A film review by Craig J. Koban September 11, 2018

BLACKkKLANSMAN  jjjj

2018, R, 135 mins.

 

John David Washington as Ron Stallworth  /  Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman  /  Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumas  /  Topher Grace as David Duke  /  Robert John Burke as Chief Bridges  /  Alec Baldwin as Actor

Directed by Spike Lee  /  Written by Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, based on the book by Ron Stallworth

 

 

Writer/director Spike Lee has made a career out of making racially charged dramas that push all kinds of buttons with his unique brand of in-your-face bluntness.  BLACKkKLANSMAN boldly and proudly continues this trend for the acclaimed filmmaker, which finds inspiration in a highly bizarre, yet absolutely real story that's set forty years ago, but somehow manages to hold up a mirror to our current divisive times.  

This film represents perhaps the ultimate fusion of Lee's artistic aims to make something deeply personal, yet mainstream at the same time.  The end result is not only his best film in a decade-plus, but also one of the finest films of 2018.  It's thought provoking, politically charged, darkly comical, and hauntingly timely.   

And, man oh man, the fact based story behind his latest joint - which the opening title cards humorously relay is "Based on some fo' real, FO' REAL shit!" - is a real intoxicating humdinger.  

Based on the 2014 memoir of the same name by Ron Stallworth, BLACKkKLANSMAN deals with the author's past life as one of the first African American police officers/detectives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Back in 1979 the young up and coming Stallworth noticed a local ad for the city's Ku Klux Klan that were looking to recruit eager new members.  Stallworth had the radical idea of calling the recruitment number listed and posing as a toxically racist white man that was desperately wanting to join their ranks.  His phone ruse ultimately worked, seeing as he was eventually granted membership and, when he was required for face-to-face meet-ups with KKK leaders and members, he sent in a white police officer in his place to help maintain his cover.  Over the course of several months Stallworth and his partner dug deep into the dark underbelly of the KKK and even managed to expose planned acts of violence on their part.  The central irony of Stallworth's early career is undeniable: He not only had to infiltrate and deal with the deplorably shameful bigotry of the KKK, but also that of fellow white officers in his own police department that saw his mission - and hiring - as a cruel affirmative action joke. 

 

 

Lee has an awful lot more up his sleeve than making BLACKkKLANSMAN a pure historical police procedural.  Of course, the film is a chronicle of Stallwarth dealing with intolerance on the work front and on the 1970's streets, but Lee uses his true story to act as a springboard for a larger conversation about the systemic racism that has typified American cinema as a whole.  BLACKkKLANSMAN opens rather pointedly with one of the more famous shots in 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND, which pans away from thousands upon thousands of injured Civil War soldiers and ends on an unnerving lingering shot of a billowing Confederate flag.  From there Lee segues to a white supremacist making a propaganda short film, during which time he fumbles lines preaching the virtues of the purity of his Caucasian race while degrading all other "mongrel" nations.  His mean spirited vitriol makes for a scene that's awfully difficult to watch, but it purposely serves the larger point of showcasing the type of cultural milieu that the KKK thrived on decades ago...and what many a white supremacist group sadly still adhere to even today.  And because the bespectacled man in the hate mongering video is played by Alec Baldwin it comes off as both darkly comical and frightening all the same. 

Lee then journeys into into the larger story of Ron Stallworth (played in a career making performance by John David Washington, son of Denzel, the latter who very famously played Malcolm X for Lee decades earlier) and how he managed to get his job with the Colorado Springs Police Department, but being the first black cop on the force isn't easy for him.  At the beginning, he's delegated to menial file clerking duties while having to fend off the racist insults of his fellow officers on duty.  Despite overwhelming hardships, Ron senses a lucrative chance to prove himself as a worthy member of the force when he comes up with his inspired and aforementioned idea to go undercover and break down the local KKK from the inside out.  Now, impersonating a white bigot over the phone is one thing, but being able to get into this group's inner circle on a deeply personal level is a whole other challenge, which ultimately goes to his white partner, Flip Zimmerman (a never been better Adam Driver), a Jewish man that's faced with the unenviable task of faking that he's a Jew and minority hater to this group to gain admission.  While Flip slowly and methodically serves as Ron in body and spirit with the KKK, Ron remains at the station to further insinuate himself into the group over the phone, and even manages to strike up a long distance phone friendship with KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (a chillingly and quietly frightening Topher Grace). 

The underlining mission by Ron and Flip is endlessly fascinating on multiple levels.  On one hand, Ron finds himself joining ranks with the police - an institution that, for its time, was vehemently despised by his fellow black community as being part of a larger societal ill - that requires him to tackle prejudice on multiple fronts, especially while dealing with early rookie assignments that would have had many a rookie quit early.  But his pure and insatiable ambition to do something that would empower and set himself proudly apart from other officers is what fuels him.  Granted, Ron does make some laughably dimwitted choices as a rookie (like, for example, using his actual name over the phone with the KKK, which complicates matters immensely), but he's definitely no dope, and the manner that he perseveres and manages to get in tight with the Klan - and mostly over the phone, no less - is beyond brilliant.  Intriguingly, BLACKkKLANSMAN also becomes a deeply intimate story for Flip as well, who arguably not only has the tougher job of putting his life on the line to physically go undercover as Ron, but also has to mentally deal with the anguishing hatred that the KKK has for both blacks and Jews.  Every day he spends with the KKK is a new mini nightmare, which has him pretending to be the very epitome of all that he and his people hate as well.   

The performances are absolutely key to this film's success, and the dynamic one-two punch of Washington and Driver make the proceedings so thoroughly intoxicating.  Washington proves here that he's a real chip off of his father's block and confidently radiates palpable on screen charisma while simultaneously evoking his character's nagging insecurities and anxieties about his mission.  Driver arguably gives the most layered performance in the film as his deeply troubled undercover cop; he has to somehow internalize his own hatred of the Klan in order to impersonate all of the anti-Jew and Holocaust denying rhetoric.  One of the film's most chilling scenes involves one deeply unsettled and fanatical Klansman, Felix (a powerfully vile Jasper Paakkonen), who literally puts a gun to Flip's head in order to prove his suspicions of him as an undercover Jewish cop.  When the crazed hothead lashes out at Flip for his views on the Holocaust as fact, he quietly retorts, "Why would you deny it?  It was a beautiful thing."  You can sense in scenes like this - and many more - how Flip found himself trapped by the Klan into becoming what he loathed.  His arc is revealing too, especially for how his police work forces him to come to grips with his own Jewish faith, which was a somewhat estranged relationship for most of his life, but becomes something he can't stop thinking of with every new day of his mission. 

Lee builds everything to a supremely potent and thrilling third act, during which time a massive showdown occurs between Ron, Flip, and the KKK, as the latter plans a violent hit on some local black activists, and the manner that Lee drums up Hitchcockian levels of suspense - despite the film being based on history that's already been established - is noteworthy.  Some of the most serenely disturbing moments in BLACKkKLANSMAN occur even before this tension filled climax, as we witness Ron subverting in all of his festering hatred for the Klan while engaging in multiple phone conversations with Duke, buttering him up and kissing his ass (Grace in particular is sensationally effective playing the alarming nonchalance of Duke's stomach churning immorality).  BLACKkKLANSMAN really, really punches viewers in the gut with his final moments, which shows news footage of the scandalously recent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, which further shows the real David Duke giving a speech to attendees and reveling in how President Donald Trump publicly handled the violence that erupted between Unite the Right marchers and those that protested them.  Remember when Trump idiotically blamed the violence on bad people on both sides?  BLACKkKLANSMAN ominously ends on title cards that dedicate the film to Heather Heyer, who was one of the dead victims of the horrible car attack during these rallies.

It was at this point when I fully realized that Lee's film was more than just a reality based historical drama and an undercover detective yarn.  He's really drawing shocking parallels between Ron's times and our own and how forty years really hasn't changed that much in terms of how minorities are being treated by reprehensible hate groups (Lee ultimately gives a middle finger wag of shame to the Trump administration for turning a blind eye to the sinister events in Charlottesville last year).  Lee is using a viewfinder to look at history as a way of echoing modern day social ills that still reverberate now, and how leaders at large like Trump crassly plays down events in Charlottesville to acts of hatred for both the oppressors and their victims (yeah, it's easy to call bull shit on the administration for that).  But then there's the larger issue of contemporary cops that still abuse their power and are left unchecked, which regrettably still leads to tremendous strains in their relationship with the African American community.  

BLACKkKLANSMAN is brilliantly incendiary on many tangents: It shows the hellish conditions that Ron - and, to be fair, Flip - had to go through in their undercover work to right serious wrongs.  The film is also a damning indictment on how Hollywood of the past has fuelled racial hatred for decades (D.W. Griffith's BIRTH OF THE NATION is frequently referenced and shown as a leading catalyst of the Klan's worldview).  Most crucially, Lee's drama serves as a piece of stinging commentary on what's happening in the world today, and how race relations progress isn't all that healthy since Ron's time.  BLACKkKLANSMAN examines the attitudes of the 70s and juxtaposes them with contemporary views, and the end results are frightening, to say the least.  Lee's approach here may not be subtle, but his propulsive and hard hitting methodology as a cinematic provocateur just may be the frenzied needle to the heart of the film world that we need right now.   

BLACKkKLANSMAN is not only a terrifically entertaining film with mass appeal (it's Lee's most mainstream and accessible work to date) , but it's also a great and important film.   

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