Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Paakkonen, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Michael Joseph Buscemi, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson
Director: Spike Lee
Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Contrary to rumor, Spike Lee's latest political jab at American complacency, BlacKkKlansman, is not a return to form. In fact, an argument could be made that his last two films, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Chi-Raq, were both extraordinary works from a filmmaker at the top of his game. However, it's been quite awhile since Lee has crafted something which connects with a wider audience, and in that sense, BlacKkKlansman could put him back in the cultural zeitgeist.
Based on “some fo’ real fo’ real shit,” as announced during the opening credits, Lee's film is an adaptation of African-American police officer Ron Stallworth's 2014 book Black Klansman, and details how Stallworth infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan during the 1970s as an undercover agent. Lee is working in a far more audience friendly mode here than in some of his most incendiary works; fashioning Stallworth's story as a police procedural drama. The results, despite the tough subject matter, are surprisingly light-footed. Even the film's opening featuring Alec Baldwin spewing hate speech backdropped by a screen projecting racist propaganda, exudes laughter at such fumbling ignorance, even as the rhetoric remains depressingly familiar.
At first glance, BlacKkKlansman is a droll caper where Colorado Springs' first black cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) teams up with white Jewish officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in order to slip into the good graces of the local KKK chapter. Though Lee plays much of this absurd true story as comedy, the parallels being drawn to present-day America are bracingly serious. The Black Power movement is shown most powerfully in a scene involving Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) giving a stirring speech to a group of student protestors, and then later when elderly activist Mr. Turner (Harry Belafonte) recounts the story of a horrific lynching. These sequences are marking a clear link to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is counterbalanced by the sight of the KKK dutifully going about their bigoted business, foreshadowing the alt-right. Lee also is making statements about the way blacks have been perceived through popular culture, critiquing blaxploitation films of the era and clips from Gone with the Wind and D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation to hammer home his points. In this way, BlacKkKlansman can be read as a companion piece to his great 2000 satire Bamboozled, which also took aim at racist entertainment throughout America's history.
For all of its topical power and subversive humor, BlacKkKlansman ultimately lacks the cathartic release of Do the Right Thing, and it doesn't quite have the satirical boldness of Bamboozled or Chi-Raq. But perhaps Lee's attempt at courting the widest possible audience is shrewd, since America's ability to heal racial wounds since he first broke on the scene in the late 1980s has become even less likely. For all the buffoonish laughs at the KKK's expense (including a game Topher Grace as the polite face of racism, David Duke), BlacKkKlansman is also making the case that the danger was real then, now, and for the foreseeable future. When outspoken activist and girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) asks Ron whether he's down for the liberation of black people, one can sense Lee turning the question back on the audience. When the KKK hold an induction ceremony inside a church and screen The Birth of a Nation for a salivating crowd of bigots, Lee uses parallel editing to show black protestors listening in rapt attention to yet another appalling lynching narrative. When Ture addresses the crowd by claiming "You must define beauty for black people, and that’s black power”, Lee focuses on closeups of various audience members, their features lit starkly against a black backdrop, their faces floating like beautiful portraits. It's a startling effect, and one that highlights the film's interest in media representations of race.
Even if BlacKkKlansman climaxes with Ron and Flip taking David Duke down a few notches, this happy ending is drenched in irony. Budget cuts, destroying evidence, and steering public consciousness away from the Klan meant that this ideology could fester. In a controversial move (this is a Spike Lee joint, after all), the film ends with footage from last year's Charlottesville riots, and the subsequent death of Heather Heyer. The gut-punch is brutally clear. Yes, racism still exists, and yes, radicalized racists are to blame for such attacks, but Lee is also pointing a finger at apathetic liberal America. In essence, BlackKkKlansman ends with the same message as Lee's 1988 musical-drama School Daze where activist Vaughn “Dap” Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne) screams at the top of his lungs, "Wake up!" The question is, will we, as a country, actually listen?