Dan's Review: Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" reflects on racism's past, present
Aug 10, 2018 09:52PM
● By Dan Metcalf
John David Washington and Adam Driver in BlacKkKlansman - © 2018 Focus Features.
BlacKkKlansman (Focus Features)
Rated R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references.
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jasper Pääkkönen, Paul Walter Hauser, Ryan Eggold, Ashlie Atkinson, Robert John Burke, Ken Garito, Nicholas Turturro, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alec Baldwin (voice), Harry Belafonte, Craig muMs Grant, Damaris Lewis, Alan Gary.
Written by Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott, Based on the book by "Black Klansman" by Ron Stallworth.
Directed by Spike Lee.
So, let’s approach this as delicately as possible: I am a Caucasian man. I know this may come as a shock to some readers but most have probably figured it out already. As such, I am not qualified to know what racism feels like, nor do I have the first-hand experience of being called a racist epithet, nor have I been the recipient of any kind of abuse based on the color of my skin. Even so, I know stuff like that happens, and was especially prevalent after the Civil War, Reconstruction and right into the 20th Century. I’d like to think that such sentiments went away completely after the Civil Rights movement peaked in the 60s and 70s but alas, there are some who refuse to accept that all people are created equal. That said, I also believe things have slowly changed for the better. BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s (mostly) true story of an African American detective’s investigation into the Colorado Ku Klux Klan in the early 70s is a reminder of how bad things were at the very moment when the Civil Rights movement hit its peak.
John David Washington (the son of Denzel) plays Ron Stallworth, a rookie cop assigned to the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1972. After being relegated to the evidence room for a short period of time, Stallworth is eventually moved up to do some undercover work and infiltrate black student organizations. His first assignment is to keep an eye on the visiting Kwame Ture, a.k.a. Stokley Carmichael (Corey Hawkins). He eventually starts his own investigation into the KKK by responding to a local newspaper ad. Over the phone, Stallworth convinces the local KKK leader that he is not only white but also in agreement with the goals of “The Organization.” He makes the mistake of using his real name, which leads to the necessity of using a white officer to meet with the KKK in person. The man who gets this difficult assignment is Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish officer. As Stallworth continues his phone conversations with the KKK, he eventually makes contact with none other than David Duke (Topher Grace), who is convinced that he is as white as the driven snow. The investigation leads to knowledge of a plot to bomb a gathering of black students, specifically targeting local leader Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), Stallworth's love interest. Duke himself comes to town at the same time, and Stallworth is assigned to his security detail. The plot to bomb the students goes south fast, thanks to Flip and Stallworth’s inside knowledge.
BlacKkKlansman is an interesting film, and it has Spike Lee’s signature moves all over it. Trailers and other marketing material published before its release gave the impression that it was a dark comedy. While there are some absurd moments that are truly funny, the film ends on a very depressing note, suggesting that the country’s racist culture is right back where we were in the 60s and headed for worse. While Lee accurately presents some of the more publicized recent events involving white supremacists during the movie’s epilogue (the Aug. 10 release coincides with the first anniversary of the 2017 Charlottesville protests in which a young woman was killed by a man who plowed his car into a crowd), it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to think that things are worse now than they were in 1972. There are some recollections of some of the worst racist moments in the early 20th Century which should serve as a historical reminder of the past.
Then, there’s the present - and Trump. Spike makes no attempt at subtlety, inserting dialogue from KKK members who quip “America First” and Duke who reveals that his intent is to make America “great again.” The clear message is: Duke=Trump, and I can’t help but think such claims are not going to go over well with folks who voted for Trump and yet do not espouse any the ideals of the KKK. Make no mistake: BlacKkKlansman is a direct swipe at Trump, which may limit the audience to one side of the political aisle. In other words, I don’t think BlacKkKlansman will convince any Trump supporters to change their minds, in the off-hand chance that they should they see it unintentionally.
There are also several moments in which you have to wonder what kind of real threat the movie’s version of the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK presented since they seem incapable of formulating a coherent thought, let alone able to engage in any real attacks. Their cartoonish conversations make them seem more like a bunch of drunk rednecks than domestic terrorists. The climactic scene involving the failed bomb plot never happened, either.
Spike Lee’s filmmaking techniques are especially prevalent in BlacKkKlansman, including images that rely on dramatic camera angles and movements. I’m not a fan of his work, but I do see the appeal to those who like his style.
One thing I really liked about BlacKkKlansman was the casting of John David Washington as the main character. His understated persona and matter-of-fact delivery are perfect for the role of Stallworth, who spent the bulk of police career right here in Utah until his retirement in 2005. I also liked Adam Driver as Stallworth’s partner. His performance as a Jewish police officer forced to associate with the likes of racist idiots was spot-on.
Again, I’m just a Caucasian male film critic, and I will never know firsthand the pain caused by white supremacists. I do, however, adhere to the ideals of Martin Luther King, Jr., who rightfully suggested that we judge people by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin. If BlacKkKlansman does anything to keep our society moving in that direction, I’m good with that, too.