Film Review: BlacKkKlansmanBy Wilson Morales
August 10, 2018
Just when some thought he probably had nothing left in the tank, here comes a film that puts a revolutionary filmmaker back at the forefront of Hollywood and ready to “wake up” everyone to reality
For most of his film career, director Spike Lee has injected hot political topics in the plot of his films. Outside of his acclaimed documentaries (When the Levees Broke and 4 Little Girls), his feature films from Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, Get On The Bus, and, more recently, Chi-Raq had that hot button scene or subject matter infused by Lee that prompts discussions long after the theaters are empty. While he’s had some misses in the last decade, he’s still in the game, whether it be raising the funds through kickstarter for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus or having it released through video-on-demand like Amazon’s Chi-Raq. For Lee, it’s the execution of the films that was at question.
With his latest film, BlacKkKlansman, Lee has delivered his best commercial film since Inside Man. Not only is it powerful, character-driven with social commentary and politics, but it also has romance and comedy that makes it a pleasurable experience to watch. If you haven’t seen Ballers on HBO, then John David Washington, who has the lead role in the film, is a revelation. As the son of Lee’s most trusted muse, Denzel Washington, as one would say, he’s a “chip off the old block.” With the exception of a few edits that some scenes could have used, all cylinders are clicking here as the dots are connecting from the performances, the structure of the narrative, the music, and the use of comedy. It also helps that one of the producers of the films happens to be Jordan Peele, an recent Oscar winner who delivered last year’s social commentary, breakout film Get Out.
With Alec Baldwin’s hilarious narration as Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard at the beginning of the film as we watch a scene from Gone with the Wind, the tone is set for a provocative, political and humorous adventure, if you want to see it that way. We meet Ron Stallworth, a young Black man looking to be a police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In doing so, he was questioned as to how much tolerance he would be willing to take before becoming the first Black officer to join the force. Doing clerical duties while enduring racial slurs from his fellow officers isn’t exactly what he signed up for; boldly, Ron decides to approach his bosses about being promoted to detective so he can be of better use in the field. Initially laughed at because he’s new on the job, Ron’s later called in to take on a new assignment: They want him to infiltrate a Black rally for Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), formerly Stokely Carmichael. With the help of his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), Ron goes in and watches Ture speak empathically about Black Power and how everyone in the room is in awe of him. At the same time, he meets activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), to whom Ron seems attracted, but can’t reveal his true motives.
While making a phone call to a number on a recruitment ad for the KKK, Ron manages to get into a conversation with a member Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), who seems to think Ron is White and invites him to come over. Here’s where Flip has to double for Ron and play the role of a lifetime. Although he’s Jewish by birth but doesn’t practice its faith, Flip is all ready to do his job without any emotion. He’s not at all affected by the racial slurs he will have to endure. In his first meeting with the Klan, he fits in quite well with the guys, including getting by one member (Jasper Pääkkönen) who thinks he’s too good to be true to their cause. Things get really heavy when Ron actually gets the Grand Wizard himself David Duke (Topher Grace) on the phone. Duke seems to be in high regard of Ron and plans to come to Colorado for his induction ceremony.
Between Ron talking to David on the phone like they are longtime pen pals and Flip acting the part beautifully, how long can they both keep up the charade, especially when the bosses want updates on the Klan’s criminal activity to continue to sanction their operation and the KKK steadily planning their next big movement?
Considering last year’s Charlottesville racial incident, which Lee boldly injects into the film, BlacKkKlansman is coming out at the right time. This country is ever so going through a radical divide of sorts and the film shows what happened in the 70s isn’t that much different from what’s happening right now. Being that this is based on Ron’s non-fiction book, this is not an art-imitates-life scenario.
Washington and Driver are the heart and soul of the film and equally deserve recognition. Ron is the match that sets things in motion, while Flip is the fire that keeps the game their playing going. In his first big lead role, Washington is a force to reckon with. He’s funny when he needs to be and heavy and serious when the situation calls for it.
The problems Spike Lee has had in some of his past films was that some scenes went longer than they should and that unhinged the balance of his film structure. These are the “preachy” moments such as the church sermon scene in Red Hook Summer or the General King Kong scene in Chi-Raq. Although it’s a great to see the legendary Harry Belafonte playing an elderly survivor from the 1930s telling a story, his scene needs some trimming. With four writers (Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott) adapting Ron Stallworth’s book, credit goes to the editor for coherently stringing the dramatic elements along with the comedic moments that came from the performances of Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Alec Baldwin and Isiah Whitlock Jr., who brings in his famous catch phrase “Sheeeeeeeee-it.” Besides Washington and Driver, the film is laced with a cast of fresh faces (Harrier, Eggold, Atkinson, Pääkkönen) that are involving and central to the story.
In the end, with the help of producers, writers and actors, Spike Lee was the Spike Lee of old and delivered a film that ranks right up there with his films of yesteryear. As the phrase goes, “everything old is new again” and hopefully the next Spike Lee Joint film is as good as this one.
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