I’ve been trying to figure out recently why we, as a society, have written off Spike Lee as some sort of “one-and-done” director. While I had been led for years to believe that Lee was something of an Oliver Stone-type, making one great film and then a series of duds, I’ve come to learn that Lee, time and time again, has shattered expectations, from the otherworldly 25th Hour to the game changing Malcolm X to his all-time great Do The Right Thing. Hell, even the “mediocre” films like Inside Man are miles ahead of his contemporaries. The point of my sharing all of this is that we have underestimated Lee for far too long, and I’m hoping that his newest film, BlacKkKlansman, changes all that, because it is hands down some of the best filmmaking you will see all year.
Based on some “‘fo real, ‘fo real sh*t,” the film takes place in 1972, as Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is hired as the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs. Despite his vast intellect and abilities as an officer, he is left in the records room for a period of time, as a reminder that he was solely hired to ward off claims that the department is deeply racist. He eventually manages to prove himself as a detective by going undercover for the department inside the local black student union, in order to investigate their ties to the national civil rights movement. However, after hearing Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael, and played by Corey Hawkins) speak, Stallworth realizes his efforts are best utilized in fighting the real enemy: the Ku Klux Klan. After calling up “The Organization” and pretending to be a white racist, Stallworth sets up a clever sting: he will talk to the Klan over the phone, while his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), will meet with them in person. And so begins a darkly humorous, yet inherently frightening journey for Ron and Flip, as they confront hatred in all forms, from the bumbling to the psychopathic to the horrifically subversive geniality of newly-named Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).
The very first moment you know you’re watching something unique in BlacKkKlansman comes in the first scene, where the film lays out its thesis statement on the Klan. In a cameo by Alec Baldwin as Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, we witness a string of profanities, hate speeches, and racist warnings about the threat of the “inferior races” and the “Jewish liberal courts.” For good measure, he also uses quotes that have a lingering impact on the American psyche, including phrases from the presidential campaigns (specifically the now-infamous “super predators” comment). It’s a painful scene, but what’s strangest about it is how funny it is. And not just quiet chuckle funny – Lee is fully utilizing satire to demonstrate just how evil and hilariously stupid an ideology of hatred can be. And this careful balance in the first scene carries on throughout the film, allowing us to laugh at evil’s buffoonery, cheer for its comeuppance, and loathe the fact that we live in a world that allows such bigotry. Whenever the film has the opportunity, it goes out of its way to take shots at the lunacy of the Klan’s prejudice. An early sequence portrays two characters debating the Holocaust – one claims that it never happened, while another claims that it is the most beautiful moment in history. Both are hideous sentiments, and yet Lee uses satire to show the conflicting, confusing nature embedded deep within the minds of the antagonists. Sometimes the jokes are just meant to make the Klan look buffoonish, also to great effect; when Flip participates in his first Klan meeting, he is told that it is a “$10 good standing fee. Robes are extra” – a byproduct, he is told, of “f*ckin’ inflation.” Hell, even when the stakes are deadly serious, Lee isn’t afraid to pause the action to demonstrate for the audience that the villains here are a group of dumbasses.
However, lest you think this is simply a Blazing Saddles-esque romp, Lee never forgets to ground the film with the weight of it all. After a fairly comical sequence at a shooting range, the camera pulls out to reveal their targets: a row of cutouts shaped like African-American children – cutouts that, according to interviews, were not props, but purchases from local shops by the set designer. Whenever things become too comical, Lee inserts a moment like this to remind you what true hatred looks like. And that hatred is exactly what Lee wants to explore. He knows that, technically speaking, the rhetoric seen from the Black Panther rally and the KKK gatherings may sound the same, but as Stallworth and Flip quickly realize, there is a vast difference between blowing off steam in the face of oppression and the desire to eradicate an entire group of people. Only one side has, and one side will, continue to commit terrorist acts if left unchecked. And Lee takes things a step further, satirizing and investigating the forms racism takes. Yes, the rednecks like Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen) are striking in their blatant xenophobia, but the truly frightening one is his wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), who has a real Aunt Bea lovability to her…until she starts egging on her husband, casually talking about how animalstic and criminal those “n—s” are. She represents the ease in which a seemingly “true American” can resort to the inherent biases we all contain. And then there’s David Duke, a real piece of work. Duke’s entire purpose in the film is to demonstrate how an organization like the KKK could become mainstream. He’s not violent or aggressive, he doesn’t drop the n-word with the ease of his compatriots, and yet he’s perhaps the most insidious of them all. He talks of the superiority of the white race every chance he gets. He believes the place for African-Americans is in the “Mammy” stereotype set out by Gone With The Wind (more on that in a minute). And he believes that, if we allow integration and civil rights to continue pressing forward, America will truly become “anti-white.” It’s sinister talk that remains relevant even today, especially considering the context. However, what the screenplay and the direction want us to understand from these sequences is just how convincing this kind of talk can be. I mean, it’s a straight line from Duke’s talk of eugenics to the hatred that inspires lynchings – an analogy made clear by Lee’s intercutting between two speeches on the subject. Duke is the friendly doorman of genocide, and Lee makes this clear by showing young white women being wooed by his eloquence while African-Americans listening in become more and more dejected. It’s a brilliant storytelling device, it’s a brilliant thematic device, it’s a brilliant device, period.
Speaking of brilliant devices, one of the smartest ways BlacKkKlansman raises its themes and questions is through an ingenious use of a fairly stereotypical relationship. A major subplot in the film involves Stallworth falling in love with an activist he was sent to investigate, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). Now, this plot is obviously fictional, and its use of clichés often makes it stand out in the grand scheme of things, so one could wonder why it even belongs in the film. The reason it works is not only because two have a cute and funny rapport; it’s because writers Lee, Kevin Willmott, David Rabinowitz, and Charlie Wachtel use their differing political opinions and perspectives as a means of exploring a wide variety of issues facing African-Americans, most of which are still prevalent today. Unlike many cinematic B-plot relationships, Ron and Patrice are rarely seen engaging in small talk or casual trivialities. Instead, the conversations we get to witness involve the heaviest of conversations and issues, usually in the form of a debate. Their first major conversation involves questioning the notion “Can you successfully change things from the inside?” The film doesn’t provide any clear-cut answers – clearly we hope the answer is yes, since Ron is our protagonist, but Patrice raises some good points about how difficult it is to change things with the system so stacked against them. However, one of their most casual conversations may, in fact, hold the key to the movie: the significance of pop culture. In one sequence, the duo debate the Blaxploitation genre and the portrayal of figures like Shaft and Superfly – while Patrice views such portrayals as antithetical to the cause, especially in the depiction of black men as “pimps and criminals,” Ron argues that “it’s just a movie.” However, while he may have a point about African-American heroes and the way these heroes could show young black men that they could take on the system and win (heroes that inspired both Ron and director Lee himself), the audience already knows that those simple “movies” could have an impact on society at large. From the beginning, we see a famous scene from Gone With The Wind glorifying the Southern mythology and the heroism of the racists. And from the opening montage to the memorable speech by Harry Belafonte, the audience is reminded that the only reason the Klan made a return in the early 20th century was because of the vilely successful Birth of a Nation (for those unaware, the very first major motion picture in American history was a film that spent its first half depicting a historically accurate Civil War before plunging into a horrific justification for the KKK and depicted lynchings as heroic necessities). Alec Baldwin’s character uses sequences from the film as justification for his beliefs. And in one of the film’s most hauntingly humorous sequences, the film is screened for the Klan initiates, who cheer it on in what I can only assume is Lee satirically mocking the stereotypes surrounding African-American theater audiences. The film understands the racial history surrounding the film industry, and he’s not afraid to use BlacKkKlansman to call bullsh*t. It’s a brilliant theme raised inside of a brilliant film. And in case you’re wondering the answer to changing things from the inside, the film’s working thesis seems to be that, while the system is inherently corrupt, and the thin blue line in the police department may slow down progress, a few good men can, in fact, do wonders.
As for the filmmaking, everything here is top-notch. The screenplay, in particular, is truly marvelous. I’m not sure every scene is entirely necessary – the Baldwin scene in particular feels a little out of place – and occasionally the dialogue becomes a little too on the nose (there’s a sequence where a police lieutenant explains the Southern Strategy that’s pretty eye-roll inducing). However, even the sequences that don’t gel with the rest serve to lighten the tension and ironically undercut the horrific sentiments on display, allowing for refreshing levity in the face of unrelenting evil. Meanwhile, the editing and cinematography have a decidedly-70s appeal to them, giving the film a throwback sentimentality while also paying homage to the African-American directors who paved the way for Lee. In fact, with the way the film slowly begins to change its camera angles and editing style, as well as incorporates a stinging score and popular 70s music, one of the biggest joys of the film is not only watching Ron grow as a character, but watching the film around him morph into the Blaxploitation film that he desperately wishes to inhabit. Now, I will say that I do wish the film had utilized a few more of Spike Lee’s inimitable stylistic choices – we don’t get any Lee trademarks until the final few minutes – however, the fact that Lee chooses to play things simple this time around almost works to the film’s favor. And the fact he does play it so straight makes the ending, which feigns towards the stereotypical “uplifting” outcome before inserting clips from the 2017 Charlottesville rally, all the more painful to watch.
In terms of the acting, there are no weak links. Every actor is working at the top of his game, and often against type, in order to provide the most three-dimensional characters possible. John David Washington is an incredibly solid lead for the film, creating a wholly original hero in Ron Stallworth. Every moment he’s onscreen is great, whether he’s code switching, outsmarting his enemies, charming the women in his life, or just allowing his inner dork to shine. By the end, Washington carries himself not only as a real figure, but as a Shaft-esque superstar, and I am here for it. In fact, the only performance I liked more than Washington’s in this film is Adam Driver’s. Driver is truly fascinating as Flip Zimmerman (finally, a truly complex Jewish character from Lee!), a man whose entire existence is a series of facades. Zimmerman is a Jewish man trying to pass as a WASP, a cop trying to pass as a criminal, and a man who has to constantly hide what he’s thinking from everyone around him. That’s a difficult character to portray, and yet Driver does it so effortlessly that it will simply astound you watching it. Furthermore, Driver serves as an audience surrogate, both in what we wish we would do in this situation as well as the way in which we all need to grow – Zimmerman comments near the end of the film that “You don’t think about race and bigotry until you’re confronted with it,” a lesson that we all need to accept in order to change our hearts. Oh, and while Washington and Driver are excellent apart, one of my favorite details about the film is how strong their buddy cop repartee is. I love a good buddy cop dynamic. Meanwhile, Harrier makes a great foil for Washington’s Stallworth, while Corey Hawkins and Harry Belafonte knock it out of the park with two eight minute cameos of pure emotion. Inside the police station, I found Robert John Burke and Isiah Whitlock Jr. to be hilariously memorable, as well as Ken Garito’s Blaxploitation-esque put-upon sergeant, while Frederick Weller’s sadistic racist cop was a bit too broad for my taste. Still, he fit right in with the portrayals of the racist Klansmen, each of whom are memorably, buffoonishly evil. I’ve already mentioned the strong performances from Pääkkönen and Atkinson, but I think my favorite may come from I, Tonya star Paul Walter Hauser, who portrays Klansman Ivanhoe as a sort of Drunk Uncle-esque racist (for better or worse). However, if there’s one performance in the film that could be considered truly “brave,” it would have to be Topher Grace, a man who grew up playing the boy-next-door and used that charm to channel the most unseemly evil imaginable. Grace is a powerhouse as Duke, a man who can go from uttering folksy Midwestern-isms like “You’re darn tootin’!” to explaining why African-Americans are inferior in the same sentence. Grace plays the role with innocence, as if he were portraying a non-racist, and it makes how well he nails the speeches incredibly discomforting. It’s a bold performance, and one I commend him for nailing.
BlacKkKlansman is a tour-de-force filmmaking experience, a sort of experimental art that somehow can appeal to the masses. This is the type of work one expects out of a young up-and-comer, and yet Lee does it after forty years in the industry. From the acting to the editing to the cinematography to the editing, there is not a single frame that Lee hasn’t considered for maximum impact. To reclaim the infamous, hurtful quote Woodrow Wilson uttered in praising Birth of a Nation, it is this film, right here, that feels “like history written with lightning.” The film ends with the depressing realization that, despite the best efforts of goodhearted Americans, things have changed very little in 45 years. However, perhaps this is where Lee’s aged wisdom shines the best. While its easy to see the news or view the ending montage and become discouraged, there is a reason the scene immediately preceding said sequence is so uplifting. We may have not have moved the bar far in the past half-century, but the seed is there. There are good people still fighting the good fight, and change is possible if more Flip Zimmermans take a stand against the corruption in the world. And if that’s the #1 takeaway from this wonderful, wonderful movie, then I am onboard all the way.