- Movie Rating -

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

| August 11, 2018

There was once a time when the release of a new Spike Lee joint came with a set of expectations.  You knew that a new film by this most inflammatory of American directors would not only piss you off but would challenge your perceptions about the uneasy American racial landscape.  He looked it dead in the eye and saw it in the cold light of day to such a degree that some accused him of being racist himself. Nonsense of course; what you took away from the film was entirely up to you.  He has never been a director who was out to curry your favor, he presents America simply as he sees it and leaves it to the viewer to take away from it what they will.

For the past decade or so, that point of view seems to have slipped away.  Lee, from this critic’s perspective, recently seems to have been treading safer waters.  Once we got brilliant but difficult films like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X but recently we’ve been getting more mainstream stuff like Inside Man and Miracle at St. Anna.  Of course, Lee has the right to make whatever film that he wants but those of us who were teenagers when he was at his height miss the salad days.

From its description BlacKkKlansman seems to promise a bit of the old Spike Lee, and to a certain degree that’s what we get here, but something is revealed here as well.  Lee is older, wiser and seemingly a much more thoughtful filmmaker.  The times have changed but the issues have not.  Do the Right Thing was released 29 years ago in the midst of racial problems that would be sparked by the beating of Rodney King, the murder of Latasha Harlens and the acquittal of O.J. Simpson.  BlacKkKlansman arrives in the wake of similar problems in Ferguson and Charlottesville but he takes an unexpected standpoint that, if you know Lee’s work, comes as a bit of a surprise.

BlacKkKlansman takes us backwards some 40 years to the early 1970s and is an illustration that, in racial terms, America has progressed in a lot of ways but that it still has a long way to go.  Using the template of a police procedural hefted upon a true story that Lee qualifies as “fo’ real fo’ real shit.”  The events take place at a crucial moment in American history, after the murder of MLK, the rise of the Black Panther party, and just as the country was having to deal with the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement.

Times are tough, and in this difficult atmosphere Ron Stallings (John David Washington, son of Denzel) becomes the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs Police department.  Physically, he’s a challenge to the all-white (and all-male) police boy’s club.  His skin is blacker than black.  He has a defiant posture and he sports a shockingly geometric afro that almost seems designed to aggravate whitey on-sight.  Yet, when he speaks, he sounds like history professor.  His delivery sounds like he has filtrated out every piece of bad grammar and ghetto-cool inflection from his speech.  In other words, he never gives anyone a reason to think that he’s “typical,” and yet every reason to think he’s “typical.”  During an interview with several older snickering white police officers he’s asked questions that are shockingly racist, yet his answers are straight forward and unaffected.

With this, Ron understands that he must be a warrior both on the job and in life.  He must not be defined by the taunts of his co-workers who look down on him and degrade him with words.  The insanity of being in such a bizarre state of racial irregularity is matched by his desire to work undercover.  Sick of being hidden away in the file room, he boldly requests an upgrade and offers his services at taking down the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, which is suspected of planning a terrorist assault.

Now, the obvious question: how is a black man going to infiltrate the Klan?  Well, that’s where the double-switch comes in and, in truth, where the movie gets brilliant.  In a telephone conversation, Ron mistakenly gives the Klan officiate his real name.  Now, he needs someone to be the actual face of Ron Stallings in order to infiltrate the group.  Enter: Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) a tall, rough-looking fellow cop who turns out to be surprisingly adept at thinking on his feet in a tight situation.  Flip infiltrates the Klan posing as a racist anarchist with something to prove.  He’s also Jewish, which makes some of his interrogation by at least one suspicious Klan member who extols to him how invaluable Hitler’s holocaust was.  Flip’s quick response to this says as much about his skill as an undercover cop as it does about his ethnic background.

Possibly the wisest decision in BlacKkKlansman is the way in which Spike Lee and his screenwriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rebinowitz and Kevin Wilmott handle The Klan.  What could have been a pack of stereotypical backwoods dummies are really seen here for the violent narrow-minded menace that they are, and they are seen in varying degrees, from the calm politician-like leader Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold, to the paranoid militant malcontent Felix Kendrickson (Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen) and the dull-witted drunkard Ivan (Paul Walter Hauser) whose is always waving a gun around and often points it at his own head.  He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t really have his own philosophy but only uses racism as a means have access to guns and booze.

But the most surprising performance comes from Topher Grace in the role of David Duke.  This is not entirely a parody.  Duke is seen as the clean-cut all-American who wants to reshape the image of the Klan as simply an organization that stands up for white America, and in the role Grace does a good job of maintaining a business-like façade even while we sense the hateful menace that still boils under the skin.

The broad illustration of these characters is crucial to the film’s effect.  It would have been easier to create a bunch of cartoon clowns in pointy hats but to make them credible and to force us to listen to their hate-spewing philosophies.  They represent a dangerous cross-section of the militant far-right, the kinds of people who are hell-bent on “taking back the country” and only succeed in a creating even deeper divides.  The definition of these characters shows us what Ron and Flip are up against and their hair-trigger menace makes the film’s third act hum with the tension of a great action thriller – the movie earns its action climax.

I walked out of BlacKkKlansman sort of beaming.  I had seen a story that in lesser hands could have been the most ridiculous cop thriller of the year (that mantel goes to Den of Thieves) but Spike Lee is such a skilled filmmaker that we believe every minute of it.   The movie is a thriller but also a comedy, I mean seriously, this is about a black man trying to infiltrate the Klan.  And sure, the movie is infused with Lee and producer Jordan Peele’s usual over-the-top antics – there’s a scene in which the Klan screens D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation that seems a little far out – but none of it ever takes you out of the film.

This is one of the best films of the year and one of Lee’s best since Malcolm X.  It’s funny and observant, entering into social areas of the sacred and the profane, of racial strife that lesser filmmakers wouldn’t touch, or would water down.  It is the work of a director at the top of his game in an area of American racial strata that few would have the skill or the nerve to even touch.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2018) View IMDB Filed in: Action, Drama