What should audiences expect from a Spike Lee joint? The notoriously political filmmaker has made a career directing films that pack a powerfully provocative punch.
BlackKklansman delivers just this, existing as a return to form for the artist. Unequivocally purposed as biting social commentary, wrought with deft directing, armed with judicious timeliness and peppered with humor; BlackKklansman successfully achieves its lofty goals.
A black detective and Jewish partner infiltrate and prevent a Klan attack in 1970s Colorado. This premise, based on a true story, presents the backdrop for Spike Lee’s latest flick. The story centers around Colorado Springs first black cop, Ron Stallworth. The protagonist is played by Denzel’s son, John David Washington.
Side note: With more performances like this, the younger Washington might find himself outside of the mountainous shadow cast by the elder.
Adam Driver does a good job as supporting actor. The deceptively large man plays Flip Zimmerman, the Jewish cohort of Detective Stallworth, going places where the marked melanin of Stallworth prevents him from going. A Klansman initiation ceremony for example. Which is how deep the team eventual gets.
With some slick phone conversation Stallworth fools and befriends a local Klansmen (and eventually the grandmaster himself David Duke) subsequently, forcing Zimmerman, masquerading as Stallworth, to infiltrate the organization. Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen) a local Klan member, quickly emerges as the primary villain. Abrasively badgering Zimmerman with tests to prove he is pure Aryan and not Jewish, his racist violent vitriol proves to be menacing and provides suspense early on.
In contemporary mainstream society, Klansmen are often viewed as degenerate uneducated hicks. Felix and fellow Klansmen Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) are intentionally portrayed as such. Doing so allows Lee to take subtle shots at the Klan, moreover, keenly and effectively providing comic relief for the films heavy subject matter.
When not preoccupied with outing Zimmerman as a Jew, Felix leads an effort for the Klan to silence local black activist via explosives. Drama and personal edge proliferate as Stallworth has developed a budding romance with the Klan’s target, Black Student Union president Patrice (Laura Harrier). Coinciding with the planned attack is David Duke’s arrival in Colorado Springs. He’s there to witness Zimmerman’s (still masquerading as Stallworth) initiation. The budding bromance built between Stallworth and Duke over the phone is certainly a memorable component of this film. A black man befriending the leader of a racist organization by posing as a fellow racist. Yes, the movie milks this for all the humor it can with entertaining effect.
Speaking of Duke, it would be negligible to go further without mentioning Lee’s clear coalescence between this racist leaders’ ideology and that of another perceived racist leader. Go ahead and guess who I’m speaking of. I’ll wait……..If your answer was anything but Donald John Trump then you’re either living in a cave, a shameless Trump supporter or a horrible guesser.
The two are at first likened when a character discusses Duke’s presidential aspirations. When Stallworth protests the possibility of such a man being elected it’s impossible not to harken upon the days when the majority of Americans thought the same about our current president. Furthermore, in the film, Duke repeatedly appropriates Trump’s sentiment of taking America back and restoring its former glory. Finally, in the scene in which the Klan gathers in Duke’s presence, with attentive purposeful hearing, the background voice of an unseen Klansman can be heard clearly using Trumps’ famous slogan “Make America Great Again.” Make no mistake, Lee is intentionally drawing connections between the Klan and Trump. I highly doubt anyone would mistake the award-winning filmmaker for being a Trump fan following this.
The film continues to play upon the irony of its premise, with Stallworth at one point having to be security for Duke. During this scene, which comes toward the end, the detective snuffs out the Klan’s planned attack. As he wrestles with the culprit, Felix’s wife Connie (Ashlie Kendrickson) uniformed cops descend upon the scene. They proceed to beat and arrest him, ignoring his claims of being an undercover cop. Eventually he is released when Zimmerman arrives. However, it is here, among many other instances, in which the judicious timeliness of the film is made apparent. The themes tackled in this film: racism, police brutality, police politics, code-switching and normalizing of white nationalist movements are all ripe with relevancy.
Lee does a great job of tying a neat bow on the story. A dirty racist cop is expertly exposed by Stallworth, subsequently leading to the racist’s arrest. Best of all, Stallworth is allowed to cathartically expose his identity to Duke over the phone. Dumbfounded and speechless, it is thoroughly satisfying watching Duke come to grips with his foolery.
While the entirety of BlackKklansman is compelling, the conclusion is undoubtedly the most powerful sequence of the film. Intentionally released almost exactly one year to the day of the harrowing white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, BlackKklansman concludes with live footage of the event. The audience is shown scenes of the racist chants, tragic vehicular manslaughter, incensed protesters, Donald Trump’s critical response (which itself is oft-criticized) and finally a tribute to Heather Heyer, the tragic sole death resulting from the violence.
Confession: the concluding scene’s evocative power resulted in me attempting to dry my eyes subtly enough to avoid my friend recognizing my brief lapse in machismo.
Throughout BlackKklansman imagery, incisive screenwriting, social commentary and humor all come together to produce a wonderful piece of art. With the unnerving ending correlated to the film at large, Lee masterfully showcases the troublesome burgeoning revival of mainstream white nationalism. In the end, purporting what minorities have repeatedly voiced; despite race relations making massive progress in proceeding decades, much more work is at hand.