By Jason Abdow
Whether it’s with his films or with his words, Spike Lee has become one of the boldest and most unapologetic voices in Hollywood. While some might see Lee’s constant political and social messaging as problematic, I have always supported filmmakers choosing to use their art to make a statement as long as they do it well, and sadly this decade has not been kind to Lee. His filmography has been inconsistent at best, meaning that we could have been in for another messy film with “BlacKkKlansman.” This being said, Lee has yet to make a film in the Trump-era, where racial division has seemingly become more of a hot button issue, and with Jordan Peele producing this after last year’s Oscar-winning “Get Out”, it was hard to not go in optimistic.
After a couple days of reflection, I am happy to announce that this might just be Spike Lee’s best film in well over a decade. The way Lee is able to connect this true story to the racism we see today is bold, powerful and could have been embarrassing if done by a lesser writer/director. The film is inspired by the true life story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American detective of the Colorado Springs police department, as he infiltrates a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan using a white detective (Adam Driver) as his physical stand in. The basic premise alone is the kind of strange true story that was just waiting to become a movie and every aspect of “BlacKkKlansman” helps to make this come alive.
The entire ensemble of actors does a great job, particularly our main two leads. John David Washington proves to be more than just the son of Denzel Washington, but a very capable actor in his own right. He brings plenty of charisma to his portrayal of Stallworth as well as some intensity when needed. Adam Driver’s nuanced role as the Jewish cop who is physically meeting with the Klan throughout the movie should also not be overlooked. Driver is often put in the film’s most tense scenes and his performance often helps to add to the tension as he tries to play off being the white supremacist they think he is. Topher Grace’s small supporting role as Klan Grand Wizard David Duke is also terrific. While Grace could have gone for a comically evil take on the real life white supremacist, he instead grounds Duke in reality, which is even scarier as you can see why so many people at this time saw him as respectable, despite his disgusting views.
The real star of this movie, however, is clearly Spike Lee. Both as a writer and a director, he shines through here. As I mentioned before, there are several allusions to modern politics during this movie. And while some might argue against putting these into a period piece, I think it was a great way to add to the conversation of the film. Also none of these connections to modern politics feel unnatural to the context of the film. For example, as seen in the trailer, there is a scene at a Klan gathering where the room of Klansmen start cheering “America First,” a not-so-subtle nod to Donald Trump’s own promise to put “America First.” Despite the connection, the line makes total sense in the context of the scene, making it seem less jarring and keeping it from dating the movie too much.
In addition to this, Lee also is careful in assembling several different viewpoints and fleshing them out well. The most interesting of these differing viewpoints comes with the conversations between Stallworth and his girlfriend Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) as they discuss different ways to gain racial equality. Stallworth believes he can make more of a difference by fighting within law enforcement while Patrice thinks working with these racist institutions only makes you more of an enemy. The film is wise to let this remain a philosophical disagreement without taking too strong of a side on the issue. Despite following Stallworth, it is easy to see how someone could end up disagreeing with him. I do wish they had gone into why the white supremacists were so deeply hateful but I was surprised by how much of an effort Lee made to paint these horrible people as human.
Even from a technical viewpoint, Lee took control by making the smart decision to shoot on film, giving “BlacKkKlansman” a grittier aesthetic and making it feel like it takes place in the 1970s. There are also some strange editing choices that were made that certainly give many of these scenes character. For example, there is a scene where Stallworth is referencing popular Blaxploitation movies of the time like “Shaft” and “Superfly” and the posters cover the screen like some kind of weird YouTube video essay. While not all of these decisions work, they certainly add energy to the film throughout, making the over two hour runtime fly by. Lee’s vision also works well with Terence Blanchard’s terrific 70s inspired score to completely engage you into the setting.
The real issue I can see people ultimately having with “BlacKkKlansman” is the ending sequence that edits together real life footage from last year’s devastating and tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is an obvious way to showcase that the racism presented in the film is still very much present in today’s world, and sadly, without getting too political, many of our elected officials are still ignorant to these realities. The shift is jarring and heavy handed and I can see why people would walk away from it feeling like it was forced, because in a way it was. But, as I said before, Spike Lee made this movie to stir conversation and this is certainly a way to do that. It is a lot easier to downplay the racism of the 1970s when we see it depicted in present day, but it is much harder to ignore it when you see that same racism being shown to you in a contemporary context. So ultimately, I thought this sequence was undoubtedly powerful and had me leaving the theater more emotional than I had been throughout the entire movie.
I rarely say this but I do feel that “BlacKkKlansman” is one of the films that feels like an event that needs to be supported. The messaging behind it is without a doubt important and crucial to today and will likely spark some kind of discussion once you leave the theater. It is also great to see Spike Lee back to showing us why he is one of the most important filmmakers of the last few decades. I would be shocked if Lee and this film were not being discussed later this year for awards consideration and it will undoubtedly deserve that attention. While the summer movie season is dying down, I would highly recommend you do yourselves the service of seeing what will likely go down as one of 2018’s best.