Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee delivers his best film in over 15 years with a true story of the KKK

Directed by Spike Lee
With John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace

Race relations in the US have hit new lows recently with the rise of the alt-right. The deadly march last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, inspired director Spike Lee to return to the topic that figured heavily in his early work. It is his best film since 25th Hour in 2002.

BlacKkKlansman, based on a true story, takes us back to the 1970s when the Black Power movement and the Ku Klux Klan are on a collision course in Colorado Springs, a predominantly white town in the middle of America.

BlacKkKlansman won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes film festival. That is the second-highest prize. The film also got a special mention in the Ecumenical Prize category. The top prize, the Palm d’Or, went to the Japanese film Shoplifting.

Lee approaches the material as a very dry comedy. The basic premise, while true, is absurd. Colorado Springs’ first black police officer goes undercover to join the Ku Klux Klan, a pro-white racist organization that arose after the Civil War to intimidate the black population.

The script is adapted from a memoir by retired police officer Ron Stallworth called Black Klansman (without the middle “k”).

In the film, Detective Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington) calls the KKK on the phone after seeing an advertisement in the local newspaper. The calls eventually lead to a meeting about possible membership, which Stallworth obviously can’t attend. He sends another police officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to actually meet the local Klan members. Zimmerman is Jewish, another group the Klan opposes.

Spike Lee sets a flippant tone from the start, with Alec Baldwin turning up to narrate a film about the alleged superiority of the white race, stumbling over his lines as stock footage is projected over his face. Just after this Stallworth, sporting an Afro haircut and hip clothes, sees a sign saying the local police force is looking for minorities to apply. The interview is massively awkward and uncomfortable.

Stallworth, after having routine tasks and facing some racism within the department, gets his big break when the police want to send someone to monitor a speech being given by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, who was then going by the name Kwame Ture.

Stallworth meets local African American activists, in particular, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), head of the black student union, and walks a fine line between becoming involved and monitoring the potential for violence.

Spike Lee contrasts the ideas of black power and white power, showing they are clearly not two sides of the same coin. One of the most powerful segments in this regard has an aging black activist, played by the legendary Harry Belafonte, recounting a lynching he saw as a boy, intercut with Klan leader David Duke (Topher Grace) addressing a KKK initiation. Both speakers wind up citing the early motion picture Birth of a Nation, one joyfully and the other in horror.

The contrasting of the two speeches is reminiscent of the baptism scene in The Godfather, where the solemn ceremony and string of mob hits are intercut.

The local branch of the KKK is shown as a bunch of deluded idiots, with at least one person clearly illiterate. People who saw the recent crime comedy I, Tonya will recognize the heavy-set actor-comic Paul Walter Hauser. He has almost exactly the same role as an idiotic mastermind who can’t keep a secret.

But underneath the somewhat comic veneer, there is a very serious side. Some of the KKK members advocate violent actions and are shown as being paranoid enough to actually carry out their plans.

Tension builds as one Klan member, in particular, is suspicious of Stallworth and starts looking into who he actually is.

The acting by the leads, especially Washington and Driver as the combined Ron Stallworth, is spot on. The driver, who has been a bit disappointing in the recent Star Wars films, in particular, creates a convincing character.

Lee also has a tendency to go over the top, throwing in-camera tricks and other distractions when they aren’t called for. He steps back a bit to let the material speak for itself. When he does step in to create a few director’s moments they are effective.

While the story is set in the 1970s, he doesn’t shy away from drawing parallels to recent events, especially at the powerful end of the film.

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