“We had a great way of life.”
One of the best films of 2018 and certain to become a controversial conversation starter, BlacKkKlansman portrays a stark and true story with a retrograde eye for all things 70’s that is, quite depressingly, still coursing through the country with a modern specificity. We all have red and blue literally running through our veins, the blood’s color changing from side to side, and what’s so great about the picture is that it digs into how those political identities can be governed or merely tinged by our upbringing and geographic location and skin-tone. BlacKkKlansman, with its blaxploitation style, is an investigation of class and social privilege, and it’s a Superfly roundhouse kick to the jaws of those who still don’t believe we’ve all been created equal. It is, quite simply, an unsettling, uncomfortable knockout.
BlacKkKlansman – a picture rich is film history – begins with the famous “Battle of Atlanta” scene from Gone With the Wind. In it, Scarlett O’Hara walks through the fields of the slain, and the camera carefully pulls back with patience to show the scale of loss as a privileged woman searches for humanity in the pitches of great devastation. Segue to Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) speaking directly to the camera, his face in front of and blended into footage of obvious racial discrimination, advocating for the prolific rise and continued stronghold of his white brethren, harking through flubbed lines his plea for an end to miscegenation and racial equality. Dr. Beauregard finalizes his hate speech by saying, “May God Bless Us All.” Except he doesn’t mean it, really. Nor do so many who claim to pledge allegiance to our flag.
Based on the experiences of the quiet spoken Ron Stallworth, BlacKkKlansman finds a careful and cautious leading performance through the work of newcomer John David Washington, heir apparent to his father Denzel’s throne. Through him we get the privilege to watch a minority present himself as he is and who many think him to be, and after all of the effort, become an accepted part of his workplace community. Colorado Springs is looking for folks to sign up and he volunteers. Ron has no hesitance for this line of duty, offering a self-promotion from the file room to the undercover unit. Off to a Black rally he goes, meeting student leader Patrice (Laura Harrier) and listening to an inspiring sermon from Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, who gives one of the best, most fleeting supporting performances of the year). It’s clear from this sequence that Spike Lee is in absolute control of this latest joint. Ture preaches and projects, and the camera hangs on the faces of Black men and women in the crowd who desperately want to be seen by a country that sees them as an other. It’s a pivotal, powerful moment when people of color finally get the limelight and its beauty left my jaw in my hands.
Things get more serious when Ron cold-calls the local KKK chapter. Because he’s a man of all people, and because his perfectly groomed afro gets to hide behind a rotary phone, his “white voice” convinces the other end that he’s down to join the cause. His new partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish man who wears the Star of David around his neck, is tasked with playing Ron and proving his skin in this shared game by meeting the local skinheads. There’s the eager, chummy Walter (Ryan Eggold), this chapter’s President. Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) is a drunkard with a nicotine dip in his lip. Always skeptical is Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), the most radical and committed to the cause, possibly even a purge. Flip passes the test though, convincing these radicals that he’s really Ron, going deeper and deeper undercover until he gets the “honor” of meeting the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace). Duke is the scariest man in the film, much to the credit of Grace’s performance, because his three-piece suit and casual exterior normalize the hate burning inside him. This is a man who’s written his own kind of “Mein Kampf,” yet he looks like the guy you’d see in the front row of Church every Sunday morning. I find that terrifying, as should you.
While it’s far from perfect – some things just seem to happen out of nowhere and character motivation isn’t always clear – the film’s flaws seem representative of humanity’s collective unpredictability. So even though there are narrative issues, the punches thrown throughout hit us square in the chin every single time. Its aim is true. When Felix plots a threat, he dares to romanticize it by quoting MLK. When Ron shrugs at the political aspirations of the KKK leader, telling his White sergeant, “America would never elect a man like David Duke,” he’s told to open his eyes. The most potent, disgusting moment comes when the Klansmen and their women celebrate Duke’s visit by watching D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in their solid-white robes. They kick and cheer and scream like kids in a candy store, knowing that their sweet tooths for hate will be projected on-screen with a cherry on top. What makes BlacKkKlansman masterful is also what makes it revolting and stomach churning. It tackles the macro issues of human understanding on a micro level. We’re not at the lobby floor anymore, but more base people are being encouraged to press the down button, and it’s undoing any semblance of upward progress.
His best film since 2002’s 25th Hour (although I greatly enjoyed 2015’s Chi-Raq), BlacKkKlansman is somehow one of Lee’s most accessible movies whilst also being one of his most condemning. The movie challenges identity and how we frame our differences (pay attention to the phone conversations between Ron and David…they’re at a slanted disconnect for a reason). It’s no mistake that this feature was released on the anniversary of the attack in Charlottesville, or that this piercing, brutally honest story ends in a tribute to said events. BlacKkKlansman assures us that history is able to repeat itself when we accept hate and falsely purport acceptance for all. Through comedy, drama, and a historical backdrop that never once feels like a flat period piece, the auteur Lee is able to deftly blend the contemptuous derision of our culture’s all-seeing eye through the then’s ability to hide behind a phone, a hood, or a lie. If it at all feels nightmarish, it’s because the movie wants to wrestle us awake.
“Why don’t you wake up?”
Rating: 5 out of 5