Spike Lee clearly has the role of history on his mind in BlacKkKlansman, his most potent and provocative work in years. Of course that past includes the true (if embellished for the film) story of Ron Stallworth, a real-life Colorado Springs police detective who in the 1970s spearheaded an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan, complete with even going undercover himself. But it also pertains to our larger and painfully continuing history of not only racial hatred and subjugation, but the importance of media at large, and cinema in particular, in that oppression.
Opening on one of the most famous scenes in motion picture history, the moment in Gone with the Wind where Scarlett O’Hara realizes the Southern “cause” is lost, BlacKkKlansman announces it has on its mind the importance of fiction and art in manipulating and even devastating American life. After all, it was a Hollywood movie, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, that rejuvenated the KKK in the 20th century, and it is that same neo-Confederate propaganda Lee juxtaposes in BlacKkKlansman’s most chilling moment: New initiates in David Duke’s heinous organization cheerfully watching Griffith’s silent love letter to the Klan, as Harry Belafonte is highlighted in a crosscut recounting to college students memories of a disabled black man being tortured to death in the street by white neighbors high on Hollywood’s first blockbuster.
At its best, Spike’s new joint embraces this ongoing conversation between art and culture, race and propaganda, to speak of the persistent malignancy in American life that has manifested itself from the fringes of David Duke to the mainstream of Donald Trump. As such his film is angry, disparate, and for the first time in ages for the filmmaker, unconcerned with making its conflicting emotions congeal. It wants to capture the wide range of human experience, from comedy to drama, and joy to tragedy, that Lee feels in Trump’s America… all while tracing its ugly lineage back to a time when even the film’s lead black character scoffs at the idea of a David Duke-type ever becoming president. Lee is using his artistic vision of the past to denounce the kind of art that’s so emboldened the Klan and their ilk for the past hundred years.
Set in deceptively sunny and chipper Colorado Springs mountain air, BlacKkKlansman’s Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) joins the local police department with a determined, but mostly unspoken goal of changing the system from within. There are some words from the gruff police chief (Robert John Burke) about making Ron the “Jackie Robinson” of the department, complete with him having to endure harassment from his colleagues with a silent acceptance, but neither Ron nor Spike Lee are interested in letting this become that kind of story. Rather quickly, Ron is able to talk his way into the department’s undercover intelligence division, getting a little by giving a little when he agrees to wear a wire to a Kwame Ture speech, and then begins his real ambition—to use the police system to try and improve life for the African American community.
That aspiration includes cold calling the Klan and convincing the self-proclaimed “organization” that he has what they’re looking for: the ability to use every racial slur on the books circa 1972. Sure enough they want to meet, and will even arrange through KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), a membership card. There’s only one problem; Ron isn’t exactly what they’re looking for as the face of their organization. Hence his roping in of Det. Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go undercover as “Ron Stallworth,” the newest white knight eager to prepare for a coming race war. But the fact Zimmerman is himself Jewish makes this extraordinarily dangerous, considering he’s hanging out with anti-Semitic bozos with shotguns. And they’re taking a real unhealthy interest in the local black college activists in their town too…
From its opening title card, where BlacKkKlansman announces it’s based on “Some fo’ real, fo’ real shit,” the latest Spike Lee joint is embracing its own artifice to play on tonal elements that are designed to clash. Despite very quickly and visibly being about outrageous injustice in American life, the movie can also be often hilariously playful and occasionally poetic. Dividing its stylings and musings to adjust within whichever “group” and inherent subculture it is set in, Lee is manipulating separate energies that intentionally will cause whiplash when they meet.
The most intriguing contrast is of course between the police department and the Klan itself, and the murmured echoes therein. While Ron’s place of work is introduced with a procedural like sense of precision and understated dispassion, complete with the requisite but honest scene of a co-worker calling him a racial slur or knocking papers from his hands, the police procedural is what you might most expect from this kind of story. And yet, the film finds real dark humor and delicious comedy while reveling in the stupidity of the Klan’s rank and file.
Other than one particularly mean bastard named Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), most of the recruiters that Zimmerman is forced to contend with, while the real Ron listens in over a wire, are buffoons. Repugnant in their empty-headed ignorance and racism, they’re initially meant to be scoffed at. Yet a scene where Felix takes Zimmerman into his basement to take a lie detector test—horrified at the thought of a Jewish man stepping foot in his home—is the warning sign that this is really a low-key horror movie. The incompetence that Lee rightly treats as a punchline can still kill you, and David Duke’s dream of a fellow traveler in the White House shouldn’t be dismissed with a laugh.
The film converges all of these elements into an intense if needlessly messy third act. This is unfortunately most due to an underserved third atonal island in the film, which involves Ron’s romancing of the local university activist leader, Patrice (Laura Harrier). Introduced in one of the film’s strongest sequences, the scenes with Patrice and Ron let formality down and embrace the kind of visual lyricism that first made a Lee joint so distinct. During Kwame Ture’s early speech to students, a passionate Corey Hawkins portrays the activist galvanizing his onscreen audience and moviegoers alike. The film takes on a poet’s grandiosity, cross-dissolving the faces of black men and women who’ve been raised in a white culture that has told them in their media (and their movies) they’re not beautiful. They are not supposed to be the face of America.
Of course they are. And in moments like this, or the students singing along at a bar to the Cornelius Bros & Sister Rose, the film’s elegiac tenor is its strongest. However, as a whole, these narrative strands ultimately fall by the wayside when next to the driving momentum of the humor and then the dread of Ron and Flip getting in deeper with the KKK. The film also delves too neatly into wish fulfillment during a denouement that plays more like cinematic comfort food, as opposed to an acknowledgement of a grim reality that has infuriated its storytellers. At least until the very final montage… which is basically a documentary of how this bigotry has survived and thrived from Colorado Springs to Charlottesville.
Read the Den of Geek SDCC 2018 Special Edition Magazine Here!
The journey to that moment, and its final sobering exclaimation point, cannot be denied, including Flip’s own conversion from apathetic partner, and non-practicing Jew, to believer in his identity when he’s forced to celebrate the Holocaust with his newfound buddies. His epiphany is meant to mirror our current one, as reevaluating heritage and history proves vital when confronted with an ugly distortion of it—which is the KKK’s version, best personified by a movie like Birth of a Nation, a film that President Woodrow Wilson is alleged to have said is “history written by lightning.”
BlacKkKlansman summons its own lightning in return, creating a stormy maelstrom of ambitions and justified shocks of rage. Topher Grace’s smiling, used car salesman smarm might be amusing at first, as is Washington’s pitch perfect ability to keep an even-keel of pleasantry above a tempest’s rage, but the menace of what Duke is peddling, and how far it has gotten in 2018, means all these narrative pieces can and will be swept aside by a filmmaker’s larger need to fight back.
When the winds are behind him in BlacKkKlansman’s best scenes, the results can be electrifying.