Tuesday, September 18, 2018


Directed by Spike Lee.
2018. Rated R, 135 minutes.
John David Washington
Adam Driver
Laura Harrier
Topher Grace
Robert John Burke
Corey Hawkins
Jasper Pääkkönen
Ryan Eggold
Paul Walter Houser
Ashlie Atkinson
Harry Belafonte
Alec Baldwin

It's the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (Washington) is a fresh-out-of-the-academy rookie in the Colorado Springs Police Department. After some time toiling away in the records room, he's picked for an assignment that, frankly, only he could complete: going undercover at a rally where well known activist Stokely Carmichael, who has just recently changed his name to Kwame Ture (Hawkins), will give a speech. While there, Ron becomes smitten with Patrice (Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College which organized the rally. All of this, including Ron's run-ins with a blatantly racist fellow officer, serves as the impetus for his grand idea. He wants to investigate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan for criminal activities. Here's the kicker: he would do all the phone communicating with the Klan while Detective Flip Zimmerman (Driver), a white officer would play him in person. Ron's boss, Chief Bridges (Burke), somehow goes for this and gives him the green light.

In case you haven't heard, BlacKkKlansman is based on a true story. Lee does take some poetic license, but still, the cliches "stranger than fiction" and "we can't make this stuff up" spring to mind. The tale's implausibility provides much of the film's initial intrigue. The working environment of our hero does the rest. Not only is Ron a rookie, he is the first black officer in the history of the department. His relationship with his co-workers is, of course, put into sharp focus. Quickly enough, as mentioned, love is in the air. These comparatively normal elements keep us engaged while we work our way to the real meat of the story.

Often, the problem easiest to spot in a Spike Lee joint is sub-par acting. That's no issue here as BlacKkKlansman employs one of the director's best ensembles. John David Washington plays the lead and does the part justice. He brings the confidence needed to make us believe that his character would even suggest this investigation. What he proposes is insane, on its face. For a rookie, and only black officer, to get the words out of his mouth requires great courage. Washington never makes us doubt that he's such a guy. I'm sure some of this is hereditary. To his credit, however, the swag he carries feels very different than that of his iconic father, Denzel. He doesn't have the same larger-than-life quality as dad, but he's certainly not lacking in that department.

The supporting cast does a wonderful job bridging the gaps in our hero's screen-time. Due to the nature of the plot, there are several chunks of time where our hero is either not on the screen, or just a reactionary figure. During these intervals, the film is largely turned over to Adam Driver who delivers another in a string of excellent performances away from the Star Wars universe. In many ways, his character is the most interesting person in the film. He's Jewish, yet because of his skin color, he's tasked with being face-to-face with people spewing as much venom his way as they do at Stallworth. He's also the one most often in imminent danger as some of the Klansmen suspect his heritage. This gives us some of the movie's most intense scenes. Driver and Spike Lee pull us through them in a manner making us both crave and dread what could happen next.

Adam Driver is clearly the standout, but his cast mates come up big, as well. Laura Harrier, as Ron's love interest Patrice, is very good. She gets to sink her teeth into a role requiring her character to have thoughts independent of her desire to be with the film's heroic male. Eventually, she devolves into a bit of a damsel in distress. By this point, she's built up enough cache for us to let that slide. The rest of the gentlemen playing Stallworth's fellow officers and the local Klansmen all handle their roles well. Topher Grace, as national Klan leader David Duke, is a bit of a weak link. He doesn't seem charismatic nor authoritative enough. On the other hand, he is sufficiently slimy, so there's that.

As a storyteller, Spike Lee is as proficient as ever. While drama and tension steer the ship, it's always floating on an undercurrent of humor. There are some laugh out loud moments and many more uneasy chuckles. This keeps BlacKkKlansman moving at a brisk pace. There are also a number of the beautifully framed shots e's become known for. Near the film's end, we get one of the best uses of the director's trademark double-dolly shots. If you've seen a Spike Lee joint, you know what I'm talking about even if you're not familiar with the terminology. It's those shots in really all of his films where characters seem to be floating toward the camera. It's done masterfully, here.

Lee's greatest accomplishment in BlacKkKlansman is turning what many see as a weakness into a strength. Ever political, his films often come across as heavy-handed. For most of this movie, his touch is relatively light, considering how much more overboard he could've been, given the subject matter. There are plenty of flourishes true to Lee's distinct style, but it never feels like he's beating you over the head...until he does. Even without Lee hammering it home on a repeated basis, it's abundantly clear that this isn't just a story from the past, but one still relevant to contemporary times. After the proper story ends, Lee makes sure you didn't miss the point. The logical side of me says the movie would work just fine without these extraneous few minutes. It's message is loud and clear. Something tells me, and I don't know him, that Lee knows this, too. However, what he does is undeniably impactful. It's one of those rare instances when I was stunned into immobility as the end credits start rolling. That's a good thing.

Race might be at the forefront of this film, but it's not merely about the juxtaposition and conflict between black and white. It's also about the search for self-identification and the various ways we choose to present ourselves to the world. If put to music, Paul Laurence Dunbar's famous poem "We Wear the Mask" would be a fitting theme song. The opening line, "We wear the mask that grins and lies" was written in the shadow of the Civil War explicitly regarding African-Americans and the way they must behave in front of whites, to oversimplify. Well over a century later, it sill applies. Specific to this film, it not only applies to Ron Stallworth, but to Flip Zimmerman, as well. To some degree, we all wear masks to appease some segment of the population that they deal with. Depending on a person's experience, the toll this takes ranges from slight to severe. This movie dives deep into this issue and doesn't necessarily come up with answers. In fact, the very end that links the events of the plot to current day America, we realize Spike Lee is as frustrated as we are. He used that frustration to make BlacKkKlansman his best film since 2006's Inside Man.

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  1. Great review as always as I'm glad you enjoyed this film. It's currently my favorite film of the year so far. I loved the music in the film including Prince at the end yet I was more surprised in hearing of all things. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's "Lucky Man" in a Spike Lee Joint. That is something I never thought would happen. I guess he's a closet prog-rock fan. I also really enjoyed the casting of the film as there were some standouts including Paul Walter Hauser as the dim-witted KKK guy who says some funny shit as he is the same who played Shawn Eckhart in I, Tonya as I was like "oh, it's that guy". He's really fucking good. I also like John David Washington as I'm glad he's not trying to be like his dad as he's got a bright future ahead of him.

    1. Spike's use of music is very underrated. He often uses a pretty wide variety. His high-water mark in that regard is probably He Got Game. Technically, the soundtrack is all Public Enemy. The score used in the film, however, includes them, along with jazz, rock, and classical. And that whole cast was magnificent.

  2. Great review! I'm glad you liked this too. I like that he went there with the ending. It was bold, and the people currently excusing the racism in our country deserve to be beat over the head with it.

    I like that the only similarity between John and Denzel is their voice. I would be easy for him to mimic his dad and he doesn't.

    1. "the people currently excusing the racism in our country deserve to be beat over the head with it."


  3. So glad you liked this! That ending seems to have stunned a lot of people into immobility; it's one hell of a gut punch. Seeing this with an audience was one of the highlights of my filmgoing year. What a roller coaster of genuine laughter and uncomfortable laughter! Really loved Harry Belafonte's cameo, too. So much of this was done so well, and I totally agree with you on that incredible double dolly shot at the end. PERFECT.

    1. Aw man, I forgot to mention Belafonte's cameo. That was intense!

  4. This is an excellent review and really makes me want to see this film even more than before. I can't believe that this is a true story and I admire the man who did this. When I heard that Topher Grace was David Duke, I shook my head because i can't picture him as the strong, sinister evil man that this jerk is. I picture Topher playing goofy guys, smarmy, nerdy etc... but not this role. regardless, it sounds excellent

    1. And that's exactly how Grace comes off. Didn't quite work as well as it should, but the rest of the movie definitely does. Thanks!