Make no mistake.
Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman is an angry film.
Make no mistake.
BlacKkKlansman is a film that will rattle your sensibilities and make you shudder with familiarity as you won't be able to help but realize that this story, set here in the early 70's but based upon unbelievably true events that unfolded in 1978, is just as timely today as it was then.
BlacKkKlansman is a high drama film, a film filled simultaneously with fits of rage and terrifying absurdity yet, somehow, unfathomably entertaining in its relentlessness. It's a film that pulsates truth, yet it's also a film that realizes the absolutely bizarre nature of that truth in both deeply personal and universal ways.
Spike Lee has never stopped being a relevant filmmaker, but BlacKkKlansman is a reminder that Spike Lee is an absolutely great filmmaker, a brave and bold and pissed off and frequently hilarious filmmaker who has made a career out of making films that very few, if any, filmmakers have the balls to make.
BlacKkKlansman, which captured the Grand Prix at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, is being released on the one-year anniversary of the violence that unfolded in Charlottesville, VA, an anniversary feels like a constant companion to everything that unfolds in in the film and an anniversary that profoundly makes its mark on the film.
The film is based on a book by Ron Stallworth, whose real life story is the kind of story you read in The National Enquirer and think to yourself "That would never happen. How do they think of that stuff?" Stallworth became the first black cop in Colorado Springs, though his presence there is more of a novelty for most with condescending colleagues and irrelevant desk work masquerading as diversity and progress.
Then, Stallworth rings up the local chapter of the KKK.
That's Ku Klux Klan, in case you didn't know.
Having been harassed for most of his life for "sounding" white, Stallworth makes for a convincing black hatin', Jew hatin' prospective Klan member, at least on the phone, who quickly endears himself to the locals and who almost as quickly picks up on some nefarious plans that are in the works. What unfolds is difficult to believe, a police investigation with Stallworth infiltrating the Klan by phone reinforced by white fellow cop Zimmerman showing up as Stallworth in person.
Stallworth is played to perfection by John David Washington, who up to now has been known as Denzel's son but whose performance is so precise and so remarkable that he's earned the right to be known as John David Washington from here on out. Adam Driver, who has been masterful lately in everything he touches from Kylo Ren to Jim Jarmusch, is equally riveting here as Zimmerman, a Jew who isn't particularly religious and has never had to think about the fact that he's Jewish until he's confronted, time and again, with virulent hatred.
Shifting BlacKkKlansman back a few years gives the film both a creative spark and an added intensity, the era defined by radical politics and post-assassination tensions that are always bubbling underneath the surface here. While Lee is always a gifted filmmaker, BlacKkKlansman is unquestionably one of his most finely nuanced and disciplined films to date with a remarkable precision and dedication to truth and, I'd dare say, even a pretty stunning degree of restraint. Once you see the film, and you definitely should see the film, you'll be utterly amazed at Lee's control of the film's rapidly changing tonal shifts and ability to wring even brief moments of every dramatic and comic potential they possess.
BlacKkKlansman is shot by Chayse Irvin, known for Beyonce's Lemonade, and his lensing here is nothing short of sublime. visual storytelling at its finest that you won't quickly forget. The same is true for Terence Blanchard's 70's R&B tinged original score that embodies the film's narrative rhythm without ever dominating it.
But, let's be honest. This is a Spike Lee joint.
At the bare minimum, BlacKkKlansman is looking at multiple Independent Spirit nominations and deserves mention when it comes to the Academy Awards. The film itself is certainly one of 2018's finest films and Lee's work here one of the year's finest directorial efforts. Washington, Driver and an eerily and disturbingly convincing Topher Grace as former KKK Grand Wizard turned politician David Duke all deserve mention amongst the year's finest performances and tech nominations should be a given.
There are so many individual scenes in BlacKkKlansman that resonate deeply, that I simply cannot forget, yet to spoil the film by sharing them here would be a gross injustice. Suffice it to say that the stories that unfold here, from Stallworth's romancing of a college activist (Laura Harrier) with a hatred for the "pigs" to scene after scene of Klan member portrayals that initially seem like caricatures before reminding us that a certain U.S. president himself once seemed awfully entertaining are scenes you won't be erasing from your psyche anytime soon.
At 135 minutes in length, BlacKkKlansman takes its time going where it needs to go and Spike Lee refuses to compromise his artistic vision for the sake of a few minutes. After all, you either invest yourself in a Spike Lee joint or you don't. Lee doesn't waste his time catering to the wide-market masses, but in so making a film with remarkable integrity he's made a film that should attract his largest audience in years.
Not always an easy film to watch despite its immense entertainment value, BlacKkKlansman is a near masterpiece that rattles the cages of organized and institutionalized and individualized racism then, on occasion, shakes its head and practically giggles at the fact we're still having to fight about this crap so many years later.
You'll laugh. You may even cry. You'll definitely get angry. You will not forget BlacKkKlansman.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic