Synopsis – Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer from Colorado, successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan with the help of a white surrogate, who eventually becomes head of the local branch.
My Take – As has been the case with many great filmmakers, writer-director Spike Lee too has gained acclaim for his perspective, style and a vision that has been present in a career that has lasted for more than three decades. While he is often considered an inconsistent filmmaker, mainly as his films have often ranged from blazing hot to deeply flawed. But when he’s on form, he can really put on a show, like he does here, where he builds a timely political take on today’s leadership in Washington.
Backed by Get Out writer and director Jordan Peele, this film which won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes film festival, flawlessly draws stark comparisons with America of today and the turmoil of the early 1970s. Though the film is biographical in nature it has some fantastic storytelling. At various times it’s funny, dramatic, suspenseful, and provocative and often, it’s many things at once. But clearly, this is an expertly made film in every conceivable way. The acting, directing, writing, cinematography, editing, and music have all meshed together wonderfully to create one of the best films of the year (so far) and director Spike Lee should absolutely be commended executing everything so flawlessly.
Based on the non-fiction book titled ‘Black Klansman‘, the story follows Ron Stalworth (John David Washington), who back in 1972, became the first African American detective for the Colorado Springs police and like a lot of places at the time often faced prejudice from his fellow officers and is assigned to the records room. After requesting an assignment to go undercover at the local rally held by national civil rights leader, Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), a former Black Panther, and organized by Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of black student union, he finds himself reassigned to intelligence.
Upon stumbling on a recruitment ad for the local KKK chapter in the newspaper, Ron calls the number requesting to join, and given their on the phone, they have no idea he’s black. Smelling a bigger story here, Ron convinces the chief to allow his partner, Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a white Jewish detective to attend a meeting with the Klan members as Ron Stalworth to clarify his Caucasian race. He even manages to get David Duke (Topher Grace), the then-Grand Wizard, on the phone, engaging him in philosophical chats about the supposed superiority of the white race while the cops snigger and laugh. However things begin to escalate as the two stumble on a violent plot against Patrice Dumas and her union, which for some reason also happens to coincide with Duke’s visit to the city.
The film opens with the climax sequence of the classic Gone with the Wind, where we find Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara walking gracefully past the bodies of hundreds of wounded Confederate soldiers, as the camera pans to the charred, yet still waving, confederate flag, hereby setting the tone. Regardless of fact or fiction, director Spike Lee’s script utilizes the styles of both Blaxploitation and 1970’s crime thrillers to frame his story, while poking fun at the inherent fallacies of the former. As ingenious as it is aggressive, the film is without a doubt one of Spike Lee‘s best films in years and a solid commentary on society’s views on racism in America. As to be expected, director Lee does not hold back in showcasing the racial epithets and slang used against African Americans. However, he also chooses to juxtapose this with an extreme depiction of Black Nationalism in certain scenes, and this brings something of a balance to the overall story and makes it seem less biased.
Director Lee‘s films always are concerned with righting wrongs. Unafraid to call out racial prejudice, xenophobia, antisemitism, and homophobia, his cinematic statements (or as he calls them “joints”) deal with current issues and our continued repeating of past mistakes. The film uses a wide variety of common motifs in Spike Lee‘s films that enhance the story and the viewing experience considerably, and the two most protruding ideas are between the characters in the film, one being the conflict of Ron pursing the interest for his people as a cop, and Zimmerman being overburdened with the role of a white supremacist after all his life never being exposed to that mindset. They were very subtle, but a reminder of how urgent and relevant the conflict of civil rights still was after MLKs death. The film is tense, thrilling and distressing but above all, what you sense is director Lee’s palpable, unmistakable rage at where Americans find themselves in 2018.
An era in which a presidency has emboldened ugly and destructive attitudes to flourish, the same attitudes once driven into dark, dank corners, traded out for something resembling enlightenment and progress. Perhaps director Lee set out to make the polar opposite of D.W. Griffith‘s 1915 most controversial film The Birth of a Nation, and he has certainly crafted one of the most effective films of his oeuvre. He also nails a few jabs at Trump and the current political climate, while the music from Terrence Blanchard perfectly complements the tone. A low-budget look to the film gives it an authenticity and 1970’s vibe, and cinematographer Chayse Irvin works wonders with the camera in a multitude of situations where our attention should be on the dialogue of the characters rather than the colorfulness of set pieces.
The best parts of the film come whenever Ron has to phone in and interact with members of the Klan or David Duke. It’s comedic goal to see a group of people that hate a race only to be blindsided by a black man who takes this in complete joy. Director Lee uses Alec Baldwin to play a pro-segregation narrator who keeps fumbling and forgetting his lines, he is at his best with trenchant satire going down easily with a bit of humor. Though not perfect, for example the film is sometimes paced oddly and feels needlessly long. For example, director Lee hammer home his message at the film’s closing with some footage of last year’s march in Charlottesville and the sound bites from a certain political figure that followed. Some viewers may argue that this footage wasn’t needed. I think the film would work fine without it, but it certainly adds an extra punch.
While it can be argued that the film could have been enhanced by generally not reducing its depiction of KKK members to primarily cartoon stereotypes, but I would argue that this depiction actually helps director Lee‘s greater point about the true nature of the Klan. Director Spike Lee is such a virile storyteller, that you can’t help but get sucked in it all, and he has SO much to say. The film is at its savage best when putting in perspective the official holier-than-thou image of the white Americans, as Harry Belafonte cameos as the eye-witness of the beastly lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916.
The film also benefits greatly from the charming performances by its leads. Though he doesn’t look much like his father Denzel Washington, John Davis Washington does contain that same charisma and gives an interesting quirky performance here and nails it perfectly. Adam Driver too is fantastic as always. Laura Harrier has a breakout performance as Stallworth’s romantic interest, while Topher Grace surprises in his subtle role. In supporting roles, Robert John Burke, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ashlie Atkinson, Paul Walter Hauser, Frederick Weller, Corey Hawkins, Nicholas Turturro, Damaris Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr and Alec Baldwin are especially good. On the whole, ‘BlacKkKlansman’ is a powerful, inspiring, and funny stirring piece of contemporary cinema, which is not only one of the best films of the year, but also one of the most significant and most provocative films I have ever seen.
Directed – Spike Lee
Rated – R
Run Time – 135 minutes