Film Review – BlacKkKlansman
The great revelation of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) is how imagery can be used as powerful motivators, cultivating the way people feel and act. Throughout his entire career, Lee has been deeply concerned with racism in our society and how it has survived and evolved throughout the decades. He’s never been one for subtlety, and his latest feature shows that passion focused into laser sharp clarity. This is his best film in years, an urgent examination of race relations that may be set in the 1970s but feels so contemporary that it could pulled out of today’s headlines. What makes it all the more intriguing is that – as described in the opening credits – it’s “based on some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t.”
Early on, Lee incorporates clips from two important cinematic works: Gone With The Wind (1939) and The Birth of a Nation (1915). Both are viewed as milestones in craft and ingenuity, yet are highly problematic in their depictions of black people as either “happy slaves” or savages. Lee uses this foundation to tell the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Through his resourcefulness and ambitious nature, Stallworth quickly goes from pushing paperwork to leading a major undercover investigation. Amazingly, he found a way to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, uncovering a deadly plot that became all the more dangerous the further he delved into the case.
How exactly does a black man successfully penetrate a group whose actions are based solely on the color of a person’s skin? This is where the themes of imagery and facades come into play. Stallworth interacts with chapter members on the phone using a “white voice” (the same idea was explored in Sorry To Bother You from earlier this year), and when a face-to-face meeting is necessary, his fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) acts in his place. They effectively create a two-man operation where both play the same person. This premise leads to humorous moments of Stallworth and Zimmerman fooling the KKK, but also to some disgustingly vile conversations where they have to play along with the bigotry and hate. The deception worked so well that Stallworth managed to strike up a friendship with the Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke (Topher Grace).
Seeing Stallworth spew hateful words to appease the KKK does come off strangely funny, especially when we see the reactions of his fellow police officers. Yet this is not a straight out comedy. Lee – along with cowriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott (adapting the real Ron Stallworth’s memoir) – is far more concerned with the serious implications of this story and the grander themes at play. David Duke, with his gentlemanlike personality, represents a type of racism that is not as easy to combat. Racism is not just found in bad words or physical violence, but is also ingrained in the fabric of government institutions, resulting in inequalities with income, health care, and general opportunities to elevate one’s standard of living. Duke represents racism in the political spectrum, and the narrative drops some obvious ties to current events.
The emotional stakes between the characters is realized in brilliant fashion. Here is Stallworth whom, as a police officer, is put in positions that compromises his moral beliefs. He enters a romantic relationship with a prominent Black Panther leader (Laura Harrier), but the reason they even met was because he was assigned to go undercover to gather intel on the Black Panther organization – no doubt ordered by his superiors with racist motivations. Stallworth fully believes himself to be a good and honest cop, yet the very fact that he is an officer would paint him as a traitor for those working for black freedom and empowerment. John David Washington handles this inner conflict with the precise right tones. He never goes over the top, his reactions and gestures feel genuine and of the moment.
Zimmerman, arguably, has the more dangerous job of being the face to Stallworth’s voice. He’s thrown into the lion’s den, and the realization that he is a non-practicing Jew lends to a heightened level of tension when surrounded by racists who are also firmly anti-Semitic. Driver gives a tremendous, multilayered performance. When undercover, he is constantly on eggshells, teetering on being discovered at any given moment. In fact, the plot gets the most suspenseful when fellow Klan member Felix (played with frightening intensity by Jasper Paakkonen) suspects him as a Jew and spends the entirety of the runtime trying to confirm those feelings. It’s almost tragic how Zimmerman is forced to deny who he is. Where Stallworth is never not viewed as a black man, Zimmerman’s skin color allows him to refute his cultural heritage. Where Stallworth is given the respite of a love interest, Zimmerman seems entirely existent to the job. He can pass as white, and we sense that he has been doing so as a survival tactic long before this case came to be. He is hiding in plain sight. While this way of life may have helped him endure, we wonder how much of his soul was compromised because of it.
Spike Lee was always a filmmaker who hammered down his messages, and BlacKkKlansman is no exception. But his approach this go around never drifts. His signature visual technique – in which the cinematography is manipulated to make it seem as though characters are floating in mid air – is done perhaps better this time than ever before. Chayse Irvin’s gliding camera shot indicates to us that despite the work that Stallworth, Zimmerman, and their team did, there is far more to do when it comes to fighting racism. This is further exemplified in what is certain to be the most talked about sequence of the film – the inclusion of real life news footage of racially charged protests and riots taken just in the last few years, culminating in the Charlottesville car attack on August 12th, 2017, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer (the film is dedicated to her). This montage punches us in our faces, shaking us out of the fantasy of watching a movie and forcing us to see the real lives that are at stake.
BlacKkKlansman is a remarkable achievement by a re-energized filmmaker. There are those who write off Spike Lee, who assume he has nothing new to say. And yet every few years he comes back with something that causes audiences and critics alike to come together in profound conversation. This ranks amongst the top tier of his career work, and is easily one of the best films of the year.