An inspired Spike Lee is one of the best filmmakers of this or any other generation. BlacKkKlansman finds Lee fully honed in on message with one of the most timely, engaging and thought-provoking films of his career.
The premise is incredible and one of those legit stranger than fiction actual events. Detective Ron Stallworth infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK. More than the 70s-era clothing and music the concept is the biggest indicator of the timeframe. With Google and social media, Stallworth likely would have been found out in no time in 2018.
As the first black member of the police department, Ron (John David Washington) wants to make an impact. He knows the challenges and prejudices that await him both outside and inside the department. After spotting a klan recruitment ad, Ron decides to call it up. With surprising ease, he finds chapter leader Walter (Ryan Eggold, New Amsterdam) eager to add a new recruit. Only Felix (a fiery Jasper Pääkkönen) is suspicious of this too good to be true new guy.
Ron manages to convince two fellow officers, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, Patterson) and Jimmy (Michael Buscemi) to aid him in his operation. Flip poses as Ron for in-person meetings while Ron sets up the encounters over a series of phone calls and becoming phone BFFs with Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).
Washington has appeared in a handful of films, but after this performance he seems destined to be a major headliner for the next decade or two. Maybe he won’t win, but Washington definitely deserves to be in the mix for Best Actor nominations.
It’s hard not to hear him at times and not envision his father, Denzel Washington, using the exact same inflection or mannerisms. This isn’t a Denzel impersonation by any means, but if there was any actor to naturally pattern oneself after, John David Washington couldn’t have had better inspiration.
While stringing along the klan, Ron becomes enamored with Patrice (Laura Harrier, Spider-Man: Homecoming), a passionate student leader.
Lee doesn’t do a lot of his signature shots here — his most iconic is reserved for a timely moment near the final act — but he utilizes pop-ups, split screens among other tricks to great effect. Maybe the film’s strongest scene features a tremendous intercut with a klan induction ceremony while black students sit transfixed before elder Jerome (Harry Belafonte in a dynamic cameo) as he vividly describes a lynching. It’s a powerful moment in a film filled with chilling and riveting scenes.
Lee co-wrote the script with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott. It’s a sharp one with wit and biting social commentary to spare. Even with the serious topic, the script is very funny. There’s some beautifully subtle shade thrown to the current White House administration and the mindset that led to it.
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Identity politics are a key subplot as Flip has to confront his habit of ignoring his Jewish heritage. Driver has a killer scene that should be the clip heavily cited for his Best Supporting Actor nomination bid. Ron also finds himself at a unique crossroads as a black man who is also a police officer forced to consider if he’s betraying his race.
I loved how much of a clown the film portrays Duke. Like Hitler, I’m on board with every take on that goof no matter how cartoonish and inaccurate. Overall, the klan are written like a bunch of ignorant, impotent morons that manage to bump their heads together long enough to come up with something dangerous. But like Wil. E Coyote, their scheming rarely amounts to much besides a fittingly hilarious payoff.
The script also takes aim at the role of some white women who happily stoke the fans of racism in hopes of getting a pat on their head from their husbands only to be dismissed when the men talk. From a modern lens, the script tackles the complexities of feminism when it’s weaponized only for the benefit and celebration of white women.
Despite the heavy racial theme, Lee gives adequate time to the romance between Ron and Patrice. It’s the kind of relationship worth getting invested as Patrice and Ron continually challenge each other. This is a terrific example of iron sharpening iron with black men and women.
One weird aspect of the film is the casting of Nicholas Turturro, who plays klansman Walker. Turturro has been a semi-regular in Lee’s projects, but this role seemed like a poor fit. It’s not specified where Italians fit in the pure-bred klan mentality, but it’s a distracting casting choice when Turturro could have easily played other characters.
In what’s sadly become a trend with films from 40 to 50 years ago, the similarities to modern times is scary. When Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, Straight Outta Compton) addresses black college students and speaks on police officers gunning down young black men it still rings true.
Lee both offers a feel-good conclusion to Ron’s arc before winding the film down with a sobering reminder that there’s still so much more work to be done. Black KkKlansman is another film worthy of adding in the upper tier of Spike Lee Joints and is one of 2018’s can’t miss movies.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Focus Features