Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

BlacKkKlansman

Rating

Director

Spike Lee

Screenplay

Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee

Length

2h 15m

Starring

John David Washington, Adam Driver, Robert John Burke, Brian Tarantina, Arthur Nascarella, Ken Garito, Frederick Weller, Michael Joseph Buscemi, Laura Harrier, Damaris Lewis, Ato Blankson-Wood, Corey Hawkins, Dared Wright, Faron Salisbury, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Paakkonen, Paul Walter Hauser, Topher Grace, Alec Baldwin

MPAA Rating

R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references

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Review

Long a voice for black America at the cinema, Spike Lee delivers his finest film in several years in the form of BlacKkKlansman, a potent look at the Ku Klux Klan and the hate bubbling under the fabric of American civilization.

Based on the true story of a black police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado who went undercover as a member of the Ku Klux Klan in order to keep tabs on the insidious organization from the inside. John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, a recent transfer to the Colorado Springs police department who faces some measure of resistance from his fellow officers, but ultimately earns his stripes in the department by leading the task force to infiltrate the KKK.

Taking out a KKK membership in his own name, Washington is unable to physically interact with the Klan, sending in his fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to act as his white form. While Zimmerman isn’t a practicing Jew, a member of the Klan picks up on his supposedly Jewish traits and the resultant mistrust almost derails the entire case.

Washington is Denzel’s son and the familiar cadence and acting style of his father comes through clearly, but that’s not to his detriment. His performance here is strong on its own merits with that familiarity adding depth rather than distraction to the role. Driver also exhibits fine work, as does the rest of the cast.

What shines through more than the performances is the tight direction from Lee and the intense editing work that keeps the film flowing from beat to beat expertly. This isn’t your garden variety action film, but its pace and structure suggest it is. That said, as the film trundles towards its conclusion, as the Klan plans to carry out a secret, sinister plot, the tension ratchets up and the final sequence is overall a brilliantly orchestrated and cut finale.

Lee is no stranger to cinema, having been a director for over thirty years. That experience only intensifies the passionate and humane picture on display in BlacKkKlansman. His treatment of characters, even those with whom he vehemently disagrees, are given some measure of humanity, even if their bigotry defines their character. One particular scene, where one of the Klan members shares an intimate moment with his wife, who has agreed to take part in the scheme, comes off well, painting these individuals as regular folk who just happen to have insidious beliefs. And therein lies Lee’s most stinging rebuke.

By not portraying the Klan as cartoonish, moustache-twirling villains, he helps the audience identify the types of attitudes and behaviors that permeate our society. These purportedly gentle, god-fearing people are willing to kill in order to carry out their disgusting world view. This is no better exhibited than the codicil that follows the main narrative of the film.

In this cinematic post-script, we’re brought forward to recent events, specifically the heinous vehicular attack on protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia that left Heather Heyer dead. We see first hand again how little has changed and the audience is left with feelings of sorrow and disgust. Lee’s hope is that these events, paired with the forthright way in which the story is told will help connect modern audiences to the truths about contemporary society and the culture of more than forty years ago and just how little progress has been made.

Not only is BlacKkKlansman a riveting look at a compelling event in black history, it’s something of a call to arms for modern viewers to stand up against hate and bigotry. It wants us to know that we still have a long way to go and the violence won’t stop simply because we think it has. Post-racial America doesn’t exist yet, though with films like this leading the charge, perhaps we can one day get there.

Review Written

March 12, 2019

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