Based on the true story of a black undercover police officer who successfully infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s, Spike Lee's BlackkKlansman is one of the politically galvanizing auteur's most focused and effective films in years. Perhaps because the subject is so fundamentally absurd-it's the kind of thing you would never believe if you didn't know it had really happened-Lee restrains himself from some of his more attention-grabbing (and often distracting) stylistic flourishes, settling instead for a more conventional serio-comic style that allows us to focus on the unfolding story and the way in which the issues at its core still resonant-unfortunately-with our world today. There is something slightly cartoonish about the film's approach; it reminded me of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2011), which dealt with human greed and avarice so grotesque that it couldn't help but turn into a vulgar carnivalesque. BlackkKlansman has a similar vibe, as Lee regularly injects a vital sense of humor that comes perilously close to caricature at times, but never quite tips over that cliff. It is funny, but often mordantly so in a way that forces you to confront how racism itself is fundamentally absurd even as it stands at the core of centuries of social injustice.
John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, who proudly wears his black identity in service of his deadly serious commitment to law enforcement; he's a bad-ass straight arrow. He applies for an open position with the Colorado Springs Police Department, which has never employed a black cop, and soon graduates from working in the records room to going undercover at a black power rally. He proves his bona fides to his superiors, who give him a permanent position in the intelligence department. One day, while looking through the newspaper, he sees a recruitment ad for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and on a whim picks up the phone and pretends to be an angry, racist white man looking to join. He is so effective that he earns an in-person invite from the chapter's president, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), which is a problem because, you know, he's black. That problem is solved by sending his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), in his stead, and together the two men pose as one undercover entity to root out any violent plans the Klan might be hatching. While Walter is largely nonviolent, a bespectacled dope with misguided aspirations, the chapter also counts among its members an insidious viper named Felix (Jasper Paakkonen) who is clearly poised to shed blood. Ron also spends a significant amount of time on the phone with none other than David Duke (Topher Grace), the Klan's Grand Wizard who was among the first to try to clean up the group's image and make its racist messages more palatable to the mainstream.
Written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee from Stallworth's 2014 memoir, BlackkKlansman works as both a highly entertaining undercover thriller and an acerbically insightful deconstruction of the historic and current ravages wrought by those who hate others because of their skin color. While the film is set in the 1970s and bears witness to the slowly evolving nature of race relations in the immediate post-Civil Rights era, it also harkens back to the Jim Crow South via a lengthy and painful retelling by an elderly activist played by Harry Belafonte of a horrific lynching that Lee cross-cuts with images of Klan members whooping and cheering at a screening of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), the film that was arguably the first fully articulated cinematic epic and also has the dubious distinction of reigniting the KKK when it was on the decline.
Lee draws in elements of popular culture throughout the film, showing how representation matters (a conversation between Ron and his activist love interest Patrice, played by Laura Harrier, centers on a debate between the relative merits of Shaft and Superfly, and the film opens with a lengthy clip from Gone With the Wind and the filming of a racist call to arms by a fictional white supremist played by Alec Baldwin). Lee also can't help but make explicit ties to Donald Trump and the white nationalist resurgence his Presidency has ushered in, via both dialogue spoken by the characters-Klan members cheering "America first!," Duke talking about making America "great" again, and Ron naively scoffing at the idea of a white nationalist making it to the Presidency-and an epilogue composed of footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the violence it engendered, as well as Trump's now infamous "fine people on both sides" commentary.
Like Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) and Bamboozled (2000), BlackkKlansman is fueled by a seething rage against the continuation of racial injustice, which Lee elaborates via both dark comedy and climactic eruptions of violence. But, also like those films, it conveys a sliver of hope that things can be better. Lee accomplishes this primarily by emphasizing the solidarity of a racially mixed group of police detectives that works to infiltrate the Klan. Ron is the instigator and leader, but he relies heavily on Skip, who must deal with his own long-buried Jewish identity as he endures the Klan members' raging anti-Semitism. Several of the other members of the police force are white, which helps counter-balanace the film's portrayal of other officers as blatantly, cartoonishly racist. Lee doesn't mince words when it comes to how hateful people can be toward their fellow human beings, but he also leaves room for connection, camaraderie, and a sense of human connection that transcends skin color, which makes BlackkKlansman, like Do the Right Thing, an unexpectedly effective plea for understanding.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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