Film Review: “BlacKkKlansman” Serves up Serious Racial Satire with a Contemporary Bite

Film poster: “BlacKkKlansman”

BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.

Spike Lee has almost always been a director worth watching, even when his work has fallen short of the brilliant promise of such early narratives like She’s Gotta Have ItDo the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues and Malcolm X (not to mention his powerful documentaries, among them 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts). A hard-working, prolific and creative – if not always consistent – filmmaker, Spike Lee deserves his place in the pantheon of great American cinéastes, and will surely be watched by many for as long as movies are a part of global culture. Beyond that, he is also a sharp examiner of race, and racism, in this country, and so is the perfect person to take on the subject of his latest project, BlacKkKlansman.

Based on Ron Stallworth’s book about his experience infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s as the lone African-American detective on the police force of Colorado Springs, Colorado, the film tells a tale so bizarre that it could only happen in fiction … except that it’s all true (well, the main details are, anyway, as I assume the screenwriters have taken their usual dramatic liberties here and there). Young and full of brash nerve, Stallworth (a very fine John David Washington, of HBO’s Ballers fame) calls up the local chapter of the Klan one day, a little giddy from his promotion to the department’s intelligence division (a reward for his reluctant spying on former Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, or Kwame Ture, as he was by that point known). Unfortunately, he gives his real name – rookie mistake – and so not only must he find a white officer to go undercover in his place, but that person must use his identity, as well. It’s a serious film, but also not without its moments of high humor.

Adam Driver and John David Washington in “BlacKkKlansman” ©Focus Features

As the story progresses, it only gets stranger, as the white “Ron Stallworth” – a Jewish cop named Flip Zimmerman, played by a terrific Adam Driver (Silence) – finds himself alternately in danger and in complete control, able to manipulate the rather stupid (comically inept, in fact) racists in “the organization” (as the KKK prefers to be called) and gather intel on an upcoming attack on the local Black Student Union. There is one particularly suspicious zealot who keeps pushing a “Jew test” on him, but Flip pushes back, and all is well (for a while, anyway). No major plot spoilers here, but along the way the real Ron strikes up a phone acquaintance with Klan leader David Duke – played by Topher Grace (Don Peyote), perfect in the role – who shines only in comparison to his racist brethren. Still, silly as they may be, these psychopathic wannabes have murder in their hearts, and Lee never lets us forget it.

Indeed, part of the challenge Lee faces in BlacKkKlansman is balancing polemics with drama, avoiding the pitfalls of exposition that the former brings out in even the best artists while crafting a taut enough example of the latter to hold our attention throughout. That he mostly succeeds is a testament to his filmmaking skill. Where he doesn’t quite pull it off is in his excessive use of composer Terence Blanchard’s music, his occasionally meandering camera that takes us away from the main focus of the action, his female characters without much depth, and his overreliance on broad comedy to lampoon the Klansmen. I prefer a lighter touch, but if you like the Lee of Chi-Raq – far more over-the-top in its aesthetic and performances than this – you will most likely find this film a model of nuance.

Topher Grace in “BlacKkKlansman” ©Focus Features

All of that said, I loved the ending, when Lee leaves behind the fictionalizing of real events and cuts straight to documentary footage from during and after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina. Earlier in the film, he has David Duke use the phrase “America First” (adopted by the Trump campaign, despite its fraught history); here, at the conclusion, he shows Donald Trump, 45th President of these United States, post-Charlottesville, claiming there was fault on both sides, though Lee makes sure we first see the neo-Nazis marching through town, chanting “Jews will not replace us” as they hold up burning torches. And then there’s the real-life David Duke, himself, praising Trump for saving America. Coming after the context of BlacKkKlansman, it’s clear that 1+1 = 2. The film may be flawed, but its message is not. If that offends, then I hear there’s an “organization” out there that is looking for recruits.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. He is the lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a regular film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; an occasional writer for the magazine bmoreart.com; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, starting in January, 2018, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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