Rated: R for language, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references
Run time: 135 minutes
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Harry Belafonte, Alec Baldwin
Director: Spike Lee
BlacKkKlansman defied my expectations in ways that I was not prepared for. Based on the name alone, I am sure you can tell that this film will piss some people off. And that is a shame because it is a beautifully done film with a worth while message. John David Washington portrays Ron Stallworth, a black cop from Colorado Springs that is able to infiltrate the KKK. This film has a surprising number of laughs, takes you on twists and turns that you don’t expect, and has a pretty great cast over all. It was a relief to watch a film like this without it being bogged down with too many caricatures and tropes. There were a few, but in the end, they didn’t matter that much. Spike Lee did a great job at capturing the mood of the era and portraying a specific moment in history while telling a story that is, at its core, about the present.
The issues that I had with this film were quite minimal. The first third of the movie felt very slow moving. But, everything that happened in that portion of film had a great pay off at some point. There were a couple of characters that felt unnecessary at the time, but in retrospect did serve a purpose of their own. There was one partially unresolved storyline at the end, but again, in the grand scheme of things, that did not ruin the film as a whole.
This film did a great job at telling one man’s story. However, Lee strived to show the parallels between Stallworth’s story in the 1970s and the current state of our country. At times, it was a little obvious that he was trying to call out Donald Trump through certain lines of dialogue or actions of characters. But, the last five minutes of the film make it painstakingly obvious that this entire film was speaking to the problems we are still facing today. I have never sat in a theater so silent as when the footage from Charlottesville started playing on the screen. You could feel a palpable shift in the theater. It was a stark reminder that, yes this was a fun movie, but it was also a message about the discrimination and hatred that still exist today.
BlacKkKlansman is the first Spike Lee film I’ve had the honor of watching in a theater and what an incredible experience it was.
There are tonal shifts everywhere in this film. It is a somber historical drama, a buddy cop comedy, a crime thriller and a wrenching warning about racism and hate that, as the closing images remind everyone, are just as much of a threat today as they were in 1978. To successfully achieve all these necessary tonal differences, Lee uses an assortment of technical flourishes typically underused by studio backed biographical and historical films. Early scenes in the film consist of very subtle editing and occasional absence of decoupage, allowing the audience to hone in on the personalities of Ron, who infiltrates the KKK over the phone, Flip (Adam Driver), an officer who meets with the “organization” under the guise of being Ron Stallworth and Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of a black student union at Colorado College.
The editing and composition become more frequent and urgent as Ron and Flip infiltrate deeper into the hate group and begin to discover their intelligence operation may turn into an opportunity thwart a terrorist attack. Speaking of composition, kudos to Lee for demonstrating the effective way to use canted angles in a scene where Ron is caught off guard by the realization that the “organization” member he is taking to on the phone is none other than David Duke (Topher Grace in an unexpectedly great turn).Take note Tom Hooper, this is how canted angles should be used.
The script, which Lee wrote with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, takes the threat posed by hate groups seriously, even if featuring many members of such groups in scenes that border on and occasionally become caricature. You have to be stupid to believe in anything these groups promote, but stupid people can still be quite dangerous.
The script also masterfully indicts several supposedly great films for their part in imparting racist attitudes on many of the white characters from an early age. In one stunning sequence, a witness to a hate crime tells his story to a large group of young civil rights activists, and this is juxtaposed with a KKK initiation ceremony that includes a screening of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation, the first epic film and one adapted from a novel and a play that were titled The Clansman. Lee’s film doesn’t just go after hate groups, but wisely attacks other societal factors that allows these groups to thrive and continue to attract support.
John David Washington and Adam Driver are phenomenal in their roles. I’m excited to see what Washington, who currently has few film credits to his name, will do next. As for Driver, what a winning streak this guy has been on lately!
I also want to take a moment and praise the amazing score by Terence Blanchard. It’s very 70s in the best way. Blanchard emphasizes horns and electric guitar for a sound that is equal parts sorrow, anger and intrigue.
This is a film that many will write off and avoid because they are too cowardly to spend two hours examining the ugly side of American culture and history and of themselves. That’s a shameful response, and one that will only perpetuate hatred and a lack of understanding.
The film ends with an upside down American flag. Given everything that unfolds onscreen before it, the image seems completely justified. Some will find it off putting, but what is really off putting is the continued influence hate has over politics and many other fabrics of daily American life.