* * * * 1/2
The kind of movie about race and racism that we, sadly, pathetically, still need in 2019 America, BlacKkKlansman (winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards) is Spike Lee’s powerful and urgent reminder that the thing we as a society don’t like to talk about isn’t going away on its own (in fact, seems to be getting worse). While often furious, unflinching and brutally honest, BlacKkKlansman also manages to treat those characters deserving of it with respect, and to address complex issues with careful and nuanced consideration. The story of the film, while based in the 1970s, often and purposefully comments on our present situation in America, throwing clear and frequent shots at the Trump administration and in particular its allegiance with White supremacists and its refusal to condemn horrific acts of White terrorism. BlacKkKlansman doesn’t let its audience off the hook, forcing all of us to look at things the way they are and to try and wrestle with the past that got us to this point. It’s a call to action, not an escape. And that is precisely why it works and deserves our attention. This is the kind of movie that is compulsory viewing, because if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out on an essential and timely perspective.
The film is based on the incredible true story of Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first Black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Stallworth, with the assistance of his partner, Detective Philip “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), devises a clever plot to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan, managing to gain access to David Duke (Topher Grace) himself and expose a terrorist plot aimed at detonating explosives near a civil rights rally. While the film’s story is based on actual events in the past, the story is also clearly commenting on and reacting to our present reality. The film was released a year after the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, and the ending of the film features actual, horrifying, footage from the rally. The message here is clear – this is not fiction, this is not ancient history; all of the things that hurt and are hard to watch in the film are things that are happening all around us, right now. So, Spike Lee seems to be saying in no uncertain terms, wake up.
John David Washington and Adam Driver are excellent in their roles and work well together on screen, embracing the buddy cop dynamic and all of its inherent humor, while also portraying a meaningful and instructive relationship. Laura Harrier, in her role as Patrice Dumas, the president of the local Black Student Union, delivers a convincing performance as a young activist who finds herself in a complicated and personally challenging romance. Topher Grace is a good choice for David Duke, in that his performance (and our collective memory of him from the goofy That ’70s Show) helps to communicate one of the film’s messages about the KKK – that this group does not deserve our fear, but our derision; this is a group of amateurish losers who reside in drab settings, stumbling over each other for power within their sad little cliques. A fun factoid is that Steve Buscemi’s brother, Michael Buscemi (looking a lot like Steve here), makes an appearance as one of the detectives on Stallworth’s team.
There are a lot of interesting visual moments in the film, and we all benefit from Lee’s years of experimentation behind the camera. The beginning moments of the film feature a kind of table setting opener wherein we watch a scene from Gone with the Wind (1939) and then hear a rabid racist character (played by Alec Baldwin) deliver a hate filled monologue in front of a projector, as the camera gets closer and the color palette shifts from red to blue. There is repetitive use of this red/blue color scheme throughout the film, perhaps as a reference to the current political divide in the US, or possibly meant to evoke the explosive schism in the population between the Black Lives Matter movement and the resultant Blue Lives Matter backlash. There are other moments when Lee uses close up camera work effectively to thrust us into the excitement and energy on the screen. He is playful at times, referencing classic Blaxploitation films by simply showing their poster art on the screen. One of the misses for me in terms of the style of the film is the original score, which is used sparingly, but, in my opinion, to ill effect. The actual songs that are used throughout the film are excellent and all enhance the story and their respective scenes. However, the original score and in particular the timing / mood of this original music (often featuring electric guitar / drums, not a great choice in terms of tone) is often so at odds with the story that it really took me out of the action on screen at various points. This does knock the overall stylistic quality down a peg, but is, all things considered, not very important, considering the powerful message of the film, the quality of the storytelling and the creative and engaging visual elements.
Lee is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this film, not just telling a story, but also delivering a thesis and a history lesson. The film goes beyond its source material, choosing to both portray the suspense story of Stallworth’s operation, while also offering thoughtful commentary on a number of weighty subjects – Black identity in America, racism and the history of racism in the US, police brutality, White privilege, etc. Lee makes reference to a number of films as a jumping off point to engage these topics. At various points, we see clips or images from The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind, Shaft (1971), Coffy (1973), etc. We watch as members of the KKK cheer on the horrific acts of racist violence portrayed in The Birth of a Nation, and also hear Stallworth and Dumas debate which Blaxploitation film offers the best representation of Black identity.
Lee uses monologue and detailed dialogue to bring home other arguments and points of reference – we hear Harry Belafonte deliver a speech about lynching in America; Kwame Ture (AKA Stokely Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins) speaks passionately about Black Power and Black identity, clearly sparking an awakening in his audience; we hear Stallworth and his White superior officer discuss how David Duke and the KKK are trying to infiltrate the mainstream and gain the support of powerful political candidates (sound familiar?). Similarly, the film reveals how active duty soldiers and personnel in NORAD are members in the local Klan group, showing the group’s frighteningly expansive support base and access to power. Just as Black identity is explored through the Black Student Union and Stallworth / Dumas’ relationship, Lee also wrestles with what it means for a White Jewish man to be both White and Jewish; we watch as he comes to the epiphany that he was largely ignoring his Jewish identity until he came face to face with a bigot who literally forced him to defend it. From there, it’s not too far of a leap for Flip to wonder why he’s not also defending his Black partner from the White racist police officer on their team who repeatedly abuses him and others in the Black community. The film tackles the fraught subject of police brutality and the various issues of police officers “protecting their own” vs. holding each other accountable, as well as the issue of outsiders painting all police officers as “pigs” or “the enemy”. It’s convenient, and very effective, that the main character is a Black police officer; it makes it so much easier for Lee to convey the message that not all police officers are racist or bad, while not holding back in the least on the message that there is a history of institutional racism and unconscious bias animating and informing the day to day choices and decisions of many White police officers.
Ironically, and in ways proving the film’s point that we still have a lot of reckoning to do, Green Book, a film that tackles racism in a much more sanitized, Hollywood-friendly manner, beat out BlacKkKlansman for Best Picture this year at the Oscars. A kind of sad reprise of what happened 30 years ago when 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, another film that viewed the issue of racism through a “family friendly” (in other words, rose-colored lens), won Best Picture while Lee’s seminal film of that year, Do the Right Thing, was not even nominated for the prize. A good reminder that the Oscars aren’t necessarily an authority on what films are most deserving of our attention. BlacKkKlansman, a film that is both vital and necessary, full of truth and realities that hurt, refuses to stay within the confines of a tightly wrapped narrative, insisting on making real-world connections and direct political statements – the kinds of things that seem anathema to those seeking to categorize and make consumable. For those of us not in the Academy, who are eager for a courageous and powerful voice in this dim and darkening time, BlacKkKlansman is good medicine.