Director Spike Lee’s never been known to mince words and his latest project, BlacKkKlansman, will hit you like a sledgehammer in the gut. Lee utilizes the memoir of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to tell two parallel stories: racist America in the ’70s and racist America today. In general, audiences tend to separate the reality from the fiction of a film, even when that film is inspired by true events. By utilizing rhetoric from the past as it’s resurfaced today, as well as several fourth-wall breaking moments which Lee’s known for, BlacKkKlansman isn’t just a comedic tale of when the Klu Klux Klan was bamboozled by a black man, but a clarion call that the battles of the past are not over.
The biopic based upon the memoir Black Klansman, tells the story of civic-minded Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) as the first black recruit accepted as a member of the Colorado Springs police force. When an opportunity to go undercover at an event hosted by the Colorado Black Student Union for the narcotics division arises, Stallworth jumps at the chance to prove himself, which results in a new position within the Intelligence division. After this move, Stallworth comes across an ad for the local Klu Klux Klan outfit and makes an information request, unintentionally setting off his own undercover operation. Roping in Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), and his partner Jimmy (Michael Buscemi), the trio set about the grandest, most ridiculous, and incredibly dangerous task of infiltrating the KKK and befriending the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace).
Despite what the marketing tells you, BlacKkKlansman is neither action-packed nor comedic, but that doesn’t stop it from being enthralling or hilarious. Instead, what occurs is a thoughtful slow-burn where the comedic moments occur in reaction to the ridiculousness of the premise without ever diminishing the severity of danger that Stallworth and Zimmerman place themselves in. Sometimes the hilarity stemming from Stallworth’s naiveté is also the source of the enthralling terror: such as Stallworth using his real name and address when contacting the KKK. This is one of many moments the four writers – Charlie Wachtel, David Robinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee – adapted from the memoir to tell this story. But make no mistake, while it may be based upon the real events of Stallworth’s life, everything about BlacKkKlansman exudes Lee’s style. In one scene, as Stallworth listens to Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) address the Colorado Black Student Union, the faces of the audience fill the screen one-by-one. It’s not enough to hear the words. Lee ensures that the audience sees who’s listening and by lifting up faces to hold prominence, the audience bears witness to the ideas and connect them with real people. In another particularly moving scene, Lee juxtaposes a meeting of the KKK against another meeting of the Black Student Union. Each have a special guest – David Duke for one, a Mr. Turner (Harry Belafonte) for the other – who’s arrived to share a message about their cause. Duke shares his vision of a white future, while Turner discusses the violence of the past. As one group shouts “White Power” amid snippets of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of A Nation, a film attributed to modern rise of the KKK, the other shouts “All Power For All People” while actual postcards depicting the aftermath of a lynching are displayed. There is no question which of these two meetings is in the right and which in the wrong. Lee makes sure of that.
One troubling aspect of BlacKkKlansman is the focus on story over character. This becomes problematic as there’s a slew of characters that matter in the whole of the film, yet it’s twenty minutes before we even find out Stallworth’s name. It’s another hour or so before we learn Zimmerman’s. Lee makes sure to take his time with cinematic embellishments – like lovely establishing shots of Colorado Springs, an extended dance number at a local bar, and sliding in theatrical posters for the movies Stallworth discusses with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union with whom he has romantic feelings – but introducing the characters so that the audience knows who these people are seems secondary to making commentary on race relations. The audience is keenly aware that racial tension is a grave matter in the film and its one that gets quite a few decent laughs due to its clever staging, however, Lee’s continual hammering away grows stronger the deeper the audience goes into the film. Even pulling back slightly would reduce the encroaching feeling of preaching and enable the story to lead the way. Instead, Lee’s agenda pulls focus from the narrative in order to remind the audience as frequently as it can about the racial divide that continues to exist in our country.
While Lee’s agenda may take priority, there’s no denying the significance nor the impact of the message. KKK members have signs on their lawns stating “America: Love It or Leave It,” members declare a desire to put “America first,” and Duke declares a desire to “make America great.” These phrases will sound familiar to modern audiences, but these concepts of nationalism were born long before the ’70s; an idea that seems somehow impossible given the incredible gains America has made in race relations, yet here we are fighting the same battles again. For audiences that don’t get it, Lee ends the film with a devastating juxtaposition of past and present. Amid all the chuckles within BlacKkKlansman, Lee is screaming that the past is coming back to haunt us and we have to do something about it. It’s not about power for one, but all power for all the people.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.