At the conclusion of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, we are given two different perspectives on violence by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. At the conclusion of his 1999 film, Bamboozled, we’re subjected to a montage of exploitative scenes. In 1992’s Malcolm X, we hear Ossie Davis re-read his eulogy for the slain activist. His latest film, BlacKkKlansman, is a small story that ends with a similar unsubtle gut punch that is epic in scope.
Based on Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir. BlacKkKlansman doubles as a buddy cop movie and political thriller. In the film, Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black Colorado Springs police officer who also undercover, with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), in the late 1970s to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. For obvious reasons, Stallworth, who played his part chatting up local Klan officials over the phone, couldn’t infiltrate in person .
“With the right white man, you can do anything,” he says in the film.
Enter Zimmerman, an officer who doesn’t find the local chapter of the Klan to be much more than a group of bumbling, hateful pricks. His views change quickly once he begins taking part in their activities of target practice and violent plans. Before long, Zimmerman and Stallworth set out to upend the organization and the plans of the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke (Topher Grace). Meanwhile Stallworth maintains a budding relationship with a local college student activist Patrice (Laura Harrier).
Going into the film, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My initial thought, based on title alone, was that it would be a modern day take on Ted V Mikel’s 1966 exploitation film, The Black Klansman. The trailers for BlacKkKlansman have a vibe akin to Lee’s lighter fare like Inside Man and his Oldboy remake, while the underlying theme seems to suggest Lee would tackle the uncomfortable terrain of racism and politics. The idea of him marrying the two into a summer movie was alluring — but we live in a time where David Duke and his views have been emboldened. Can it work? It does.
Amid all the hallmarks of Lee’s previous works — the sweeping Terence Blanchard score, the Dutch angles during some of the more anxious scenes, the on the nose dialogue (“It’s time for America to show its greatness again”) and brief intervals recounting America’s checkered history — we are given an engaging story.
The film’s overall intent, as far as I can tell, is to draw a through line from our racist past to our racist present. Ironically, one of the things that will make this for some, will be what breaks it for others. The audience is consistently reminded, thanks in large part to Zimmerman’s role in the investigation, that the Klan isn’t just racist but anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynistic. Personally, it feels like this approach was taken to make the bitter pill a little easier for a mainstream audience, one that may not be as inclined to see Lee’s more characteristically blunt films, to swallow.
Considering the film’s obvious villains, it can be argued that Lee’s new film lets the audience, particularly the white audience, avoid actual evaluation of complicity in relation to real events. It’s not hard to see assholes with tiki torches and moronic clods in white hoods yelling racist chants as the bad guys. The audience is being treated to an easy and clear villain that isn’t much different from other popcorn villains like Thanos and Snoke. Is it too much to ask a summer movie to strive for more complex themes than a blatant racism = bad theme?
In relation to what usual summer movies entail, it probably is. Also, to even ask that from this movie, one based on a true story, is to ignore what the film’s coda delivers, one that dares to take us out of the comfort of the film’s escapism. I definitely went through a litany of uncomfortable reactions that’s for sure. Thanks to a brief cameo by the real David Duke and Donald Trump’s “both sides” defense, I experienced a moment of anger that resulted in a double bird salute at the screen.
I looked away during some of the more repellant scenes of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation matched with dialogue from an elder activist (voiced by modern day activist Harry Belafonte) recounting a lynching he witnessed in 1916. We live in an era of division and hate that, for a brief moment in time, seemed unlikely to repeat itself. And Lee, in his characteristic “pull-no-punches” approach, is fine reminding us how we got to this point. As of this moment, I’m still processing what I saw. I’m curious how I’ll feel about this film down the road.
While it doesn’t match the triggering commentary of some of my personal favorites from Lee’s filmography, BlacKkKlansman is still an entertaining pulp thriller that has no qualms about giving us a good punch to the gut.
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