4.5 out of 5 stars.
Spike Lee’s new joint, “BlackkKlansman,” opens with a scene from the fictional 1939 film “Gone with the Wind,” and closes with very real video clips from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. While the story the film has to tell surrounds Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado Springs police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, the film’s themes and its discussion of racism as part of America’s identity extends across all time and space, from the Civil War to the Trump era. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s one of those gems that simultaneously entertains, shocks, informs, and (hopefully) provokes discussion.
“BlackkKlansman” is based on Stallworth’s book “Black Klansman,” and stars John David Washington as Stallworth, a young African American man who is made the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He’s ambitious, and while he is initially assigned a boring job working in the records room, his race is something the police can use to their advantage, and he is transferred to intelligence, where he goes undercover at a civil rights rally headed by activist Kwame Ture.
This part of Stallworth’s career is strangely glossed over in the film, however. It’s after the rally that Stallworth sees an ad in the paper for recruits for the KKK. He calls them up, pretending to be a white man, and is soon deeply involved in an investigation into the Klan and a potential attack on the Black Power activists that they may be planning. He works alongside white officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver); while Stallworth engages with the KKK over the phone, Zimmerman meets with them in person.
“BlackkKlansman” is an interesting mixture of a lot of elements that somehow mostly work. It isn’t often funny, and isn’t an outright satire, although several characters in the film (largely the KKK members and racist police officer Landers, played by Frederick Weller) come off more as caricatures than as real people. They are so over-the-top that they do strongly demonstrate the issues at hand (like police corruption and the power of rhetoric), but are also harder to take seriously as real threats and not just big talkers. Lee could have still gotten his point across with a softer hand. As the movie progresses, the story becomes preoccupied with scenes focusing on its racist characters, who include the president of the Colorado Springs KKK, Walter (Ryan Eggold), the extremely violent and untrusting Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), and even the Grand Wizard of the KKK himself, David Duke (Topher Grace). There are some other aspects of the film that lead to head-scratching too, some minor plot holes that include things like the police suddenly willing to jump from that investigation into Ture to infiltrating the KKK.
These are minor annoyances, however, that don’t distract too much from the film’s entertainment value or, more importantly, the power of its message. This film is a return to form for director Spike Lee, being his best narrative movie in years. He effectively builds tension in every scene, largely through closeups of the characters during intense moments. The pounding score by Terence Blanchard enhances the action further.
A lot of the effectiveness of the film is thanks to the cast. Washington and Driver both deliver Oscar-worthy performances, essentially playing two halves of the same man. Eggold and Pääkönen are appropriately disgusting and occasionally sinister, as is their more dimwitted counterpart, Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) and Felix’s wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). Harrier’s Patrice is a great, almost Pam Grier-like heroine, and serves as the bridge for Stallworth between his world working as a cop and the philosophy, while Alec Baldwin makes an interesting appearance at the beginning of the film that sets up the story.
Sometimes the film’s message may seem confused, and appropriately so, as it is embodied in our protagonist, Stallworth. Ron Stallworth is a black man, but he walks a fine line between his white colleagues and the black citizens of Colorado Springs, including Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the black student union at the local college who organized the Ture rally. He dismisses Ture’s words about the coming revolution and his audience’s enthusiastic response as just talk, but immediately takes the KKK members at their word when one of them alludes to a potential explosion. He crusades against a racist organization, but also doesn’t appear to be 100 percent comfortable participating in a black power rally, and uses a white voice to engage the Klan over the phone. And unlike Patrice and many others, he believes the police can do a lot of good.
The story is bookended by two powerful speeches: the one by Ture, a passionate monologue that fires up the crowd, and one by Harry Belafonte’s Jerome Turner. The standout scene of the entire film happens in the buildup to the climax, when Lee cuts between Turner’s speech at a civil rights rally and a KKK initiation, creating a stark contrast as the speaker’s (surrounded by black faces) words flow over shots of the Klan members in their white robes. Words are power in this film, no matter how they are used. It could be an inspiring speech, a phone conversation, or the disturbing, coarse rhetoric of the KKK, which comes too easily to them, and even, while they are just pretending, to Stallworth and Zimmerman. Racist language and beliefs have become normalized in American culture—just look at “The Birth of a Nation,” the 1914 film that is hailed as a classic and one of the most important films in cinema history, but that depicts black people as brutes and the KKK as heroes. Lee calls that film and other incidents out in his movie, but he makes it clear that while we should be angry, and we should take action, violence is not the answer. If nothing else, the final moments of the film make that clear, in which scenes from the Charlottesville rally unfold in a horrific montage of violence sandwiched between speeches by President Donald Trump and David Duke himself. We leave the film knowing that things have not changed, but that they can; Stallworth’s ability to prevent the Klan from enacting violence, however briefly, is proof of that.
Runtime: 135 minutes. Rated R.