Cinema’s angriest black American filmmaker Spike Lee is back with a vengeance with his most accessible mainstream film since 2006’s Inside Man. Realized with the kind of flair and passion that originally made Lee such a force to be reckoned with, his latest, BlacKkKlansman, is a welcome comeback for the 61-year-old director, who’s mostly focused on shorts and documentaries over the last decade or so.
Penned by Lee, producers/ co-writers Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, along with Kevin Willmott, BlacKkKlansman tells the ‘crazy, outrageous, incredible true story’ of Ron Stallworth (a very good John David Washington, son of the great Denzel), the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs police department, and his accidental slip into investigating and becoming an official member of the notorious Ku Klux Klan in the ’70s. While initially seeming like a slick borderline Blaxploitation throwback of sorts, BlacKkKlansman draws a through-line between the racial tensions of America back then and now. While some may consider this to be a bit of a stretch, Lee displays such strong prowess here that one can’t help but consider his arguments.
BlacKkKlansman was originally set to be directed by celebrated Get Out (2017) writer-director Jordan Peele, who felt that Spike Lee would be more suited to the racially charged material, with Peele remaining on-board as a producer. I’ve no doubt that Peele would’ve crafted a solid film in his own right, perhaps leaning more into the natural comedy of the situations. I doubt, however, he’d find the sheer chutzpah to include that punch-in-the-guts epilogue, which recounts 2017’s Charlottesville riots, in which white supremacists clashed with anti-fascists, the eventual escalation resulting in the death of 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer, whom Lee dedicates the film to. It’s a somber, but timely and appropriate way to conclude the movie, even more so seeing as it was two weeks after said event that cameras began rolling on BlacKkKlansman, this adding extra food for thought on a story that could otherwise be dismissed as being of another time and place.
Throughout the picture, there are moments of levity that are an absolute hoot to watch, including a crowd-pleasing ‘up yours’ moment where Stallworth figuratively gives KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (bravely played by Topher Grace) the finger, while the slow-burning romance between Stallworth and the fictitious Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), president of the black student union at Colorado College, is utterly charming.
Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), continues to demonstrate his knack for involving himself in intriguing material. Here he plays fellow cop Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish man in denial, who reluctantly becomes the in-person embodiment of Ron Stallworth for the sake of face-to-face KKK meetings. Zimmerman’s run-ins with hardcore KKK member and Jew-hater Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen) provide some of the tensest moments in the film.
The main thing that drew me out of the drama, at times, was the occasionally overwrought music score by Terence Blanchard, Inside Man (2006), with its swirling guitar very much sounding like a cop show from the ’70s, but deployed too seriously here to be any fun. There’s a particular riff, which is played a little too much for my liking (even during the suspenseful climax) that I thought needed to be discarded.
The editing by Barry Alexander Brown, Do the Right Thing (1989), is smooth, occasionally even a little flashy, but always on point. One of the big subtextual things going on in the story is how it parallels the two extremes of white supremacists and black American rights activists — their rhetoric, traditions, and actions. Brown never misses an opportunity to create a kind of contrast, with no better example than a sequence where the KKK is officially inducting Ron Stallworth (actually Flip Zimmerman) into their club, which is intercut with the civil rights group, who are listening to a horrific recounting of the public lynching of black teenage farmhand Jesse Washington in May 1916.
On the subject on speeches, the narrative is peppered with quite a few from both extremes, opening with a surprise cameo by Alec Baldwin, The Departed (2006), who plays a bumbling, ridiculously named KKK member Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, while about 15 minutes in, viewers are plopped into a Black Panther meeting to listen to civil rights leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) deliver a rousing address to his supporters. While these segments undoubtedly balloon the running time to over 2 hours, I can’t say I was ever bored, which is a testament to the committed performances at the heart of these lectures.
All-in-all, BlacKkKlansman is a very strong film and it’s really inspiring to see this kind of movie get released on such a wide scale, successfully kick-starting conversations about its themes. But, while some may find its urgency a bit confronting, and the current contextualizing manipulative, there’s no doubt it provokes in a way that can’t be simply dismissed.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie