BlacKkKlansman and all the images you see in this review are owned by Focus Features
Directed by Spike Lee
There’s a lot going on right now and as much as I’d honestly like to take a step back from the heavier subject matter to focus on terrible horror films and laughable thrillers, well… there’s a bigger story that needs to be told and at the very least I can try to stay engaged with the films that are being made because of it. Fortunately the films this year that faced issues of racism, white supremacy, privilege, and state sponsored oppression have been pretty great so far with The First Purge being a worth addition to one of the best film series we have today, Sorry to Bother You feeling like the kind of gonzo shot in the arm film making that will inspire others to think outside the standard feature film model, and Blindspotting being a supremely empathetic examination that’s palatable and poignant for any audience member. However, it’s time for the king to return to his throne as Spike Lee has spent his entire career (barring Oldboy) speaking on these very issues that the rest of Hollywood is just catching up to and is now throwing their weight behind these artists. Did Spike Lee make the definitive film of our turbulent times, or has his style gotten tiresome in the face of newer voices in his political circle? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the strange yet true story of Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who joined the Colorado Springs police force in the seventies and not long after joining the force started a sting operation against the KKK in the area. With the help of a fellow cop Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) he managed to impersonate a white supremacists over the phone while Flip would pretend to be him in person; a plan that was so successful that they even managed to dupe KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) who had several conversations with Ron never realizing he was in fact black. As the investigation goes along though, things start to get complicated as certain members of the Colorado chapter of the KKK start to suspect their newest recruit, and Ron start to find it hard to live not only a double life as a fake white man, but also the dichotomy of being a black man and a police officer in that period of time; especially when he starts falling for the President of the Black Student Union Patrice (Laura Harrier) who is just as militant against white systems of power as Ron is determined to use his position in said system to take the KKK down a peg. Will Ron and Flip manage to stop the KKK from whatever it is they’re planning without getting caught in the crossfire themselves? How far will the KKK members go to assert themselves as a threat to be taken seriously, and who do they plan to hurt in the process? Just how many white people jokes can Ron get away with before David Duke becomes suspicious!?
I’ll admit that I’m no expert on the guy’s filmography and catching up on it is my number one(ish) priority after seeing this film. Is it better than other films like it that we’ve gotten this year? Honestly no as it meanders around a bit too much and has a few problems that tie back to this being BASED ON A TRUE STORY, but it’s still a really great movie and manages to find a new angle in the current political zeitgeist and its own unique voice that only Spike Lee could bring to it. It’s not quite up there with Chiraq which might be my favorite film from the guy (and feels a bit like a precursor to Sorry to Bother You in terms of tone and style), but this is very much the right movie for the right time and feels like a culmination of his particular style as well as the messages in his previous work, or at least of the films of his that I’ve seen; Bamboozled in particular feeling quite influential in a great scene about how media can shape toxic beliefs and how Birth of a Nation was influential in the revival of the KKK. There’s so much going on in this movie and while not ALL of it quite fits together with some elements feeling a bit underutilized, it’s still a fantastic experience and is a perfect reminder of why Spike Lee is so revered as a filmmaker even if he’s had a few missteps along the way.
This movie works primarily in two ways. First, it’s a genuinely good buddy cop film that mixes in some high tension set pieces with comedic back and forth banter in a way that complements and bring out the best in one another, and alot of it has to do with our two stars Adam Driver and John David Washington who have very solid chemistry and also approaching their roles in decidedly different ways. Adam Driver mostly takes a back seat development wise so that he can play the straight-man doing his job, but he also manages to get a lot of the more nerve wracking sequences that give him a lot of range to work with dramatically; finding a perfect mix of frightened, professional, irritated, and disarmingly funny in service of staying alive which works so well that when he DOES have something approaching a deep personal response to something, it makes it all the more compelling to watch. John David Washington on the other hand may not have as many close calls with violence (outside of one REALLY great moment towards the end), but he’s also the character who grows throughout this journey which I honestly wasn’t really expecting based on the trailers. Now I didn’t expect him to go without ANY development, but the way the trailers are cut show him as an unflappable badass who right off the bat knows exactly what to do and shows up everyone in the department. That would have been COOL, but it’s really not the case here as he’s a genuine rookie who has to learn the ropes and manages to mostly stumble his way through the start of this investigation; coming up with it because no one else seems to even realize how good of an idea it is, but making obvious mistakes that Adam Driver has to correct him on as the more seasoned of the two. While it does mean the first act is a bit slower than I would have liked, it means that he gets to act more like a person with conflicts and gaps in his experiences which works a lot better for the kind of movie this is. It’s not just about dunking on the KKK (of which there is still plenty of) but about Ron trying to square his own identity as a black man and a police officer in such a turbulent time; to the point that Spike Lee basically sits us down for two extended lectures, but they’re pretty good lectures and you honestly have to kind of expect that from a movie so politically charged.
In relation to that aspect of the movie however, I’m a bit… unsure of what Spike Lee wants us to think of Ron Stallworth and the police system that he chooses to defend; especially contrasted with Patrice’s more militant and hard line perspective. Now considering how his most famous movie Do The Right Thing ended with the brutal murder of a black man by police, I would have guessed that he would have been on Patrice’s side and had a much more pessimistic view of the mission and its outcome, but for the most part it’s played really straight. I don’t know I could be projecting my OWN feelings onto the screen but from a story telling and cinematic standpoint, there’s very little criticism of a WELL FUNCTIONING police department. There are absolutely scenes in this movie that point to the systemic issues at play (the way bad behavior is tolerated and the shifting of priorities from people higher than them in the department), but there’s no denying that Ron’s investigation and the actions that the police take in this movie prevent some seriously bad things from happening. Heck, even the BAD COPTM is so over the top and ultimately gets a Hollywood style comeuppance that I’m almost inclined to think he’s being intentionally… I don’t even know, subversive I guess? It’s certainly an interesting question to ponder as cops are often used as tools of oppression (look at how they treat White Supremacists vs the way they treat Antifa in the last few years) yet many people benefit from their presence and they can do lots of good when the right people are there (people like Ron), but I don’t feel that Spike Lee really engaged with that part of the story; opting to instead focus on the KKK as an entity that exists almost separately from existing power structures. He wasn’t the only writer on this and I’m sure the story is somewhat restrained by it being based on something that actually happened, but there are some obvious dots that could have been connected here yet aren’t, though before you start to think this movie is toothlessly going after easy targets, it manages to end on one heck of a strong and unflinchingly dark note.
The second way that this movie works is in how densely layered the political commentary is and how it relates to modern times to the point that a lot of the big laughs in this movie are also the moments where you cringe the most because everything they are saying here is DIRECTLY connected to current day events; so much so that it’s an impressive feat of script writing like if they had done it all in rhyme or made every sentence start with the next letter in the alphabet. Then again, history does have a tendency to repeat itself (especially when textbooks and schools can downplay certain unpalatable moments in our history) and it’s not as shocking as it should be that David Duke has been spouting the same garbage for the last forty years. Dude never had to change up his act because every generation has plenty of people who will fall for the same tired rhetoric about who founded this country, semantic arguments about defining racism, and blah blah blah. I’ve heard all this crap before which is really deflating if you think about it. We know who these people are in our current political landscape and this movie points a finger straight at them while directly linking them to the KKK and their gaudy yet still unnerving adherence to these toxic beliefs and the accoutrements surrounding it. Back then it was hoods, nowadays it’s Kekistan, Pepe, and faux -military regalia. All the actors in the KKK do a fantastic job of portraying this sense of insecurity and rage beneath layers of smarmy rhetoric and American middle class superiority, but Topher Grace is the standout as David Duke and honestly the guy does not get enough credit for how well he can play slimy douchebags. People used to hate the guy for that and yet it’s his greatest strength as an actor!
What MIGHT be the greatest trick he pulls in this movie though is the way he decides to end it. There’s sort of a wrap up and a few moments of catharsis as things wind down, but the movie cuts off at an uncomfortably unresolved moment and then smashes us right to modern day with actual footage of the Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville Virginia back in 2017. Instead of wrapping up the subplots and giving us a satisfying conclusion to Ron’s story, he instead confronts us with the real world where much of what happened in this movie continues to happen to this day; including footage of David Duke who’s clearly elated at the results of the rally despite the fact that the movie itself left him on a rather defeated note. To a certain extent, it feels a lot like the Hannah Gadsby special Nanette which was an uncomfortable yet rather enlightening examination of standup comedy and the numbing effect that conveying everything in the form of a joke can have on those hearing the stories and those telling them. Spike Lee clearly made a Hollywood style movie with a solid (if a bit wonky) three act structure, heroes and villains, character arcs, and even a few booms thrown in to make it all the more palatable; but that’s not the real world. As much as he addresses important issues facing us today and how these are still the same problems we were fighting forty years ago, the unreality of it being a movie with special effects, sound tracks, and Spike Lee trick photography can be somewhat stifling to the ultimate message which makes the real life footage crashing its way into the finale so important and necessary to get across the deathly seriousness of the situation. The unspoken bond beyond audience and filmmaker is broken in those last few minutes and it NEEDED to be broken.
To bring this to somewhat of a personal place, I live within a REASONABLE(ish) distance from Charlottesville and in fact had to see this movie at the Alamo Drafthouse there because no one closer was showing it. When walking in, there was a sign on the front desk that gave a warning about the ending of the film and how it could be disturbing to residents. I scoffed at it naturally because it came off as WHITE APOLOGETICS; i.e. don’t hurt our feelings TOO much Mr. Lee, but after seeing the movie there IS a grain of truth to that sign. Seeing the footage at the very end of the movie on the big screen should honestly be shocking to anyone even if you follow the news and were aware of what happened there, but for me it REALLY hit me when I suddenly realized… I know EXACTLY where that happened. I know that road where Heather Heyer was murdered and many others were injured. I had walked that road several times as I went to see movies at the Violent Crown whenever their show times fit better than Alamo’s. I knew about the rally, I knew about Heather Heyer, and I try to be as aware of current events as possible, and yet this movie still managed to show me something that shook me. Maybe having that physical proximity to the event or having such an obvious gap in my knowledge made it hit a lot harder than it will for other people, but I genuinely hope that there will be SOME out there who have a realization during this movie about just how important these issues are and why so many people are fighting. It’s ALSO no coincidence that this film opened mere days from the anniversary of the Unite the Right rally, and I hope that this will be a thorn in those asshole’s sides as they try to recreate the perfect storm of garbage a year later. Even if the film doesn’t have a seismic impact on the world, even for this one week, it’s still important that films aiming to fit squarely in the current conversation continue to get made and that filmmakers put themselves on the right side of history. Spike Lee’s been doing it his entire career, and while I can’t really say how successful he’s been as I’ve only seen a handful of his movies, I’m glad he’s still out there making movies and giving as much of a voice as he can to those who are oppressed.
The movie isn’t perfect and I never really got into it’s kind of lethargic pace and the way the film doesn’t have much flow in terms of its investigation (it’s not that easy to pinpoint just how much progress they made in any given scene or how much time has passed), but really those are small concerns in a movie that’s this good and vital right now. Hopefully you already saw Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting which would make this an incredibly obvious choice for you to see, but I’m guessing this one is gonna hit a bit more of a mainstream audience which means that you’ll probably have a better shot catching this in theaters if you couldn’t find a way to see those other two. The pacing issues kind of bring it down to just below the level of those films, but we’re talking about a VERY high bar already and I doubt many more movies will reach that high even as we enter Oscar season. Heck, the dude still only has an Honorary Academy Award (whatever the heck that means), so maybe this will be his year! He can share the stage with Black Panther when they get THEIR made up NOT AN ACTUAL AWARD award!!