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Just Beautiful

On the desk beside my keyboard lies one of my most prized possessions: a ticket stub from the January 21, 9:30 p.m. showing of The New World at BAM-Rose Cinemas in downtown Brooklyn.

At this showing of this movie, at this time on this day, in this theater, in this borough of this city, I bore witness to American commercial cinema’s ability to astound, move and inspire masses of people—an ability that reached its fullest realization during the heyday of the blockbuster art film, the 1970s, but has rarely been exercised since.

The history of American studio blockbusters includes a handful of indisputable high watermarks, moments when entertainment and art merged to create not just a hit, but an origin point for new ways of thinking about, and making, popular cinema; a rallying point for anyone who still believes in the blockbuster’s ability—and responsibility—to deliver more than escapism; a secular house of worship for anyone who prizes ambition, mystery, and beauty over familiarity and neatness; a transformative experience that can be had for the price of a movie ticket, and that anyone who ever called him or herself a movie lover must seize now, or forever regret having missed.

The New World is a new watermark. It is a $50 million epic poem made with Time Warner’s money; it is an American creation myth that recontextualizes our past, present and future as fable, as opera, as verse. It is this era’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—a musical-philosophical-pictorial charting of history’s slipstream and the individual’s role within it.

It is nothing less than a generation-defining event.

When your descendants ask you to describe the popular art called movies, this is one of the titles they’ll ask about. Go on and debate the politics of Munich, the social significance of Brokeback Mountain, the elliptical menace of Caché, the narcotic romanticism of 2046, the pulpy genre freestylings of A History of Violence, and have a grand time doing it. They’re films worth seeing and fighting over. But they are hills in the shadow of a mountain.

I’m sure that many people reading this will think I’ve come unhinged, or that I am, at the very least, overselling this movie, or responding to something besides the movie, or (the most meaningless objection of all!) reviewing the movie I wished that I had seen rather than the movie I saw.

I don’t care what these people think. And I know anyone who loves this film as much as I do doesn’t care either. Other movies have fans. The New World has disciples.

To the disciples of The New World, each viewing is a new experience; a new opportunity to humble oneself in the presence of a great work of popular art; a new chance to immerse oneself in the richness of an artist’s mind, and by immersing oneself, to lose oneself, then discover or rediscover oneself, and perhaps emerge a changed person.

We disciples of The New World consider ourselves lucky to have identified this treasure when it appeared before us and then seized it and made it a part of our lives. We will see it again and again, as often as time and money and New Line Cinema permit. We love this movie more than words can say. Some of us love it so much that at some point during our daily routines, we have to make a conscious decision to quit thinking about it for a while, because there is a chance we may be moved to tears.

This re-cut of The New World is is different enough to necessitate a fresh reponse and a rundown of key differences in style and pacing. My nutshell reaction: this is not a “better” cut, necessarily, but a leaner, more efficient, and frankly more commercial cut, and in many ways a more powerful cut. It somehow manages to preserve most of the ideas from the earlier version while placing them in a context that non-Malickites can grasp and enjoy.

Comparatively few shots have been snipped entirely, and I didn’t notice that any major setpieces had gone missing. (I hope that my colleague Keith Uhlich—who’s currently writing an exhaustive comparison of the two versions for Slant Magazine, and who generously shared his observations with me earlier in the week—will feel free to correct any misimpressions I have.) Viewers of both versions will likely be struck by differences that seem small when you’re watching the movie, but prove pivotal in recollection.

For starters, there’s the timing of Malick’s narration. The first version of The New World started and ended individual monologues in odd, Malicky places. For instance, you might have seen images of Powhatans or English settlers or images of the forest or the shore and heard John Smith speaking, but not actually seen Smith until several shots into the sequence.

This strategy, employed consistently by Malick throughout the first theatrical cut, contributed to the film’s feeling of collective consciousness, collective memory. As I’ve noted in previous articles, it represented the culmination of Malick’s pictorial/narrative voice, and made The New World feel like a companion piece to the ensemble-narrated The Thin Red Line.

This re-cut version starts and ends narration in more conventionally sensible places, so that viewers can more easily link particular thoughts to particular characters at particular moments. As a result, the re-cut feels less like The Thin Red Line, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Wings of Desire, and other cosmically ruminative films, and more like Days of Heaven and Badlands, or perhaps a fusion of those films and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s still an interior/exterior journey film, a poetic/visceral spectacle, but one that’s more strongly anchored to three characters—John Smith, John Rolfe and Pocahantas—with brief detours into the minds of supporting players.

Is this a concession? I don’t think so. While preserving the essence of Malick’s Transcendental temperament, the re-cut gives The New World a compactness and forward motion that was missing (but not necessarily missed) in the previous edition.

Like the monoliths-as-evolutionary-stepping-stones trope in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Malick is Kubrick with a smile) and the journey upriver in Apocalypse Now, Pocahantas’ gradual transformation from Powhatan princess to corseted English wife gives this still-poetic film a strong but not-too-prosaic spine.

In this cut, Pocahantas’ evolution is at once plainer and more mysterious than before. We see ourselves more clearly in her story and in the stories of Smith and Rolfe, who adore her but can never really know her, much less possess her. The sense of Pocahantas-as-symbolic-representative-of-the-unspoiled-continent still comes through, but with a welcome caveat: Malick has etched Pocahantas more sharply as both a character and a symbol, and that makes both her private narrative and the larger, clash-of-civilizations story more moving. This version illustrates the central thesis of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “History”, which holds that all human history is encoded within, and replayed by, each individual life. Yet it’s still possible to enjoy The New World on less rarefied level, as one woman’s story, or as the story of a woman, two men and two worlds. This is a remarkable achievement.

To paraphrase Uhlich, in the first cut of The New World, Malick gave himself permission to leave the central narrative river and meander along particular branches that fascinated him; if he hit a dead end, he turned around and went back. This relaxed, ruminative, philosophical approach, coupled with Malick’s contrapuntal narration and his mix of documentary-style snippets and sinuous long takes, made The New World feel less like a story than an experience, a vibe, a particular way of thinking about history and drama. As Uhlich points out, Malick’s trims keep the movie flowing forward, always forward. There are still tributaries, but they pull you away from the main river more fleetingly and then drop you right back into the thick of it.

This seems a clear example of a great director giving up something important—that sense of time-and-space-suspended one-ness that he’s been chasing since 1973’s Badlands—so he can gain something even more important: momentum.

This cut’s muscular grace may seduce people who aren’t otherwise inclined to give Malick the time of day. Which means that Malick has not made a concession, but a smart aesthetic/tactical manuever, one I frankly wouldn’t have expected a bird-watching recluse to embrace with such gusto. This new New World is not a retreat, nor even a revision, just an alternate version—a more accessible but still daring work. And it will reportedly be joined on home video by a third version—a three-hour cut that presumably will let Malick indulge scratch his Transcendental itch without fear of exhibitor backlash.

For disciples of The New World, this is the best possible outcome. Chronology and creativity are rivers to Malick. He dips into them as deeply and as often as he wants. His art, like Pocahantas’ life, like the New World’s history, has no beginning, no end. It’s a rush of feeling.

At 9:30 p.m. on January 21, 2006, I sat in the upper reaches of the BAM theater, on the aisle near the back. The audience was a demographic mosaic: white folks in the row behind me, an African-American couple ahead of me, an Orthodox Jewish couple to my left, and just beyond them, a young Asian man.

From the instant the opening credits began and Malick began cutting between the English ships and the Powhatans gathered on the forested shore as the prelude to Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” rumbled to life, the crowd honored The New World with a gift rarely bestowed on any American blockbuster: their full attention.

A few people did get up and leave, but for the most part, they were people seated on the auditorium’s outward edges, people who could duck out without much disruption. They apologized as they left and apologized again upon their return. And then, summoning their humblest schoolchild-in-the-library whispers, they asked their seatmates what they’d missed.

It was so quiet in there that when a man at the bottom of the theater decided to remove his leather jacket midway through, people at the top of the theater could hear the leather creak.

As the film unreeled, and as the crowd’s viscerally overwhelmed response gave way to introspection and judgment, then hardened into private verdicts, one could feel crowd splitting into two camps: the spellbound and the doubtful.

About 90 minutes in, the man beside me took out his cellphone, which he’d silenced before the opening credits, and flipped it open so he could check the time on the illuminated faceplate. Ten minutes later, he took the phone out again, but the second he turned it on, his wife deftly grabbed the phone away from him, switched it off, then handed it back. She never stopped watching the screen.

When the film ended there was scattered applause—maybe a dozen people. Nothing like a unified verdict, to be sure, but still impressive, considering it came at the very end and could therefore not be written off as a purely physical response (as is the case with, say, the applause you hear during an action film setpiece). More significantly, the applause erupted at more or less the same instant, when the closing shot of the sun shining through tall treetops faded from the screen. The unconscious coordination of this response told me that these strangers—these disciples of The New World—had arrived at a similar emotional/intellectual place at the same instant.

I was one of those people. So was the fellow in front of me, who clapped louder than anyone in the theater. His companion stared at him, incredulous. “You clap for that?” she said, pointing to the screen. “You have to,” he replied, beaming. “It’s just beautiful.”

As I left the theater, I heard a young man behind me say to a friend, “That was incredible,” to which his friend replied, “I think there was too much gallavanting and cartwheel-turning.” Walking toward Flatbush Ave., I saw a sixtyish woman I recognized from the auditorium standing alone at the base of a stoplight, thinking.

Diversity of response isn’t prima facie evidence of a masterpiece, of course. It’s the minimum we should expect from a film that aspires to be more than a diversion. But as I look back on that evening, I am less struck by what happened afterward than by the audience’s behavior during the film. Whatever opinions they formed after the fact, while they watched The New World, they gave themselves to it. They knew this movie respected them, and they responded in kind.

I close with a few words from another American visionary, Willa Cather: “Miracles seem to me to rest not so much on faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but on our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what was there always.”

The New World is a miracle. I’m glad I’m alive to see it.

Previous posts inspired by The New World include:

“They Are All Equal Now” (on Barry Lyndon).

Live from Jamestown: The Oversoul (a quote from Emerson’s “History”)

5 for the Day: Contrapuntal narration (with particular emphasis on Malick)

Voices in Your Head (in which I attack Malick’s critics, and further explore his use of narration)

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:

Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that seems like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)

We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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