By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Three Beers) –
The year is 1979 and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has become the first African American detective for the police department of Colorado Springs, CO. He rises in ranks quickly, due to his diligence and creative ideas. Shortly after being assigned to do undercover work at a Black Power rally, he spots a newspaper wanted ad for the local KKK. He responds by calling the number, and proceeds to become the first (and probably only) card-carrying African American ever inducted into the organization.
Credentials nearly as impressive as that ‘fro
He partners with Jewish Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to masquerade as Stallworth when in-person at Klan meetings. Together they work to bring down the local branch of the organization from within.
While 2015’s Chi-raq saw Spike Lee return to bold political and social commentary on a large scale, that film was marred by a handful of cartoonish moments that severely undercut the film’s message. Spike Lee will never be accused of being a subtle filmmaker, but there is no law saying subtlety is required with art. Lack of it becomes a problem only when it intrudes upon the goals the artist seeks to accomplish with their work. At his best, Lee’s films walk that line with daring and entertaining abandon, but all tightrope walks threaten to end in disaster.
see also; Bamboozled (2000)
With BlacKKKLansman, Lee reins in his overwrought tendencies just enough to show that he has control over his movie. This seems to be paying off dividends with audiences and critics alike, as this is one of Lee’s biggest box office successes, and his only one in more than a decade. The film manages a few scenes of pure tension that are as powerful as anything he’s put to celluloid.
The story is very straightforward, relying on John David Washington and Adam Driver to push the story forward. Fortunately the two have excellent chemistry as partners and play off of each other quite well. John David Washington is quickly making himself an essential up and coming performer, and admittedly it doesn’t hurt that he inherited his father’s gift for oratory. JD Washington thankfully doesn’t lean on his Hollywood nobility in his performances, instead forging an identity of his own that is no less worthwhile.
Lee’s biggest success in this film, however, is in his depiction of the KKK members. In the past Lee has struggled with portraying racists as anything but rabid, frothing hate mongers. While there are plenty of those out there (and a few in this movie), the truth is many active white supremacists conceal their hate behind a veil of polite discourse. The leader of the Colorado Springs KKK in this film Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) and National Grand Dragon David Duke (Topher Grace) are perfect examples of this. They are no less discriminatory than their more radical peers, but their calm and bureaucratic demeanor arguably make them more of a threat, as they are more likely to reach positions of power. The film even hints at the danger of this in a scene where it is revealed that the KKK has people employed by NORAD.
Lee can’t help but leave a few base racist stereotypes in the film, and they often serve as comic relief. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy laughing at the stupidity and ignorance of baseless hatred. But these moments occur in scenes where the events being chronicled demand more serious treatment. The film’s script lands far too many solid body blows with its humor and irony without resorting to these occasional cheap shots.
So glad we don’t see bureaucratic hate anymore….. wait.
The film’s greatest weakness is in Lee’s abuse of artistic license with the facts. I don’t mind the fact that a higher-stakes climax was created for the film, but the entire subplot in which Stallworth falls for a radical Black Power activist felt underwritten and shoehorned in. The movie is best when it focuses on the investigation. Actress Laura Harrier does what she can with the 2-dimensional character she is given. The irony is her activist character is arguably the most stereotypically written character in the film. In the end, these flaws don’t fatally harm the movie, but released just a little bit after Sorry to Bother You, the movie can’t help but feel antiquated.
BlacKKKlansman feels like Spike Lee’s most polished and thought through movie in years, if a little behind the times when compared to other contemporary works in a similar vein.
BlacKKKlansman (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: any time the Klan is referred to by name
Take a Drink: for the inevitable epithets
Take a Drink: for every Afro haircut
Do a Shot: for on screen alcohol consumption