Directed by Spike Lee
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Hauser, Corey Hawkins, Robert John Burke, Michael Buscemi, Jasper Pääkkönen, Harry Belafonte, Ashlie Atkinson, Craig muMs Grant, and Alec Baldwin.
Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer from Colorado, successfully managed to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan and became the head of the local chapter.
There is a rather on-the-nose joke early in BlacKkKlansman as Colorado Springs’ first recruited African-American officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, who is actually the son of Denzel Washington and a Spike Lee regular but here is in his first major starring role and exuding many of the same body language tics and well-spoken mild-mannered demeanor of his papa) is prepping to go further undercover into the Ku Klux Klan. Ron is initially convinced that the hate group is all arrogant talk and unlikely to resort to physical violence, to which a co-worker replies that he is very naïve for a black man (especially at this point in time and place during the 70s). The conversation uses that humorous retort to then crack jokes regarding how surely no one as racist as KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (convincingly portrayed here by Topher Grace in a performance that will ensure you’re never able to watch That 70s Show the same way again) could ever become President of the United States of America.
In most movies, this would feel like reaching for the low-hanging fruit and induce rolling eyes, but here it’s as necessary as the opening infomercial by Alec Baldwin encouraging new KKK recruits and proclaiming white supremacy as a vehicle to appropriately express all of the warranted outrage that is quaking through director Spike Lee’s head. Based on some “fo’ real, fo’ real shit” (the book by the real Ron Stallworth detailing the dangerously zany sting operation, adapted for the screen by multiple writers and Spike Lee himself), the revered filmmaker employs a blaxploitation vibe mixed with historical accuracy, and the resulting concoction is uncomfortably funny, wildly entertaining, but above all else it is a scathing treatment of how, embarrassingly for society, little has changed.
If anything, America has regressed accounting for the pre-credits footage showcasing Donald Trump’s defense of the events in Charlottesville that cuts between his idiotic statements and horrifying imagery; it’s the kind of anger-invoking raw look at senseless real-world violence that squashes every ounce of “fun” (a term I use loosely because while much of the outrageous racist rhetoric depicted is the awkward brand of comedy meant to elicit laughter as a defense mechanism for how unsettling their behavior is) to be had bearing witness to this crazy investigation. In an instant, my emotions went from enjoyment of an oddball, tonally playful expose of the KKK to seething and uncontained frustration at the state of the country. However, amidst all this rightfully pissed off lambasting of evil, the final message of many is simple and one most needed right now; there is no room for hate.
Obviously, the brunt of the criticism is lobbied at right wing values and the KKK itself, but it also appears that Spike Lee has a few issues to take up against the other side, mainly with Ron’s budding love interest played by Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s Laura Harrier, a radical political activist associated with the Black Panthers helping spread a message of uprising and preparation for a possible race war. To them, there’s a revolution coming and black liberation is of the utmost importance, but (and maybe this is also just my personal opinion clouding judgment) she’s also an unreasonably cynical woman failing to accept that progress can be accomplished even with the milestone of having an African-American on the force. Nope, no matter what, they are all pigs. Keep in mind that I’m not necessarily calling her character irritating (the harassment she consistently faces allows her viewpoints to be understandable), but Spike Lee is more concerned with desiring the end of hate than fueling fires and preaching a never-ending nightmare.
Regardless, BlacKkKlansman also exquisitely functions as a complex juxtaposition of the difference between black power and white power. Not only does Ron communicate with the Klansmen over the phone, but his Jewish partner/friend Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver who continues to turn in excellent performances working with different legendary directors every time) serves as the in-person undercover version (Ron has a formal voice and is able to easily pass for having a “white voice”). Initially, Flip is accused of being Jewish, leading to a number of derogatory insults and stunts intended to ascertain the truth. It’s enough to get him contemplating his beliefs and religion for the first time despite never really practicing them in-depth, adding a layer to the character that viewers disconnected but technically a part of some faith will be able to relate to and find some meaning in.
Getting back to my original point, black power is presented as rising up against oppression whereas white power is a repugnant indulgence in ugly feelings of superiority and maintaining control over anyone not considered pure. One fascinating contrast is of an elderly African-American speaker recounting a disturbing act of abuse and torture, cutting back and forth between David Duke performing a ceremonial initiation on the Klan’s newest members. A group listens in disgust and shock while the other belly-laughs at the open racism found in The Birth of a Nation; it’s beyond uncomfortable.
Aesthetically, Spike Lee embraces a blaxploitation appearance, complete with a catchy guitar-riffing theme, KKK recruitment videos subtly giving Alec Baldwin a visual representation to Satan himself, the look and sound of a film from the 70s, and some other bold directorial choices. However, it never jumps the shark into escapism, which only hardens this sledgehammer blow of an experience. Admittedly, at over 2 hours the proceedings can occasionally feel repetitive as some scenes are aimless and only about throwing up more racist interactions, and while actors ranging from Ryan Eggold and Paul Walter Hauser are perfectly game at going for broke presenting these people as unlikable and downright dumb as possible, not every moment is necessary.
Those are just minor quibbles; complex characters and all around incredible performances from a terrific ensemble coupled with the sharpest direction of Spike Lee’s career since Do the Right Thing make BlacKkKlansman one of the best films, and certainly the most important of the year. It’s rare that a movie is both this fun yet simultaneously elicits flat-out rage. If at times some of the KKK’s actions feel overblown and exaggerated, the present day footage at the back end of the film will shut you right up.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com