SHOULD I SEE IT?
Different than you may be anticipating, Spike Lee has crafted a powerful, engaging, witty, and sobering look at race relations in our past, our present, and in our future.
Expertly cast, with tremendous work from all involved, including a star-making turn from John David Washington in the leading role.
Blends comedy, suspense, uncomfortable history, and stark reality into a film that truly stands apart and reminds us that when Spike Lee is on his game, there are few who are better.
In all honesty, this can be an uncomfortable watch. Precise and direct, BlacKkKlansman is not confrontational, as much as it is blunt. Some will not appreciate this.
Some have felt that Lee’s decision on how to end the film make this little more than Michael Moore-style propaganda. Nothing could be further from the truth, in all honesty, but I suppose if you look for things, eventually you will find them.
Don’t make me say it.
In one of 2018’s most unforgettable movie moments, from Spike Lee’s visceral and powerful BlacKkKlansman, Harry Belafonte, portraying civil rights activist Jerome Turner, shares the story of a young black man who was attacked, beaten, lynched, and then burned in public in 1916.
His audience? Members of the Black Student Union at Colorado State University. Though Lee’s new film takes place in the late 1970’s, and Turner’s story precedes the film’s events by multiple decades, for all intents and purposes, time is of no relevance when listening to the 91-year-old Belafonte share such a heart-stopping and gutwrenching tale.
Cross-cutting back-and-forth from Belafonte’s speech, we observe an induction ceremony for new members of the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, overseen by then-current Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace). Under one of the hoods is Flip Zimmerman, a/k/a Ron Stallworth (Adam Driver), an undercover detective gaining intel for the local police on the chapter’s actions and plans to resurrect their presence in the community. Flip’s pseudonym comes from the real Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), whose dark skin allows him to direct, manage, and oversee the operation, but forces his light-skinned colleague to be the white iteration of Ron, infiltrating the organization.
Intercutting between the two scenes and ending them with both organizations individually unified in chants of solidarity is vintage Spike Lee. If these moments feel heavy-handed and on-the-nose, then perhaps you have either never seen a “Spike Lee Joint,” or do not care for his particular approach to storytelling.
BlackKklansman is full of moments like this, with Lee drawing consistent parallels and observations between race relations in new and intriguing ways. His source material comes from the real-life story of Stallworth, who responded to a Klan ad in the local newspaper (!?!), used a pseudo-white man’s voice, and suddenly had an “in” with a local Klan organizer (Ryan Eggold). Of course, using his real name proved problematic (“Who does that?” asks his colleagues), and Flip agrees to go undercover, though Jewish, to carry out the dangerous ruse.
Washington (yes, Denzel’s son) is remarkably poised and accomplished for his first starring role. With his rounded afro and fashion-forward looks, Stallworth is naïve, green, over his head, but has always wanted to be a cop. This serves in stark contrast with the increased volatility and frequency of brutal encounters between police and African-Americans in the 1960’s and 70’s, a reality that fuels the activist engine of Patrice (Laura Harrier), a fictionalized character loosely modeled after civil rights activist Angela Davis.
Stallworth meets and falls for Patrice, but has to hide his identity. And for much of BlacKkKlansman’s running time, a bit long in the tooth at 135 minutes, deception and hidden truths define everyone’s actions, either out of necessity, fear, or trepidation.
Combining occasional macabre humor with moments of sheer intensity, Lee’s balancing act of absurdist comedy and jaw-dropping truth and suspense somehow fits together perfectly. A cameo from Alec Baldwin, as white supremacist leader Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, narrating a short film where he consistently commits bloopers and mistakes while spouting dangerous, scripted hate speech, lulls us in with uncomfortable laughter, before we realize that any number of people watching his video will accept it, consume it, and regurgitate it out to their colleagues and hood-wearing peers.
Earlier this year, Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You was an increasingly bonkers, but deeply emotional look at white privilege, unionization, and how race inequity is ingrained throughout numerous elements of our society. Riley may have gone full science-fiction by the third act and shocked and confused a fair number of ticket buyers, but he found an innovative way to get people talking about topical and important issues.
Oscar winner Jordan Peele (a producer on Lee’s film) positioned his social commentary of 2017’s Get Out through the lens of a Cabin-in-the-Woods-style horror movie premise, but his observations of nuanced, institutional racism struck a chord with audiences across multiple demographics.
This past spring, Childish Gambino, the hip-hop nom de plume of actor/musician Donald Glover, reminded us how powerful the art form of the music video can be, when he confronted us with a visual encyclopedia of images, commentary, and stereotypes in his “This Is America” song and short film.
Spike Lee has been the provocateur, the bratty punk kid brushed aside as just starting trouble. He shocked audiences with a black-and-white rumination on female sexuality in his debut film She’s Gotta Have It. He followed that up with, arguably one of the greatest films of all time, Do the Right Thing, which culminated in a controversial, polarizing final act people still discuss and debate today.
Since then, Lee has undoubtedly stumbled at times, but has also left us with incredible films to discuss and reflect upon. When Spike Lee is on, few are better at captivating an audience and he is laser-focused here, every action having a purpose, every conflict challenging us to look for a proper resolution. BlacKkKlansman puts the powder keg in the middle of the room and lets you stare at it. No one wants it to explode, but inevitably, you know that it likely will.
Once the film’s narrative reaches its conclusion, after Lee has taken some notable liberties with wrapping up Stallworth’s story, and the costumes, production design, Terence Blanchard’s 1970’s-tinged jazz score, and vintage cars and homes have transported us back to the ‘70s, we realize that BlacKkKlansman arrives in theaters one year after a Unite the Right rally took over Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in a young woman’s death and many others injured.
Lee shares with us our current President’s infamous “both sides” comments from a post-Charlottesville press conference, in a moving but visceral epilogue, and it is perhaps no accident that he opens the film with Baldwin’s cartoonish cameo at the beginning. Having won an Emmy for portraying Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live,” Baldwin may be playing someone completely different here, but the bookending of “two Trumps” is likely not by mistake.
BlacKkKlansman warns us that, as we laugh and placate ourselves with complacency, numbness or disassociation from reality only underscores the fact that the story Harry Belafonte tells us is as real in 1916, as it was in the 1970’s, and as it can easily become true, at any moment, anywhere in our country, more than 100 years later.
CAST & CREW
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jasper Paakonen, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Paul Walter Hauser, Ryan Eggold, Michael Buscemi, Ashlie Atkinson, Robert John Burke, Ken Garito, Frederick Weller, Nicholas Turturro.
Director: Spike Lee
Written by: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Adapted from the novel “Black Klansman” by Ron Stallworth
Release Date: August 10, 2018