intended site for the festival, a private Bahamanian island with half-feral pigs and no infrastructure at all that was once owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Flown to the site by a pilot who learned to fly (and to perform dangerous zero-g drops for the amusement of McFarland, Ja Rule, and their entourage) from Microsoft Flight Simulator, the Fyre team shot a gauzy, enticing promo video featuring famous supermodels frolicking on the beaches. The clip attracted notice on social media alongside Jerry Media’s orange-tile Instagram event announcement post that “disrupted” the feeds of numerous top influencers (including Kardashian dynastic daughter Kylie Jenner, who commands a ludicrous quarter-million-dollar fee for such a promo post). But despite the buzz it generated, the promo’s brash mention of the countercultural Escobar association broke a specific stipulation of the island’s owners, who immediately pulled their agreement to lease its freehold for the festival.

Settling instead on the more-populated Great Exuma, McFarland and crew set a date less than four months from the New Year’s announcement, which also happened to coincide with a regatta weekend that is Great Exuma’s busiest tourist time of the year. A casually pragmatic local fixer and traumatized, nearly-bankrupted local restaurant owner give a local view of the chaos and lack of fiduciary compensation for workers, who considered kidnapping organizers and holding them for ransom just to make something for their time and effort. The detail that most illustrates the over-the-top lengths that McFarland and the organizers were willing to go to have the festival go forward – holding the event even in a diminished form was their sole hope to recoup the investment that they had made – has also become the defining viral moment of the Fyre Festival documentaries: a gray-haired male veteran event producer admits to being fully prepared to perform fellatio on a Bahamanian customs agent in order to get their shipment of booze cleared to enter the country.

Primed for the larger sweep of Fyre Festival’s failure by Fyre, moving along to Fyre Fraud, the Hulu documentary directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, is even more eye-opening. Fyre Fraud might be less blessed with wild, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas details of savage greedy weirdness, but it is a smarter, more nuanced, and quietly, self-righteously outraged film from which no one involved in the event escapes unscathed. Although Fyre Fraud paid Billy McFarland for an interview to be used in the film, they use the material gleaned from this sit-down to comprehensively expose him for a shameless grifter and pathologically-dishonest confidence man, not only in the case of Fyre Festival but in prior ventures like Magnises, the over-inflated metal credit card for status-obsessed millenials that he came up with, as well as in shoddy ticket scams carried out while on parole for his Fyre-related fraud charges. McFarland is a fast-talking and convincing grifter but also one epically foolish enough to run a huge con fully in the public eye, where he wouldn’t be able to hide from what he must have understood would be its inevitable embarrassing unraveling. This film also reserves pointed criticism for Jerry Media, whose involvement in the Netflix doc becomes an evident pre-requisite for sparing them any such criticsm in that film, as well as painting McFarland’s earlier ventures – especially Magnises – as essentially legitimate before he jumped the legal shark with Fyre Festival.

Fyre Fraud also makes a stronger case for Fyre Festival as an illustrative, symbolically-charged moment in the Late Capitalist zeitgeist in the United States. It shows how McFarland ingratiated himself with wealthy venture capitalists and corporate titan mentors (including at least one charged with massive securities fraud), how he inflated projections and financial reporting at every company he founded, how he sold false bills of goods to nearly everyone who crossed his path. McFarland is presented not as an abberation but as an entirely predictable and even encouraged creature of America’s new Gilded Age of tremendous accumulated wealth, sharp income inequality, and exploitative rip-off capitalism. It likewise connects Fyre Festival’s buzzy pre-event marketing profile to the #FOMO-focused experience consumption of millenials locked out of traditional displays of affluence by the wealth-hoarding of the aging 1% elite, to the forced-cheer positivity-selling fabulism of the social media influencer image presentation, and to the magical thinking, creative-class economic insupportability, and consequence-free assumptions of white American privilege. It does not notice, nor really does Netflix’s Fyre, the disturbing neo-colonial implications of how black Bahamanians (the literal descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean) were made to labour long hours for no pay in the service of white leisure and profit.

Moreoever, Fyre Fraud registers, quite pointedly, how this all went down in the first months of the presidency of Donald Trump, a self-promoting grifter-elite capitalist par excellence whose ostentatious image of wealth is his prime selling feature in the public eye (besides, of course, his virulent white nationalism and generalized cruelty to others). Fyre Festival, of course, is not Trump’s fault (nor was it Vladimir Putin’s, one supposes), but what is clear by the end of Fyre Fraud is that the same confluence of forces produced both American disasters. The hard-sold expectation of wealth and prosperity ended for Fyre Festival attendees in the self-same disaster shelters that greeted citizens rendered homeless by destructive hurricanes. As on-the-nose as the metaphor may be, this extreme contrast of promised luxurious comfort and delivered bare-subsistence is the animating socioeconomic contradiction of Trumpist America. If only his regime would end with as few desperate victims as Fyre Festival ultimately claimed, but one ought not to hold one’s breath.

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Film Review: Chappaquiddick

February 3, 2019 Leave a comment

Chappaquiddick (2018; Directed by John Curran)

What was it that the Kennedys meant to America? Did they leave a real, tangible mark on American politics, society, and culture, or was the brief, flaming-out ascendance of their heavily-compromised brand of masculine-coded New England brahmin liberalism in the 1960s of simple (or not so entirely simple) symbolic value? The romanticized patina of the presidency of John F. Kennedy, ended with assassin’s bullets in Dallas in 1963, was referred to with puffy chivalric non-irony as Camelot, and it’s arguable that the achievements of JFK’s administration were quite comprehensively eclipsed by camera-friendly appearances and the hindsight mythos of his martrydom (they were also outdone by the much more important legislative advancements of Lyndon B. Johnson’s succeeding administration, although both Democratic presidencies were fatally compromised by the expansion of the Vietnam War). Essentially, reality swamped by fantasy, in a manner that reflects, in a rudimentary funhouse mirror way, the complete devastation of reality at the hands of fantasy of the present presidential moment.

John Curran’s Chappaquiddick captures the moment at which the hard pitiless difficulty of reality – random, amoral, and unconcerned with justice or legacies or human intent or emotional fulfillment – most finally and most irrevocably caught up with the Kennedys, when the boundlessly consuming ambitions of the clan at last ran out of spare male scions upon which to lay the mantle of hopeful power. Over a weekend in July 1969, as the Apollo 11 crew set first foot on the moon in a vindication of JFK’s inaugural speech pledge to put an American on the lunar surface as an aspirational image of national courage, spirit and ingenuity, his younger brother Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drove his car off a dike bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick on Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast, leading to the death by drowning of his also-slain brother Robert F. Kennedy’s former staffer Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara).

Ted Kennedy’s confused and shambolic response – he did not report the incident until 10 hours later, seems to have tried to suppress some details and positively spin others at several points, and later clownishly showed up to Kopechne’s funeral wearing a neck brace that he clearly did not need – deepened a PR crisis that erupted in the U.S. media once the glow of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind faded from the headlines. Although Ted later ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 1980 (losing to incumbent President Jimmy Carter, who then lost the White House to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan), the Chappaquiddick incident was widely understood to have cost Ted Kennedy any hope of ever ascending to the highest political office in the United States.

The careful, procedurally-minded, step-after-step approach of Chappaquiddick shows effectively how poor the judgement of Ted Kennedy and his immediate circle was in the aftermath of the incident (which, of course, showed literally fatally poor judgement in the first place). Kennedy cousin and close advisor Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) acts as the exasperated voice of moral reason, while the imperious family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (Bruce Dern) – physically reduced by a stroke and months from the grave but still as unbowed and unscrupulous as ever – raspily urges his last surviving son to craft an alibi and summons a cadre of canny suits (including Clancy Brown as former Secretary of State Robert McNamara) to cover up and spin the situation as much as still may be possible.

Chappaquiddick notes that Edward Kennedy went on to four distinguished decades in the U.S. Senate (where he likely leveraged more influence on the direction of the country than he would have in four or eight years in the White House), and it treats his martyred elder brothers (not only John and Robert but eldest brother Joseph, Jr., killed in action in World War II) and their political and personal legacy as a model to which he could never hope to live up to. Indeed, while the script (by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) is careful not to even hint at any sexual impropriety between Ted Kennedy and Kopechne (which was always forefront in the rumours and innuendo about the incident), it characterizes the Senator as being hopelessly weighed down under the pressure of the expectations of his greatness.

The crash on Chappaquiddick Island, this film suggests, was the final instance of Edward Kennedy crumbling under those expectations of his family, his country, and above all of his iron-willed father. In the scenes leading up to the crash and flashing back to before it happened to reveal additional details, director Curran and lead actor Clarke portray Ted Kennedy as being not so much drunk on alcohol (though maybe he was also that) but mentally and physically disoriented and exhausted by self-doubt and despair at the thought (perhaps the certainty) of failing to live up to those expectations. Kopechne is intelligent and sympathetic (we have patriarchy to thank for having needy man-children like Kennedy and not capable women like her as natural assumed leader material), and attempts to comfort, or steady, or understand this weak man who is supposed to be a great one. That effort sucks her into his vortex, and costs her life.

“I’m not gonna be President,” Clarke’s Ted Kennedy utters to Gargan as he returns from the crash site to seek his friend’s aid. Clarke is careful to imbue the necessary weight and sadness in his character’s voice as he says this, but surely there must have been a sore temptation for him to express a note of relief as well. One core premise of Chappaquiddick, made explicit in Clarke’s final scene with Dern’s wheelchair-bound Joseph Kennedy, is that Edward Kennedy never wanted to be President, whether or not Mary Jo Kopechne’s death made that impossible. The mythic Kennedy curse is invoked, but maybe the curse of Edward Kennedy and his elder brothers was one of inheritance, not merely of their difficult father’s character (or, more psychologically compelling, as a result of that difficult character) but of a patriarchal masculine hero complex (perhaps more firmly inculcated into the younger three after the eldest’s war hero demise) that refused to release them from its domineering grasp for even scant moments of respite.

This male hero complex, a cultural inheritance of the sort of chivalric knighthood romance that was being invoked with the Camelot moniker, is still often lionized by traditionalists and conservatives as a catalogue of lost virtue. But we know from the #MeToo moment of our culture, and can see from Chappaquiddick‘s case study example, that these conceptual frameworks of male power and superiority not only preclude emotional self-examination and psychological honesty in a manner damaging to men and to those around them, they also compel immoral (or at least self-interestedly amoral) conduct in those powerful men when the fanciful assumption intended to justify those codes is that they should compel moral conduct instead.

One ought not to suggest that John and Robert Kennedy were assassinated because they adhered to this code, but their younger brother’s troubles as re-created in Chappaquiddick can be traced straight back to it, and are. Hardened by self-righteous anger, Helms’ Joe Gargan confronts Ted Kennedy at one point during his messy, disheartening response to the crash that, after all, killed another person, telling him that he is not a victim. But Ted Kennedy, like most men reared in his time, is a victim, though not in the way that Gargan is thinking of.

Chappaquiddick feeds into the narcissism of focusing on male suffering when it is in truth eclipsed by the suffering of others with the misfortune not to be important men, but it also subtly tracks, so deep in the subtextual background that it could easily be missed, that this narcissism (a trait not alien to the Kennedys, whatever other positive things might be said about them) can also be debilitating, a peculiar species of slow-poison curse. There is a tension of surface and depths, fantasy and reality, political spin and bare human tragedy, in Chappaquiddick. As in the case of the real-life incident as well as in the case of the Kennedy political legacy, that is a tension that is never, and inherently can never be, satisfactorily resolved.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: BlacKkKlansman

December 19, 2018 Leave a comment

BlacKkKlansman (2018; Directed by Spike Lee)

Spike Lee surely must be master of the problematic nearly-great film. One of the most talented American cinematic craftsmen and capable ideological disseminators of his generation, Lee has nonetheless made frustratingly few above-average films over the past quarter-century. It’s always difficult to diagnose from a remove, but the Spike Lee joints that climb close to greatness since his early-’90s peak – Bamboozled, The 25th Hour, Inside Man, his definitive Hurricane Katrina HBO documentary series When the Levees Broke – accomplish much only to be frustratingly hamstrung by something: generic convention, low-rent production, thwarted ambition, a questionable choice or five. But sometimes that something is very obviously Lee himself, polemically preening and chest-beating and double-underlining his intentions and pushing his luck too far, finally.

BlacKkKlansman nearly makes it to the rarified heights of Lee’s best work (by which we mean Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, though I’m working by reputation alone since I am mortified to admit that I haven’t yet seen either of them to remedy that particular gap in my film history knowledge), only to badly miss its landing. It can be argued, as Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley did on Twitter upon the film’s release in August, that it’s only by a series of dishonest fabrications and general political wishy-washiness that BlacKkKlansman even approaches those heights. We can consider those complaints in due time as well, and indeed the film’s problems vis-à-vis its supposed “true story”, though strictly speaking lying outside the textual purview itself, are inextricable from the elements of the film text that kneecap its stronger aspects.

BlacKkKlansman is based on the memoir of African-American undercover cop Ron Stallworth (played here by John David Washington). A fresh addition to the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, Stallworth chafes at his rookie assignment to the records room and the casual anti-black bigotry of white officers. He presses Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) to use him on undercover work, which the chief eventually does, but only to run intelligence against local black activist groups and surveil a speech in town by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, now going by the Africanized name Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). Though he is there to sniff out potential black radicalism and threats of insurrectionist violence (the real Stallworth infiltrated and destabilized radical groups along the lines of the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program, as Riley notes but Lee does not), Stallworth has a sort of stealth awakening listening to Ture’s words about historical and current oppression of African-Americans. He also meets and becomes involved with a local college’s black student body president and activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), who doesn’t know he’s a “pig” and would be quick to dump his cop ass if she did.

Perhaps impelled by Ture’s ideas but also seemingly on a random whim (more than a few plot points here feel this way, to be frank), Stallworth dials up the phone number of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter advertised in the newspaper and pretends to be a virulently racist white man (unfortunately while using his real name) who is interested in joining what initiates call “the Organization”. He strikes up a rapport with contacts by repeating bigoted Klan-friendly talking points and even applies for membership, but cannot infiltrate the group in person, for obvious reasons. Fellow undercover detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) attends Klan meet-ups and ceremonies in his place, though Flip’s being Jewish introduces another wrinkle of tension to his encounters with the anti-semitic Klansmen. Together, Ron and Flip get an inside view of “the Organization”, and uncover members in sensitive military and national-security positions as well as a deadly plot against Patrice and her fellow black activists, even as Ron becomes telephone pals with the KKK’s Grand Wizard and National Director David Duke (Topher Grace), who plans to visit Colorado Springs for his prized new recruit’s initiation.

Broadly speaking, this is some of Spike Lee’s strongest material in years, and BlacKkKlansman‘s core premise is suffused with dramatic irony and tension that proves both entertaining and productive for raising ideas about the African-American struggle for social justice. In a conversation with Ron, Patrice introduces W.E.B. Du Bois’ conception of Black American identity as a kind of double consciousness, an internal psychological and identitarian cleavage in every African-American body between the American ideal of citizenship (liberty, justice, inalienable rights) and the oppressive reality of life in American as a black person (where the rights that are inalienable for white folks are consistently denied to black folks, whether in law, in systemic tendencies, or in social conditioning and practices).

BlacKkKlansman‘s layered ironies and juxtaposed ideas are grounded in double consciousness. Ron and Flip both find the beliefs and rhetoric of the KKK deplorable, but Washington and especially Driver slip so convincingly into performing the role of white supremacist that they bamboozle the targets of their investigation and even trouble the audience with the thought that they might really mean it. Both men have internalized the language of bigotry that they hear around them (and sometimes about them) in their country, and when they project it, it is readily believed. There is a double consciousness to this performance, and performance it is, as signaled firmly by Lee in the film’s opening sequence, with Alec Baldwin as a Klan propagandist recording polemic for the group and frequently breaking the litany of racism with actorly touches like enunciation exercises and line checks. This double consciousness is even legible in the figure of David Duke, who presents a well-dressed professional corporate front to the Klan as an extended PR campaign but can slip with sinister ease into the worst racist tropes in a manner made only more unsettling by the inspired casting of Grace, who presents as an amiable Eric Foreman all-grown-up before slipping on the robe and hood.

BlacKkKlansman‘s employment of Du Bois’ double consciousness reaches a virtuoso crescendo in the film’s centerpiece sequence (and one of the AV Club’s film scenes of the year). Lee crosscuts between Flip’s Klan initiation ceremony as Racist Ron, which includes a screening of D.W. Griffith’s seminal 1915 KKK propaganda epic The Birth of a Nation, and a speech about the heinous and contemporaneous 1916 lynching of African-American Jesse Washington made to Patrice’s activist group by a witness to it, Jerome Turner (played by civil rights veteran Harry Belafonte, no less). Turner details the inhuman torture, mutilations, and execution of Washington by a white mob, the carnivalesque atmosphere that accompanied it (photos were taken of the lynching and souvenir postcards were sold), and the role of Griffith’s blockbuster film (“history written with lightning”, as President Woodrow Wilson praised it) in rejuvenating the Klan and emboldening its attacks on the black way of life, while Flip/Ron’s Klan confrères hoot and holler approvingly at a KKK lynching depicted heroically in Birth of a Nation. Lee closes the scene with contending chants of “black power” and “white power” at each event, his crosscutting (a filmic technique pioneered by Griffith in Birth of a Nation, as AV Club’s Jesse Hassenger notes in its Scenes of the Year entry) becoming a counterattacking weapon against the racist cinematic propaganda enshrined at the heart of American movie history by Griffith while also noting the intractable persistence of the racial divisions that animated that film and define American society down to today.

“Propaganda” is a key term, because for all of its considerable strengths, BlacKkKlansman is partly undone by a turn towards the propagandistic, complete with the form’s fabrications of convenience and self-favourable framings. For all of its compelling subtextual applications of double consciousness, the forefront textual use of it is to consider, and ultimately provide a stamp of thoughtful approval to, Ron Stallworth’s contradictory attempt to turn the authority and power of the police towards social justice goals. Boots Riley comes down particularly hard on this element of BlacKkKlansman, criticizing the script’s inventions and elisions of Stallworth’s work: he was undercover in radical black organizations for not one night but three years and did not begin his Klan infiltration until 1979, not in 1972; his white undercover partner was not Jewish, there was no ticking-bomb terrorist threat by the KKK he investigated as the film’s climax depicts, and a goofy feel-good coda sting on a bigoted white cop did not happen.

According to Riley, much of what BlacKkKlansman shows as going on behind the scenes in its Klan investigation could not happen: Black Lives Matter and related social justice spearheaders continue to spotlight police profiling and oppression of and violence towards African-Americans in the country of today, as well as law enforcement’s comparative kid gloves approach towards hard-right groups who incite and commit violent acts with far greater regularity. Riley firmly believes and expresses his belief that the police are not on the same side as progressive black social activists, and notes suggestively that Spike Lee has been paid by the NYPD to help improve their image with black communities. BlacKkKlansman is premised on the idea that the police not only can and should but have previously busted up racist organizations in a humbly semi-enlightened effort to be social justice warriors. Riley argues it’s a lie, and despite Lee’s protestations, it’s hard to learn much about the subject and say that he’s entirely wrong.

Lee mildly fudges his film’s true-to-life claims with an opening title card in his idiomatic vernacular: “Based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”. But BlacKkKlansman turns from polemical fictionalization to sober, pointed documentary in a startling and more than a little off-putting whiplash switch at its conclusion. The film gives way to news footage of the August 2017 far-right march in Charlottesville, Virginia (BlacKkKlansman‘s release was timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the event that shocked the country), reports of the murder of liberal counterprotestor Heather Heyer that weekend, and President Donald Trump’s infamous hood-lifting moment in which he informed the press that some of the tiki-torch-wielding neo-nazi marchers were “very good people”. The real David Duke even makes an appearance, his continued presence as a public figure proving that Stallworth’s duping of him was of only marginal use, in the end.

BlacKkKlansman has its problems beyond its predilection towards propaganda and provocation. The screenplay by Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Wilmott shows a fondness for silly, borderline-cartoon supporting characters (like Ashlie Atkinson’s Connie, the ebullient but virulently racist wife of Jasper Pääkkönen’s hostile Klan member Felix who cannot wait to be the virginal white female rape victim in a vigilante lynching fantasy), and overemphasizes beats that another filmmaker might have left respectfully subtle and implied. Wilmott’s screenwriting credit calls to mind his politically challenging but inescapably cheap (in all senses of the word) satirical mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (which Lee produced), and BlacKkKlansman contains far more of that film’s cornpone carnival-barker tone than is good for it (though I laughed at the callback to Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s immortal catchphrase from The Wire, his early cameo including it takes one out of the film right at its beginning).

But ultimately BlacKkKlansman is afflicted with a larger, self-hampering double consciousness. It is grounded in a deep knowledge of African-American history and politics and considerable filmic craft and film-history literacy. In the memorable Birth of a Nation montage sequence, Lee makes a powerful audio-visual argument about how racial inequality is reinforced and spread. It leans towards manipulative fabrications on top of established fact to strengthen its points and concludes its essentially comedic story with feel-good limited triumphs and solidarity while paying lip service to the ingrained inequity and cover-ups endemic to the system. But it renders these narratively-earned victories entirely pyrrhic with its concluding documentarian evocation of the continued and even increased relevance of far-right racism of the Klan sort. The struggle, of course, always continues, and racism, in America as elsewhere in the world, persists and must continue to be fought. But just how it should be fought is a matter that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, as potent and effective as it can be at its best, proves frustratingly inconsistent, obtuse, and disingenuous about.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Death of Stalin

December 5, 2018 Leave a comment

The Death of Stalin (2017; Directed by Armando Iannucci)

In her 1963 book on the trial of the Nazi German SS commander and Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, political thinker Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” to describe the species of dumb quotidian striving and uncritical order-following that characterized Eichmann’s participation in the Final Solution. The idea of the banality of evil is sometimes misquoted and very frequently misapplied, and was and is quite controversial in philosophical circles. However, it usefully pinpointed in Arendt’s subject Eichmann a sort of unremarkable normality, a featureless bureaucratic ordinariness that, through a thoughtless disengagement from the harsh realities that lay behind his career-driven pencil-pushing actions, was complicit in terrible, terrible things. Arendt’s conclusion was that Eichmann did evil, but was not evil. Whatever problems this concept presents, the banality of evil focuses on an important contradiction that animates modern political action: what can appear professional, customary, and everyday can in truth be working towards the very worst, the most evil, of outcomes.

Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a raucously funny but quietly vicious extrapolation on the banality of evil with a far keener eye for the ridiculous, but no less ghastly, fundaments of oppressive totalitarianism. Call it a comic treatise on the absurdity of evil, if you will, a farcical satire about the frantic power struggle for primacy at the top of government of the Soviet Union after the demise of the iron-willed tyrant Joseph Stalin. Despite the sharp-tongued banter, selfish scheming, and copious bumbling on the part of the succeeding members of the Central Committee, however, horrors take place, crimes against humanity are committed, lives are altered, destroyed, or brutally ended, even within the rarified heights of the Politburo. We laugh while the blood flows, and perhaps the oxygen from the laughter makes its sick colour all the more vivid.

The Scottish-Italian Iannucci has ramped up to The Death of Stalin by establishing himself as one of the sharpest satirists of back-room political operations in the English-speaking world. At the BBC, he co-created Steve Coogan’s iconically mediocre television presenter caricature Alan Partridge (along with Coogan and future Four Lions director Chris Morris), then on the sitcom The Thick of It (and its accompanying movie In the Loop) unleashed the verbal-bomb-throwing of Peter Capaldi’s aggro political operative Malcolm Tucker on unsuspecting audiences. He crossed the Atlantic to conquer American comedy, too, creating and showrunning the early seasons of HBO’s White House satire Veep and winning a pair of Emmys for his trouble.

In Iannucci’s closed backrooms of power, whipsmart tongue-lashings greet scandals and missteps and PR disasters and not-infrequent bad intentions. It can be tempting to read Iannucci’s satires, with the potent rudeness of their most cynical and inhuman characters, through the lens of laments for political incivility. There is, after all, an entire legacy-media constituency dedicated to the persistent idea that the nasty, destructive partisanship of American politics in particular could be convincingly defused (ideological differences be damned) if everyone could just be nicer to each other. Lucrative punditry sinecures await any and all willing to parrot such a line of thought, and there are not a few such voices in the American media still labouring under the assumption that this symptomatic lack of politeness is the real problem with Donald Trump (and not his stupid, mean, greedy, prejudiced awfulness as a person).

But Armando Iannucci will wring out laughs at the bickering and sideswiping of the powerful before turning our attention to the terrible meat-hook realities that lie at behind the rude spewing. In The Death of Stalin, this approach constitutes the blackest of dark comedies about the shabby cheapness of human mortality: whether of a towering political leader like the eponymous expiring Man of Steel or of the millions of people, specific and generalized, whose lives he claimed in the Soviet Union and beyond. When Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a stroke after a night of carousing with his Central Committee cronies, he is found with his bowels voided on the carpet, and is hauled to what will be his deathbed by those same cronies, who bumble and fumble the organization of even this simple task, leading to some satisfying slapstick as the corpus of the dictator is dragged over one of their own bodies to rest on the sheets.

Iannucci revels in both the absurdity and the bruality of Stalinist Russia, and finds those characteristics inextricably entwined. He includes (and compresses and dramatizes, yes) comically absurd and sharply ironic real-life anecdotes that demonstrate the ludicrous whims of Stalin and how it affects those around them, who are in terror for their lives should they offend the leader. The film opens with a classical concerto performance broadcast on state radio that Stalin decides that he wants a recording of. The harrassed program director (Paddy Considine) finds that the performance was not recorded, and hastily, desperately reconvenes the musicians and the resistant pianist (Olga Kurylenko) to play the concerto again, this time to record. After Stalin’s non-fatal stroke, his flunkies must scramble around Moscow to collect even retired, inexperienced, or incompetent doctors to treat him, as the paranoid General Secretary had the city’s best doctors (mostly Jews, natch) put to death for supposedly plotting against him.

More darkly, a few scenes take place in a secret interrogation and execution facility of the Stalinist secret police, the NKVD, where detained persons are rushed about to torture or imprisonment, and the gunshots of death sentences ring out as a constant background score. Stalin’s right-hand man in these manners, the enforcer of his enemies lists and the primary bureaucrat responsible for the ongoing reign of terror, is his fellow Georgian Lavrentiy Beria (the great Simon Russell Beale), who is also at the heart of the jockeying intrigues that follow the General Secretary’s death (Beria was also a serial sexual predator, using his position at the head of the NKVD to commit numerous rapes, which this film makes very clear).

Although Stalin’s official successor to the Secretariat is the dim, vain, and malleable Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Beria and Nikita Khruschev, played by Steve Buscemi (who seems born to spew Iannucci’s inspired invective) in a counter-intuitive masterstroke of casting, are the real contenders for the throne. The veteran diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, who is in a supporting role but is granted a clutch of moments to demonstrate his absolute expertise of comic timing and performance) plays a key role as an elder statesman kingmaker (though he was just spared the wrath of the enemies list by his old boss croaking), as does the spiky, bloody-minded WWII hero and head of the Red Army, General Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Stalin’s children are kicking around, too, but neither the paralyzed-by-woe Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) or the foolish, preening, conspiracy-minded Vasily (Rupert Friend) are real factors in the power transfer.

The collision of these outsized, overtly hostile personalities makes for frequent great comedy. The Death of Stalin is pitilessly hilarious, and Iannucci facilitates and maximizes this hilarity in numerous masterful ways, from the writing (of course) to the you-are-there mockumentary cinematography to the irony-laced editing to the inspired decision to allow his actors to speak in their native accents, rather than some forced Russian-accented English, to allow a full range for their natural timing and expression (Buscemi’s clipped Italian-American force and Isaacs’ Liverpudlian flintiness define their characters essentially as well as deliver their lines to best effect).

But it is worth asking if The Death of Stalin hits the ideal notes in relation to the murderous (indeed, nigh-on genocidal) authoritarianism of its setting and subject. Though Iannucci’s favoured blood-drawing political satire frequently focuses on the underlying corruption and immorality beneath the vile language and bantering insults, one might say that Stalin’s Soviet Union is kind of low-hanging fruit in that regard. There are few places and times in human history in which it was worse to be alive than the Russia of Joseph Stalin, particular because for myriad reasons it was exceedingly unlikely that you were to be alive for long. Is this a fit setting for comedy, no matter how pitch-dark?

I admitted to being slightly disappointed with the relative superficiality of how In the Loop tackled the deceit and ill intent of the American venture in the Iraq War. The Death of Stalin is better in this regard, though it emphasizes the role of cruel random chance even more than bureaucratized detachment in the commission of atrocities in the Stalinist Soviet state: a prisoner about to be killed exclaims “Long live Stalin!” in a last-ditch effort to save himself, only to be informed by his executioner that Stalin is dead; a second after he is shot and before the next man in line can meet his fate, Beria’s order halting the executions arrives. This randomness that governs life and death defines not only Stalinist oppression for Iannucci, but also the rule of the state in our vaunted democracies as well. But it’s a very different, and perhaps ultimately weaker and less human, force than the systematized and obscured evil that Stalinist Russia is also a defining example of.

The Death of Stalin takes no prisoners, does not soften its harsh blows, offers no really sympathetic port-in-the-storm characters to grasp on to, and concludes not with a note of hope or change but with a postscript on the continuity of backstabbing intrigue at the top of the USSR. In the moment and even for some time afterwards, this is a patently hilarious and deep-cutting satire that doesn’t pull its punches. But in rendering evil in the only way that he really can do it, as absurd rather than as banal, as foolish and random rather than as professionalized and disavowed, I fear that Armando Iannucci waters down Hannah Arendt’s potent critique, both in the historical context of his film and in the contemporary context of our battered and bruised political and social firmament.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

December 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Sorry to Bother You (2018; Directed by Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You is an incredible film. This is meant in more than one sense of the word: the writing/directing debut from rapper/political activist Boots Riley is a work of dazzling quality and of originality and imagination, a film that announces itself confidently as one of the best of its year before it’s even done being viewed. But it’s also incredible, an audacious fever-dream of contemporary American capitalist culture, society, race relations, and labour economy that must be seen to be believed. I can try, and will try, to describe it and its delirious appeal, but I have no confidence that it won’t intractably frustrate this effort, or indeed that I wouldn’t want it to. No one can be told what Sorry to Bother You is; like The Matrix, you have to see it for yourself.

If you know little else about Sorry to Bother You beyond the boldly-coloured posters used to advertise it or promotional images of star Lakeith Stanfield’s deflated, head-bandaged visage, I might suggest that you keep it that way until you can see the film and see what this forthcoming fuss is about. For those for whom a bit more (but not too much more) information is required before committing to a film, I offer the subsequent description and thoughts.

Stanfield is Cassius Green (“cash is green”, get it? I admit that I didn’t until the movie explained the pun). He lives in a converted garage (complete with inconveniently-opening overhead door) in the Oakland home of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), to whom he owes several months of rent. He hopes his money woes will be at an end soon, however: he interviews for a telemarketing job at a company called Regalview, whose lower management is beset by such a mixture of both boundless cynicism and aspirational buy-ins to business-buzzword narratives that they are impressed by the hustle displayed amidst his shoddy dishonesty about his work history (his fabrications include both a plaque and a trophy from previous invented positions) and hire him on.

Cassius initially struggles with the awkward, dehumanizing intrusiveness of his cold-call work (Riley visualizes Cassius and his entire desk being dropped into the homes of the people he speaks to on the phone), although he forms an in-the-trenches bond with fellow cubicle-bound phone warriors, including his friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), whose hiring at Regalview pre-dates his own, and Squeeze (Steve Yuen), a labour activist intending to organize the telemarketers into a union. Cassius’ girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) even joins up, as a supplement to her work as a contemporary artist of wearing spectacular message earrings, preparing for a splashy installation-and-performance show, and spinning one-word slogan signs on street corners.

But his professional fortunes begin to improve dramatically when an older colleague (Danny Glover) introduces him to the confident, sale-making wonders of the White Voice (David Cross provides the White Voice for Cassius, with Patton Oswalt and Lily James featured as the White Voices for other African-American characters projecting this sound of carefree success and privilege). Cassius is soon promoted to the lucrative upper-floor position of Power Caller, using his White Voice to sell products and opportunities to the ultra-rich for RegalView’s society-dominating client corporation WorryFree, a massive multinational with sunny advertising who give their workers free room, board, food, and clothing in exchange for a contract of lifelong servitude. Cassius’ Power Calling puts him at odds with his coworkers’ strike spearheaded by Squeeze, as he is escorted past their picket line by brutal riot-gear-equipped security contractors to ride a golden elevator up to the Power Caller digs.

This tension between his striking proletarian friends on one hand and the luxurious and seductive world of handsome salaries, tailored suits, fast cars, and indulgent parties (as well as the exploitative exchanges that pay for those things) on the other tugs at Cassius’ conscience and threatens his relationship with Detroit, who sympathizes with the organizing effort and whose art critiques the corporate economy and its deleterious effects. It is, of course, the central dilemma that American capitalism presents to every labourer: commit to the difficult collective campaign for labour rights despite the costs and the deprivations embraced by hostile bosses and authorities alike, or take a more selfish path to a solo rise, turning onto the gilded self-enriching highway of the sell-out with the full knowledge of being complicit in the processes of an iniquitous system. It’s a dilemma all the more fraught for African-Americans, who face White-Voice-like compromises to their identity and community in exchange for a share of majoritarian prosperity. But Cassius will be compelled to choose by a vision of future horror glimpsed during a party at the home of WorryFree’s inscrutable golden-bro CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).

This synopsis is a hopelessly inadequate soft-sell of Sorry to Bother You, which is far wilder and stranger and greater a movie than is really possible to summarize as done above. To simply call it a satire of American capitalism, labour, and race, of media and art and activism, is likewise inadequate. It absolutely is that, and is frequently uproariously hilarious in that role. But Riley cultivates and grows a world altogether bizarre and fantastical, a portrait of lively, humane urban depression which might be labelled magic realism if not for the hard edge of perfunctory absurdism and vicious political commentary that comes with it. This absurdity is complete and all-encompassing, Riley suggests, and the society that embraces it and ensures its continuity with the cowboy gusto of the American public is profoundly, troublingly masochistic. The most popular television show in this funhouse version of the United States, after all, is called “I Got The S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!”, and asks its enraptured audience to watch as a willing participant is beaten up for its entertainment.

Riley’s film goes whole-hog on lampooning this delirious absurdism, and several scenes and moments are astoundingly funny: the subtext-becomes-text nature of the automated motivational pronouncements in the golden Power Caller elevator, Squeeze’s uncomfortably personal revelations shouted through a protest bullhorn, everything involving White Voices and the Equisapiens (just wait and see). Detroit’s performance art sequence breathes comic life into the low-hanging fruit of making a farce of the already-farcical realm of contemporary art and its political pretensions. And if the code-switching commentary of the White Voice wasn’t enough, Riley mocks the racist assumption on the part of Lift’s affluent Caucasian partygoers that Cassius can rap just because he’s African-American in a moment worthy of Spike Lee’s uncompromising sensibilities.

Spike Lee is a key talisman of influence for Boots Riley, just as Lee’s early ’90s creative peak of iconoclastic and confrontational films of the African-American experience is being recaptured and, in commercial and perhaps artistic ways, surpassed by films in the same vein in the recent African-American film renaissance (albeit served with far more crowd-capturing sugar than Lee’s signature works). 12 Years A SlaveSelma, Get Out, Moonlight, Black Panther, and even Lee’s own BlacKkKlansman have collectively given firm and bold voice on screen to perspectives on the continuing struggles and joys of America’s most historically oppressed minority (who, of course, have also been its pop-cultural vanguard, particularly in the musical realm).

Sorry to Bother You fits into this encouraging wave of memorable African-American films, but also stands off entirely on its own. Boots Riley’s tumult of ideas in this film crashes down on the racial assumptions and white supremacy of the American labour economy, and the discomfiting subtext to all of WorryFree’s practices and initiatives is that American capitalists are incrementally reconstituting the broader terms of chattel slavery, still the most profitable and advantageous labour system in the country’s history from their point of view. But his spectacularly kooky Boccaccian vision of capitalist socioeconomics crosses and re-crosses the colour line, finding class and income oppression intermingling and cooperating with racial discrimination. Sorry to Bother You is a film of black experience, but more broadly and comprehensively it is a film of American experience, and thus a film whose anxieties and satirical targets are intelligible and even personally applicable to people across the globe within the seemingly-infinite reach of American capitalism. And it is an incredible film that must be seen to be believed.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: 22 July

November 18, 2018 Leave a comment

22 July (2018; Directed by Paul Greengrass)

The latest tense, clear-eyed, cinema verité-style current-affairs drama from English filmmaker Paul Greengrass treads with a mixture of technical confidence and intellectual hesitance onto the sensitive ground of one of the most shocking and heinous acts of violent political terrorism of our age. The director of painfully direct dramatizations of massacres from the Irish Troubles and the hijackings of cargo ships off the Horn of Africa and U.S. airliners on 9/11 (to say nothing of the two finest of the comparatively light and frothy Jason Bourne films), Greengrass now takes on the 2011 Norway attacks orchestrated by far-right fanatic Anders Behring Breivik, which resulted in 77 deaths and exposed a dark, extremist underbelly in one of the world’s most prosperous and peaceful nations.

Shooting in Norway with a Norwegian cast and crew (but completely in English), Greengrass draws out the narratives of two main natives of the Scandinavian nation embroiled in the events as foils to the chillingly methodical mass murderer Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie). Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) is the popular, politically idealistic son of a local politician from the northern archipelago of Svalbard. Viljar was in attendance at the summer camp retreat for members of the Workers’ Youth League (a sort of leadership club affiliated to Norway’s Labour Party, then in governmental power) on Utøya Island when it was attacked by Breivik, who targetted the children attendees as future leading lights of what considered the country’s “Marxist elite”. Viljar saw some of his best friends die and was himself badly wounded by multiple gunshots. 22 July follows the physical and psychological agony of his recovery and his preparation for an eventual in-court victim statement against Breivik and his beliefs, delivered before the killer’s watchful gaze. An inside view of Breivik’s legal defence is provided through his lawyer, Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), who does his civic duty as a solicitor in defending a man that he soon comes to view with contempt at some personal cost to him and his family.

22 July (the title is the date of the attacks, and would be recognized by any contemporary Norwegian as a 9/11-type shorthand for the traumatic event) therefore is more of a genre-crossing affair than is usual for Greengrass. The pained personal drama of Viljar’s struggles is set against the courtroom drama of Breivik’s trial and the plot twists of his defence: never denying that he carried out both the Utøya massacre and the bombing of a government building in Oslo that provided a distraction for his island assault, Breivik is declared mentally unfit to be tried by one examination and then mentally fit for another, deciding that escaping life imprisonment is better but then shifting gears and deciding that being declared insane would invalidate his political mission. The last two acts of 22 July build dramatically to Viljar’s testimony in a way that lends the impression that only he can effectively repudiate Breivik’s hate. But ultimately both his and Lippestad’s arcs are better understood as case studies in civic engagement and moral principle, as statements of democratic strength and solidity in the face of a terrible eruption of viciously fascistic weakness that seeks to destabilize that strength and solidity.

These stories spiral out of the riveting, unsettling opening-act depiction of the attacks themselves, and, truth be told, stand in uncomfortable disequilibrium with it. This first section of 22 July unfolds with masterfully crafted tension as an extended sequence of crescendoing dread and horror, as Breivik’s execution of his heinous plan is intercut with the reactions of government authorities and Viljar’s parents in Oslo and the children at Utøya, their joy at each other’s company at their safe and happy camp transitioning to shocking shaky-cam violence and death. This is Greengrass working at the peak of his powers with all the tools in his filmmaking kit, and it’s a stunning, galvanizing experience. But, as in Captain Phillips and United 93, it comes with a sense of disquiet and hesitation for a thoughtful viewer. How do we feel at being so effectively moved (manipulated, even) by the cinematic language of the Hollywood thriller, language that serves to enthrall and frighten us, in the context of a real-life act of deadly terrorism that still is of such horrible proximity?

Greengrass appends Viljar’s hopeful story (as well as that of a friend of his from an immigrant family, whose positions in Norway are particular targetted by far-right campaigns of terror) as an antidote to Breivik’s hate. But his film sweats and strains through genres at which he is less prodigiously skilled to catch up to the powerful vision of contemporary terror constructed in the first act. A film ostensibly about an act of violent hate and oppression being defeated by hope and love and freedom gives the former too much potency early on for the latter to overcome when it gets its chance to counterattack.

One wonders if more could have been done by Anders Danielsen Lie, who gives the film’s sole fine performance as Breivik. Lie gives this extremist a mask of self-possession and confidence in his righteousness that shifts almost imperceptively into brittle, pompous isolation as an entire nation summons the fortitude to prove him wrong. But could not Breivik’s insufferable faux-medieval cosplaying as a proud paladin of the European master race, his pretentious manifesto, his clueless Nazi salutes in the courtroom have been further defused by rendering them as ridiculous as they truly are (the latest season of ITV’s detective drama Shetland achieved this in blunt but effective terms, with Douglas Henshall’s steely-eyed DI Jimmy Perez tearing down a Norwegian far-right agent’s suggestion that Breivik was a hero by exclaiming, “He lived with his mum!”)? The President of Norway’s and law enforcement’s deft disarming of his ludicrous demand to suspend all immigration to Norway lest his brothers in the Knights Templar unleash a second attack (of course, Breivik was always very alone) comes close to achieving this, and both Viljar’s testimonial diminishment of Breivik’s convictions and Lippestad’s unambiguous blowing off of further contact with his client after his conviction are mildly satisfying. But Greengrass is no satirist; indeed, it’s hard to think of a more self-serious working filmmaker than him, and the sharp, subtle knife of anti-fascist humour is not to be found in his toolkit.

As with all of Greengrass’ pictures, the highly-specified realism of 22 July does not preclude consideration of contemporary sociopolitical concerns but does tend to render them ancillary to the action. There is a strong case to be made, possibly one carrying the risk of folk-anti-hero valourization, that Anders Behring Breivik is one of the most evil people alive today; 22 July generally makes it. This is because of his mass-murderous choice of actions, of course, but is he not also evil because of his ideological beliefs and convictions? After all, men who believe essentially what Breivik believe, who share his broader anxieties and sociopolitical goals, have served (and still serve) in the White House of Donald J. Trump. That they haven’t adopted his methods, haven’t built bombs or fixed teenagers in the sight of a semi-automatic assault rifle and pulled the trigger, to get what they want is a matter of a confluence of factors to tangled and interdependent to easily unravel (22 July, like many considerations of violent terrorism, does not consider with any depth the self-amplifying feedback loop of sociology, ideology and psychology that warps dissatisfied men into sociopathic monsters). It does not absolve them of the consequences of the policies they pursue, which may, in the longer run, damage and extinguish the lives of many more people than Breivik personally slaughtered or traumatized.

22 July offers a glow of neoliberal hope to counter the authoritarian bigotry of Breivik and his hard-right fellow travellers. But as is so often the case right now, it leaves us wondering if this glow is quite enough. Norway’s is a social democracy with more emphasis on the social than Canada and certainly than the U.S., which has embraced its allied Prime Minister’s infamous pronouncement that there is no such thing as a society. The social safety net and general stability of the Scandinavian social democracies in general but Norway in particular (the offshore oil money certainly helps) serves as a frequent model for American and Canadian liberals arguing for similar policies in their own capital-captured countries. Anders Behring Breivik’s horrid act of terrorism suggested that whatever advantages this model carries, it is subject to the save cleavages of white supremacist prejudice that have afflicted the North American democracies through their history down to today. Paul Greengrass suggests in 22 July that to defeat such raging but marginal forces, a re-assertion of the principles of democratic principles (Norwegian or otherwise) in a new multicultural age are required. One hopes that he is correct at the same time as one doubts the depth of his consideration of these problems in this uneven but potent film, whose strengths lie in the visceral but rarely in the higher faculties.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #7

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (HBO, 2018; Directed by Thom Zinny)

Over two feature-length parts, Elvis Presley: The Searcher seeks out the man behind the world-famous image of gyrating hips, drawling tremolo vocals, and sequined jumpsuits. If it doesn’t quite find the real Elvis, Thom Zinny’s documentary suggests that he was really there all along, in his music, his performances, and his human struggles.

Tracing the life and career of Elvis Aaron Presley from humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee to his sad spent bloated end in 1977 (although it does not dwell on the details of the waning days of the King of Rock and Roll), Elvis Presley: The Searcher employs archival footage and photographs of and interviews with Presley himself, as well as with key figures in his inner circle (his wife Priscilla, his controversial manager Colonel Tom Parker, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips) and subsequent musical icons influenced by him (including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and Emmylou Harris).

Arranged roughly chronologically, the film returns regularly to his legendary 1968 NBC comeback special as a summary statement of his cultural impact, a thesis of what Elvis meant to American popular culture. Indeed, the clips from the broadcast reveal an impressive performer, synthesizing a panoply of formative musical influences (rhythm & blues, gospel, country, mainstream pop) with a renewed passion and vigour into mesmerizing artistic displays. The special is a pivot point between two media eras of Elvis, from the handsome crooning lead in a glut of mediocre 1960s movies to the sweating, sideburned touring rock-star colossus that Presley embodied for the last decade of his life (and that launched the notorious impersonator cottage industry that has diminished the legend that it claims to celebrate). It is also a tantalizing suggestion of the provocatively sexy and dynamic but sadly largely-unfilmed youthful late-1950s Elvis, when he burst electrically onto the music scene at the height of the rock n’ roll wave before frittering away two vital years in the U.S. Army.

The Searcher fêtes Presley’s electrifying dynamism and much of his deep musical output. It also aims to suggest hidden depths and thoughtfulness to a man often conceived of as absurdly talented but, especially in his post-draft return to music and film, poorly advised and too fundamentally simple in his outlook and thinking to prevent himself from being used as a cash cow while the rapid currents of American popular culture flowed by him as past a stationary stone. Despite sympathetic second-hand quotes about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and the climactic suggestion that the Comeback Special’s closer “If I Can Dream” was some species of inspiring social commentary and/or healing hymn for the troubled American year of 1968, The Searcher does not make a convincing case for those hidden depths.

None of the speakers providing the film with its narrative and themes challenge the view that Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker (actually a Dutch citizen in the U.S. illegally) exploited him financially and overworked him for years. The Colonel drew on his experience as a literal carnival barker in signing excessive studio contracts to make increasingly poor movies, before touring Elvis extensively at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s when the movie bucks dried up. The Colonel always had his eye on the next dollar, and as a result drowned his star in bad movies, mediocre music, and exhaustive live shows while his peers used their creative primes to transform the musical forms he had helped to innovate into a potent artistic as well as commercial force. Elvis did not help matters by his apathy towards songwriting and publishing (the latter rights, so lucrative in the future, were often sold off by Parker for quick profit), thus diminishing his control over his artistic direction and his heirs’ grip on his legacy.

The Searcher does compellingly argue for Elvis Presley’s value as a interpretive vocalist and more than anything as an iconic performer, a vibrating, undeniable presence in whatever medium he appeared. As tangible as this accomplishment is, it is drained of some impact by Zinny’s dismissive treatment of one of the core cultural issue around Elvis in particular and American rock n’ roll in general: the oft-disavowed truth that this defining, massively profitable musical genre was largely the domain of white performers appropriating the creative innovations of African-Americans. The Searcher tells us that this is not a problem, because Elvis Presley respected black people and their culture, did not respect the South’s system of segregation and even contributed in his way to its breakdown, and acknowledged his debt to the African-American pioneers of the music. Even further to that, it suggests that because Elvis felt the music, his passion and conviction overcame any objection over appropriation. This may be a case where actions in the micro were not objectionable but reflected and even fed into results in the macro that were. Given the personal focus of Elvis Presley: The Searcher, it is understandable that the treatment of this problem does not extend itself to those larger implications, but it creates a bit of a blind spot in an otherwise fairly comprehensive portrait of one of America’s greatest (if not always its own profound) cultural producers.

The Rachel Divide (Netflix, 2018; Directed by Laura Brownson)

While Elvis Presley became a pre-eminent icon and profited handsomely from his questionable appropriation of African-American culture, Rachel Dolezal’s appropriations have cost her and those close to her dearly. Dolezal became notorious in 2015 when, at the height of the activist Black Lives Matter protests, she was removed as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP after it was revealed that she was born of Caucasian-American parents and had been passing as African-American for years. Demonized as a disrespectful poseur and characterized as mentally unsound by critics from across the American political and racial spectrum, Dolezal was certainly controversial but almost uniquely unifying in a highly divisive and partisan cultural discourse. White and black, left, right and centre, politically engaged or casual follower of current events: everybody in America came together to hate Rachel Dolezal for pretending to be something she is not.

Laura Brownson’s The Rachel Divide doesn’t seek to shift that hate, and even Brownson’s fair-minded documentarian objectivity is sorely tested by Dolezal’s stubborn refusal to own up to her falsehoods about her racial identity, the filmmaker finally falling to confronting her subject and demanding some sort of reckoning with the truth. But at the same time, the film provides history and context to Dolezal’s life decisions, suggesting that she is as much of a victim of American social currents as an exploiter of them, as well as confirming a dark and traumatic past of abuse that might be a precursor of whatever mental delusions she now labours under. To complicate matters further, The Rachel Divide shows her dogged dedication to those delusions about her identity having sad consequences on her sons, both of whom are African-American and face ostracizing and obstacles beyond the usual racial bounds due to their mother’s notoreity.

In The Rachel Divide as in her memoir In Full Color (which she is shown writing and promoting in the film prior to its spectacular flop of a book release), Dolezal details the physical and psychological abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her fundamentalist Christian parents and elder brother in Montana. Her adoptive siblings, who were African-American, suffered even more greatly in the household, and as she grew up, Dolezal began to identify with them and their struggles more intensely, to the point of finally rejecting the white Christian identity of her biological family and choosing instead the denied and discriminated African-American identity of her brothers and sisters (one of whom, Izaiah, she later gained custody of and treats as her own son).

A talented artist and Africana studies instructor, Dolezal became actively involved in the NAACP as well as in legal proceedings against her abusive white family. The Rachel Divide suggests that local political opponents in strongly-majority-white Spokane as well as her accused brother (who hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on her to discredit her as a witness, leading to her exposure) stood to gain from her fall from grace. But it also cannot help but hold Dolezal equally responsible for her problems, even if her stubborn lies have hurt far fewer people than those of much more powerful people in America.

The Rachel Divide toes a fine line. It expresses empathy for Dolezal’s all-too-human struggles to find work (she is apparently now on food stamps) and to find reconciliation to a view of herself that the rest of her society firmly rejects. It explores the almost open sorrow of her sons Izaiah and Franklin, whose lives and futures are continually hurt by who their mother is. But it gives more than equal time to the numerous full-throated objections, criticisms, and forceful excoriations from people across the country who are offended, baffled, and pained by her appropriation of a culture not her own. Dolezal deepens her difficulties in attempting to defend them time and again, making public appearances that inevitably place in her an unfavourable light, and offending further by claiming spiritual kinship with African-American slaves and transsexuals like Caitlyn Jenner.

There are broad and deep questions about the construction of racial identity that are raised by the Rachel Dolezal controversy, and often these questions are raised by Dolezal herself in self-interested defence of her position. She tells one skeptical radio interviewer that race is a social construct, a common progressive academic talking point that is nonetheless rarely understood to presage the sort of identity construction practiced by Dolezal. There is, perhaps, a superficial philosophical argument to be made that if gender is an identity construct that subjects can assert their will over and change if their wish, why can’t race be as well?

But stating that race is a social construct does not mean that, as the radio host heatedly retorts, it is not “real”. Race as it is now conceived may have been a discursive creation of slave-trading European colonialists half a millennia ago to justify the lucrative but cruelly dehumanizing exploitation of African populations, a creation that undergirds the social hierarchical order of the United States as well as of the other wealthy Western capitalist democracies. Changing one’s race as one might change one’s gender (transracialism, as Dolezal calls it) might seem an attractive option for those troubled and pained by the identity they were born with, at least when considered in utopian isolation.

But Dolezal’s transracial shift is predicated on a privilege of passing available to her as a white person but not to her African-American peers, whose racial identity is irrevocably written on their skin, seemingly forever (though hopefully not) a marker of their perceived underclass status in America. Racial identity is not merely formed in response of rejection to the traumas of history, but is tightly and inextricably entwined with those traumas, feeding on their dark energies and seeking to transform them into something more positive and freeing. Rachel Dolezal can discard her past identity and take possession of another for whatever reasons she may choose, but for African-Americans, the past cannot be discarded because it isn’t even past. Racial discrimination and hierarchy endures, strengthening and waning with the tides of history, and it can no more be disposed of by those subject to it than it can be seized on as a psychological balm to those never subject to it, like our Ms. Dolezal.

The Rachel Divide concludes with a tease of Rachel Dolezal’s potential epiphanous reversal of her identity delusion. She appears at a government office to change her name, hinting that she may be leaving her notoreity behind for a fresh start in life. The sinking feeling when her Africanized new name – Nkechi Amare Diallo – is revealed wrings out a frustrated sigh that is nonetheless not an expression of surprise. A psychologist might suggest that Dolezal/Diallo’s traumatic experience of abuse in childhood has manifested as a fixed delusion in adulthood, a self-identification that is aspirational but tragically never grounded in prevalent social reality. The Rachel Divide makes it clear that Rachel Dolezal is not merely clinging to an appropriated and inaccurate racial identity, but doing so to prevent herself from plunging into much darker shadows. This does not make her dishonesty excusable, but it does make it more conceivable.