VOD Review: BlacKkKlansman
BlacKkKlansman (gonna get sick of typing that real fast) is a solid, entertaining film. Spike Lee continues to be a master of culture and style, making a pastiche that is both funny and moving. Is it his best film, or even the best film about racism in 2018?
First and foremost, I’d like to get this out of the way: I enjoyed BlacKkKlansman. It was entertaining, a mix of style and humor that kept the film moving whenever all the racist bullshit was baiting me to throw my remote at the screen. It’s coherent and well paced, something director Spike Lee sometimes has a problem with. The acting is super competent, and the dialogue is witty. So, a pretty good film.
Which brings me to what BlacKkKlansman isn’t: this film is not Best Film of the Year material. I’m reviewing BlacKkKlansman with the 2019 Oscars in mind, and as such this review will be a little fractured. I’m going to sing the praises of this film for a decent bit, then posit that it just isn’t champion material. I hope I won’t lose too many people along the journey.
I have corrected a few factual inaccuracies regarding how the events portrayed in BlacKkKlansman matched up with real life events. My apologies. My critical impressions of the film remain unchanged.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African American police officer on the Colorado Springs Police Department. Desperate to get out of the basement, he volunteers to go undercover at a Black Power rally. The rally inspires Stallworth, and on a lark he decides to respond to a local ad calling for new recruits for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The response goes much better than expected, and Stallworth suddenly has an invite to join the notorious hate group. The problem: it requires a face-to-face meeting. Ron convinces his fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to masquerade as White Ron Stallworth, and the two begin a journey that will culminate with a meeting with David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard of the KKK.
Spike Lee knows culture, and he knows style. His films always blend influences to give a unique sense of time and place. BlacKkKlansman lives up to this reputation. From a Motown dance party to a montage of Blaxploitation films, the movie feels steeped in the culture of its characters. It even manages to do the same for our white antagonists, cutting in scenes from Gone with the Wind, The Birth of a Nation (the old, super racist one), and a fabricated KKK culture serial (narrated by Alec Baldwin doing his Trump impression, minus the bad hair). Sometimes, Lee can let all the style make his films feel jumbled. Here he sticks largely to the script, and the style elevates the story, creating a film that feels alive as well as lived in.
This lets a talented cast play to their strengths. Both Washington and Driver seem at home in their characters, and they effortlessly bounce off each other and the absurdity of a Black man and a Jewish man teaming up to infiltrate the foremost American White Supremacy Society. Their dialogue is simultaneously witty and human. These are reasonable people involved in doing a very unreasonable thing. Casting two actors that can sell this with easy style and aplomb was a brilliant choice.
All this helps extend immersion, a necessity when Spike Lee inevitably decides to do the other thing he’s famous for.
Saying the Quiet Parts Loud
Subtlety has never been Spike Lee’s strong suit. His films are bullhorns, driving messages home with the force of a fist into Richard Spencer’s face. His points are varied, but plainly displayed: The system is inherently biased, said system is dangerous despite many facets of it being laughably inept, and racism in 2018 is no more solved than it was in 1972. Hell, it hardly looks different. BlacKkKlansman is so on the nose it could ruin your sinuses. Characters blatantly repeat lines that are hardly changed from 2018 racist talking points; there are “allusions” to MAGA, America First, and “Jews will not replace us”. Every time Lee wants to make a point that racism hasn’t changed a whit, he does so in a manner that might as well end with a character looking at the screen and saying “you got that?”.
Thankfully, the rest of the film is so coherent and compelling that you notice these moments, but they rarely drag you fully out of the narrative.
“Some fo’ real Shit.” Fo’ Real???
So the film has a unique sense of time and place, a compelling, coherent story, and relatable characters. The bad news: almost all the good parts of this film are bullshit. Or at the very least, embellishments. Ron Stallworth did in fact infiltrate the Klan. He did in fact meet David Duke. He did not date the campus president of the local Black Power club (Laura Harrier). Also, he did not foil a terrorist bombing attempt. And the events took place in 1979, several years removed from Motown, Nixon, and the Black Panther movement. I kinda doubt he even got the local uber-racist Cop kicked off the force. His infiltration was notable, but it wasn’t Argo. Also, the book Stallworth wrote about the whole affair was dull as dishwater (and roughly 200 pages).
Spike Lee had to really take some liberties to make this “true story” as compelling as it is. For the most part that works, but it does sacrifice the smaller takeaways in a grand middle finger to racism. Ron Stallworth got some solid dirt on the KKK. He kept them from burning crosses and committing other acts of small time terrorism against the local black community. He did not cause a car full of neo-nazis to blow up.
The big finish is all about good film-making… or is it?
Striking a fictitious blow against racism not only takes away from some salient smaller points of the film, it works counter to Spike Lee’s true ending to the film. Both points dove-tail towards the real message of the film: racism never went away, we just stopped looking long and hard at it until a racist got elected President. The election of Barack Obama let a whole lot of people wave the “mission accomplished” flag in the fight against racism. A few high profile shootings, one tragic death at a White Supremacy rally, and the blowback election of a man who rose to political prestige on a wave of white resentment left a lot of people scratching their heads. “Didn’t we fix that shit already?” They asked. “You most certainly did not”, BlacKkKlansman answers.
At the end of the film, we see that despite Ron’s successes, the Klan are still out there burning flags. David Duke was humiliated, but he still went about his mission of making racism politically palatable. The police still shoot first, ask questions never when it comes to minorities. We get a montage of rallies in 2017, showing that white male grievance is alive and well. And the language of white power hasn’t changed a bit.
My biggest takeaway from BlacKkKlansman was how easily I could recall all the “little racism” on display in the film happening in my own life. The local KKK in the film behaves like a middle-school lunch table: a clique that defines itself not by who’s included, but who’s excluded. It’s a sad group of ignorant, insecure, toxic boys; all deflecting any attention away from their own flaws by constantly pointing out how flawed “the other” was. We have men who would probably be the butt of someone else’s joke if they weren’t so puffed up by the jokes they were making about Blacks and Jews. I didn’t need Ron to blow them up, he did the world a bigger service by constantly showing how little these people were every time he picked up a phone to talk to them.
And the Winner Is…
In the end, I think that separates BlacKkKlansman from better films (like, oh, say, the tragically snubbed “If Beale Street Could Talk“) this Oscar season. The film is good, but it sacrifices a little too much in the pursuit of entertainment. The style is strong, but Roma managed to have a strong style that didn’t distract from the bigger picture. The acting is strong, but I thought Adam Driver was better in Logan Lucky (or The Force Awakens, if you really want to talk about a poster child for white privilege). And Spike Lee has made stronger films, which makes this nomination feel like a make-up award. I think you’ll like BlacKkKlansman, but it isn’t the best of the best.