by Philip Price
A history lesson and galvanizing procedural all in one, Spike Lee's “BlacKkKlansman” is one for the ages. An incredibly heavy, effectively powerful film that drenches you in the world in which it operates, pulls absolutely no punches, and delivers a film from a focused filmmaker who is not only presenting a timely conversation that needs to happen, but conveying his side of the conversation with style, eloquence, and immense profundity.
Spike Lee has always been something of an enigma of a filmmaker for me. Having been born in 1987 and only two years-old when Lee broke onto the scene with the film he’s now seemed to be chasing his entire career, “Do the Right Thing,” I didn’t really come to know who Lee was until realizing he directed Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us” music video. I was too young to see the much heralded 25th Hour when it was released, but Lee’s one-two punch of more accessible films in the mid-2000’s with “Inside Man” and “Miracle at St. Anna” allowed me my first, full experiences with the filmmaker while being something of a misdirect as many of his smaller, less mainstream films don’t follow the clean structure and story beats familiar to most audiences. Rather, most of Lee’s films are pointedly about what they’re about, but when Lee has a story to work his themes through he can create more fulfilling and profound experiences. This is what makes “BlacKkKlansman” the perfect story for Lee to tell. The true life events the film is based on provide an entertaining template to discuss the politics Lee desires to discuss while that true story is at the same time entrenched in the racially charged dilemmas of the late ’70s (and unfortunately, of today as well). It’s a perfect melding of artist and material.
In “BlacKkKlansman” we meet Ron Stallworth as played by John David Washington (Denzel’s son who you may have also seen on HBO’s “Ballers”) as a rookie police officer and the first black man on the payroll of the Colorado Springs police force. Stallworth is quickly upgraded to detective status not because of anything he’s done to prove himself (his Chief swiftly stuck him in records where he has to let out his anger and frustration by practicing karate chops into the air), but rather it is when political activist and Civil Rights leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) is asked to come speak by local college activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) that the local police force sees the need for a young black man in their ranks so that they might successfully infiltrate the gathering at which Ture will speak; ensuring he doesn’t rile up the locals to the point the police have something to worry about. It is in this ask that we begin to see the balance and struggles Stallworth must deal with when considering his personal, professional, and cultural aspirations. Stallworth seems to (maybe somewhat naively) believe in the beginning of the film that he will be able to institute clean change by working from the inside out. What Stallworth comes to realize is that not only will he still face discrimination from his peers within the force despite the fact his superiors have granted him entry, but that not all black folks see what he’s doing as a righteous act, but one that could be considered “selling-out”. When Stallworth meets and quickly falls for Harrier’s Patrice it becomes apparent that Stallworth and by default Washington in his performance must figure out how best to justify the choices they are making in their lives and just how much they believe in those justifications. Stallworth firmly believes in the need for police or he wouldn’t have applied for the job, but that he has to also be awake to the fact there are those within the same profession as he that want to use this power of authority to take advantage of people who look like him adds a multitude of layers to Stallworth’s psychological state as well as the number of layers the film is speaking to its audience on.
This is all without even getting into the fact Lee and his screenwriting partner Kevin Willmott have what is a "too good to be true" true story on which to play off. It is this unbelievable aspect to the basic story that allows for “BlacKkKlansman” to at once be riotously funny while at other times be the sobering experience of the moment that it comes to be. In being able to chase a more traditional three-act structure than Lee might typically adhere to, “BlacKkKlansman” is able to garner a lot of laughs out of how big of and how easily Stallworth is able to make these racist, horrible human beings look like the monsters they truly are. To get to see Washington as Stallworth sit at his desk and shoot the shit in his "white voice" with someone like David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan at the time, spouting racist and demoralizing remarks as Grace's Duke eats up every word on the other end of the line and Stallworth's co-worker's listen in disbelief provides an immeasurably satisfying entertainment factor to it all. Also funny is the fact that after Stallworth establishes contact with the President of his local KKK chapter, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), and sets up a meeting with him is that of the fact he realizes he'd used his real name in the exchange. This prompts Ron to suggest that his fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), be used as the face of Stallworth while he would continue to hold discussions over the phone. It is as the movie digs into laying out how exactly the real Stallworth and Zimmerman combined their identities to create a unified persona to infiltrate the KKK and learn of potential threats to their community that the film really begins to take off. Not simply because of the entertainment factor and levels of tension this situation inherently carries, but also since Driver's Zimmerman is Jewish and the KKK isn't particularly fond of the Jewish community either. Speaking of the layers “BlacKkKlansman” carries, what the initiation of this investigation instigates is not only that of Stallworth helping to justify his choice to become a police officer and re-instill the trust of the African-American community in the organization intended to protect all people in each community, but that of Zimmerman's wrestling with how much his heritage means to him. It's an interesting role and one that could have easily served as much more of a second-string narrative to Stallworth's (it still does and needs to), but Driver's performance of this man whose seemingly not had to stand for much in his life being put in this position where despite not being particularly passionate about having been raised Jewish he can't help but to feel enraged by the way the members of the KKK regard a group of people he clearly has a connection to.
More than just the incredible true story and the phenomenal performances that bring it to life though, there is so much else going on in “BlacKkKlansman” it's difficult to feel as if everything that needs to be discussed about the film can be filtered down into a single piece of writing. There is the fantastic Terence Blanchard score that is both retro when necessary while remaining faithful to the style in which Lee is crafting his film throughout and speaking to Lee's filmmaking style, the auteur is very much both in and out of his element here as the film is largely gorgeously photographed and pieced together while at the same time feeling as if it has less of an impression from Lee's stamp than some of the director's other films. “BlacKkKlansman” still contains some signature Lee-isms such as that title screen text promising the audience some "fo real, fo real shit" as well as the dolly shot late in the film as Stallworth and Patrice glide seamlessly down a hallway where they see a burning cross outside their window. More effective here though is Lee and Editor Barry Alexander Brown's tendencies to intercut certain scenes. Most notably is the one in which Duke comes to Colorado Springs for an initiation ceremony of that chapter's newest members in which Driver's version of Stallworth is included while Washington's real Stallworth is assigned security detail to the Grand Wizard of the KKK during the visit. As Duke, and it should be mentioned that Grace is fantastic in this role even if such compliments are the most uncomfortable of adulation the actor has ever received; Grace lends Duke the charisma, clean-cut appearance, and overall charm that allows for who Duke truly is to become that much more insidious. As Duke conducts this initiation ceremony though, in full KKK garb and going through these religious-like motions, Lee and Brown cut back and forth between it and a group of black students at a nearby campus rally who have gathered to hear Jerome Turner (the legendary Harry Belafonte) tell the story of the horrific 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington. This all culminates as the newly appointed Klan members shout "white power" with their fists raised high in the air as the college students mourn Turner's story and promise themselves a better tomorrow by raising their own fists in the air to shout "black power"; the juxtaposition of it all very clearly meant to both parallel the passion each side finds in their beliefs while echoing the idea of balance and it being a key to peace.
On something of a more personal note, as a white male in his early 30s sitting next to an older black couple most certainly of a generation that saw what was happening on screen occur in their real lives, I had something of a knot in the pit of my stomach the entirety of the runtime of this movie. Not only was this due to the sense of sorrow and disbelief that reverberated from much of what was occurring on screen, but also because there was this fear given the state of our current world that we weren't completely safe sitting there watching this type of movie, a movie that more or less mocked an organization for believing one set of people are superior to another based on nothing more than the tint of their skin, in the Southern region of the U.S. I'm as guilty as anyone else for judging books by their covers and when I saw people who looked closer to that of Jasper Pääkkönen's neo-Nazi Felix Kendrickson and/or Paul Walter Hauser's ignorant Ivanhoe walk into the theater in what was the first showing of the film in the state of Arkansas I admit I was more suspicious than I was open-minded about why they were so interested in the latest Spike Lee joint. Now, I don't know who these people were, and I don't know what had or had not happened in their lives that led them to this point, but I made assumptions based on their appearance and thankfully those assumptions were wrong. Nothing out of the ordinary happened at my screening of “BlacKkKlansman,” but I can't help but to think it would have also been ignorant to not be a little suspicious. That is the sad state of the world we live in: that often we must believe in the stereotypes assigned to the way we look because the people who live up to those stereotypes are the ones who get the most attention. It is those in which such stereotypes owe their origins that most of the unsuspecting society must pay the price. All this uneasiness comes to be accentuated by the end of the film when Lee integrates a Klan rally taking place within the narrative into real footage of last year’s Charlottesville rallies to emphasize that despite the fact we’d like to believe things have changed that-more than ever-they are still very much the same.