We all knew that with the dawn of the Trump Era there would be an influx of reactive art. A quick lap through any museum would indicate that the same is true for any turbulent time period. When creative people are pissed off, confused, or scared, they channel their pained energy into their craft of choice, and more often than not, it’s these pieces of inspired creation which are destined to resonate furthest into the future. It’s these select few works of art which cause those who consume it to look around, look inward, and ruminate on why things are the way they are, and how we can go about changing things for the better. Spike Lee’s latest joint, which claims to be based on “some real fo’ real shit,” may prove to be the most essential of all the pieces from this odd time in American history. Not just because of the way it gleefully jams its thumb in the eye of establishment racism, but in the way it highlights the difference between change and progress while showing how important it is not to mistake the former for the latter. It’s also a really funny comedy.
And a solid thriller.
And a joyous buddy cop flick.
And a compelling police procedural.
And, at points, a contemporary documentary.
Spike Lee’s somewhat schizophrenic approach to tone has been both an asset and a liability to some of his previous films, but when it works, it works hard. It hurts, even. BlacKkKlansman is one of those magical movies where the filmmaker takes aim at what a less ambitious storyteller would say is too many targets, hitting each and every one of them with the precision of a career assassin. There’s a lot of ground to cover here, so let’s get into it.
It’s the 1970s and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is Colorado Springs’ first black police officer. He’s not the most welcome addition to the team, and despite having the approval of his white superiors, he mostly works in the office of records – out of sight, minimal power. It’s the perfect place for the powers that be to demonstrate a progressive mindset without actually taking any action. After exhibiting a knack for the grind of police work, he is placed into a detective’s position, where he soon finds himself tasked with investigating the actions of a local black activism sect. In response to the trumped up assumptions of the police department regarding the activities of the activist group, Stallworth chooses his next target: the Ku Klux Klan. You see, the idiots in sheets are looking for new members, and when Stallworth presents himself as a viable candidate over the phone, he’s invited to apply. There’s one obvious, melanin-based problem with this, so Stallworth enlists a fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to deal with any in-person tasks. Together they form a single identity: Ron Stallworth, Klansman.
Ron must work not just to keep his black identity secret, but to gather intel to prevent any pending violent actions from the KKK. At the same time, he must also keep his identity as a police officer secret from the young activist with whom he’s begun a romantic relationship (an excellent Laura Harrier). Things get particularly difficult for the duo behind Klansman Ron when it turns out that they’re really good at being in the Klan, so much so that David Duke (Topher Grace), political hopeful and famed Grand Wizard of the notorious hate group takes a strong liking to Ron, and is interested in moving him up the ranks as fast as possible.
The script, written by Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Charlie Wachtel, based on the book by Stallworth himself, ably juggles a million different pressing concerns, while also being endlessly entertaining. The dialogue alone is worth a trip to the theater (“You think you’re hot shit, but you ain’t nothin’ but a wet fart,” remarks one of Stallworth’s bigoted colleagues), and it’s a joy to watch Driver and Washington use this dialogue to bond over a shared tension. You see, Zimmerman is Jewish, which draws as much ire from the Klan as does dark skin. This comparable persecution is employed to explore the idea of “passing.” Zimmerman, a white man who doesn’t actively practice Judaism, can blend in with the oppressor class, whereas someone like Stallworth cannot.
“Don’t act like you don’t have skin in the game,” cautions Stallworth to his partner in a clever use of double entendre.
“I never thought much about it,” Zimmerman states regarding his religion, “but now I think about it all the time.”
The persecution that Zimmerman is witness to galvanizes his pride in being Jewish, much the same way that the strength behind the Black Power movement is often drawn from shared struggle. In fact, there’s a brilliant sequence midway through the movie, perhaps the most important scene in any film so far this year, which intercuts between a Klan meeting and a gathering of black activists. The Klan pumps their fists and yell epithets in the name of racial pride, while the peaceful activists gather to listen to an elderly man (played by the effervescent Harry Belafonte) as he tells stories from his youth in a racially divided culture. As the two adjacent meetings gain momentum, Lee perfectly frames the divide between White Power and Black Power, effectively putting to bed the ridiculous notion that the two are the same. It’s a flash of brilliance amidst an already brilliant film, and it’s at this point that the thesis begins to clarify. Much like the black youths who we see listening stories of ages passed, wondering if things really are that different, we too in the audience are now unable to avoid or deny a similar train of thought.
Early in the film when it is suggested that Duke is pursuing a bona fide political office, a character remarks that America would “never elect a guy like that.” Needless to say, everyone in the theater groaned knowingly at this sly jab at our current state of affairs. Same as when a Klan member states that their movement “could be the new Boston Tea Party.” It’s not long, however, before the subtlety dissolves and Lee points his finger right to the present day. I will resist the urge to say expressly how this is achieved, as part of the movie’s effect is in the surprising ways it pokes holes in all of the convenient untruths we choose to believe, but trust me when I say that no one leaves this one unscathed, and we’re all the better for it.
So many aspects of the race discussion are deftly weaved into the story, from body language, to verbal language, to interpersonal conduct, to the workplace, to the law, to silent complicity, and ultimately to the highest power in the land, BlacKkKlansman covers it all with a level of care and understanding that will shake up viewers of all races without alienating them. Even more exciting is the way that the film breaks new ground in speaking of racial tension: It actually offers solutions. So often we hear the refrain “it’s not my job to educate you.” Well that may be true, but Lee and his team have taken the high road in that regard, and are more than happy to dispense knowledge to all who are willing to listen (and since it’s such an enjoyable picture, even someone typically resistant to such things will certainly drop their guard). A rare, necessary treat indeed!
As I mentioned before, there are times when Lee’s style can get in its own way, even if his command of the cinematic language is indisputable. This is not one of those instances. Lee invokes a wealth of influences to create something that is distinctly his own. There are moments which play like a more colorful episode of The Wire, moments which evoke the blaxploitation era, and even a sequence which feels like a specifically cinematic episode of Soul Train. Also employed are shallow Dutch angles, which turn a cool lean into a sturdy posture, relaying the tilt onto the backdrop and creating the image of a marginalized man working the system from the inside. The same technique is applied to shots which turn a stuffy Klansman into the image of a tower falling down, rejected by its own dangerously rigid system. Add to that a soundtrack which includes James Brown, Looking Glass, and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, and the package is complete. This is the work of a master filmmaker firing on all cylinders, and it is essential viewing for all Americans regardless of color. BlacKkKlansman is one for the history books.
BlacKkKlansman opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.