How’s this for a pitch: Black cop infiltrates and eventually becomes a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Now that we have your attention, here’s “BlacKkKlansman.”
“BlacKkKlansman” is directed by Spike Lee and stars John David Washington (Ron Stallworth), Adam Driver (Flip Zimmerman), Laura Harrier (Patrice Dumas), and Topher Grace (David Duke). The film retells the story of real-life cop, Ron Stallworth, who actually in honest-to-god-truth successfully infiltrated the KKK through his efforts as an undercover investigator in the Colorado Springs Police Department
The ultimate high point of “BlacKkKlansman” is truly stellar performances from the entire cast. John David Washington and Topher Grace are standouts and not only act well off of one another but give incredibly thorough and masterful performances within their own right. John David Washington, especially, brings such charm and sincerity to the role of Stallworth. Really fantastic.
Adam Driver’s apathetic approach works to his advantage here and his typical fare of deadpan delivery is a good fit. Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Paakonen are both horrifying and hilarious as KKK boobs Ivanhoe and Felix. Overall, a very strong ensemble with everyone going above and beyond in commitment to the script.
It’s fitting that “BlacKkKlansman” is such an actor’s film, as the film’s bread and butter is the great writing and dialogue. This film is very… uncomfortable to listen to. No matter how cynical you get or how exposed you are to the ugliness that lives within certain people, I don’t think you can ever really get used to hearing cruelty so easily spoken. You’d think one would get used to it. That was a huge strength of “BlacKkKlansman”. Listening to scenes in this movie was like taking a slap in the face over and over and over. It made the film much more jarring and impactful.
There’s something poetic, to me, about the fact that this film hinged so heavily on conversation. That conversations were central to all that moved this plot. When you really break it down, the film is having a much larger conversation. “BlacKkKlansman” is commenting on the past, present, and future conversation over the soul of America. Heavy stuff. Well done.
Speaking of “BlacKkKlansman” as a piece of social commentary is kind of mandatory. Spike Lee very intentionally set “BlacKkKlansman” to release in theaters on the one year anniversary of the incident of domestic terrorism from white supremacists in Charlottesville. There is a very deliberate break, at the end of the film, where the story that we’ve been watching gives way to a documentary type approach. It will be very familiar if you’ve watched the news recently. I understand the point and no one is forgetting that this is a Spike Lee film; the point is going to be hammered home, goddammit. However, this really didn’t do it for me. Not a complaint so much as a nitpick preference.
For me, “BlacKkKlansman” would have been a more powerful experience overall if the “documentary short” section at the very end of the film had been removed, and the undertones weaving through the primary story were allowed to carry us. Trust me. Nobody is going to miss what this movie is actually about.
(Pardon me, as I climb up onto this soapbox.)
I exited the film and engaged in some light conversation with other screening attendees, on my way out I heard the sort of comments that probably wouldn’t make their way into polite conversations with strangers. A popular criticism is that “Hollywood” should not exist as a political space. That entertainment cannot be political and that for it to be so is somehow unfair.
Let me tell you something.
You may be forking over for “Deadpool 2” and having an entertaining couple of hours, but film is not a void. It’s art. And art is inherently a political act. It’s a time capsule, it’s a fantasy, it’s a perspective, and it speaks. LOUDLY.
Do not blame the movie for speaking where you, as an individual, feel you are lacking.
(Steps off soapbox)
In addition to the… scathing… political commentary, “BlacKkKlansman” is the more hip and edgy cousin to Marvel’s “Black Panther.”The movie pays great homage to black culture in cinema and leans in hard on the image and tone the Blaxploitation sub-genre of the early 70s. There are several masterful moments of cinematography in this film and one of my favorites mirrors something straight out of “Cleopatra Jones.” Not to mention that the costumes in this film are rad as hell.
An aside in “BlacKkKlansman” that I find incredibly interesting is the film’s criticism of other films, that portray the Antebellum South, namely “Gone With the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation.” Of course, “The Birth of a Nation” makes sense in this context as it is one of the most blatantly racist pieces in cinema and focuses entirely on exalting the Ku Klux Klan. It came as no surprise that the film was put on blast. The “Gone With the Wind” section was… interesting. It was one of the first images in “BlacKkKlansman” and the original audio was dubbed over to include more dialogue from Scarlett O’Hara. Worth noting is that this ad-libbed audio was much more attached to the Confederacy than the lines from the actual film. I walked away assuming it was a hamfisted illustration of how a beloved movie can praise the “other side” and that the tables were about to be turned. Catch me on your own time about my thoughts on studying films like “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” in cinema classes (both films were included in my own film class curriculums).
The fact that “BlacKkKlansman” is a very in-your-face movie is par for the course; it is, after all a Spike Lee film. I went in prepared for a certain level of that. However, that does not exempt “BlacKkKlansman” from sometimes becoming so aggressive that it was a detriment to the entire film. This film had a lack of focus, it was very clear that the film was trying to explore as many relevant themes as possible. Unfortunately, some of those slipped through the cracks. Elements of this movie were so rigid, that it took the reasonable perspective on the larger issues and buried it under anger. Which, honestly, might have been a choice. I can’t tell whether or not it was intentional, honestly. But I can tell you that it didn’t work.
Subtetly is not in Spike Lee’s vocabulary and he basically chunked the term out the window for this one. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, but it did make some of the portrayals cartoonish to the point that it didn’t quite fit with the grave subject matter. I’ll give it to him though; Spike Lee is one of the very few who can make David Duke funny and get away with it.
To wrap up on this Spike Lee joint: “BlacKkKlansman” is a timely piece and certainly worth seeing, if for no other reason than the overall cultural conversation that will undoubtedly surround the film’s release. This film has “film school semester paper” written all over it, though it has its flaws. I could honestly recommend it for a matinee.
Featured photo credit: David Lee / Focus Features
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.