This Friday Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman will arrive in cinemas and it’s going to be talked about right through Oscar season. Why? This film is Lee at his finest. In years to come, we will look at his work and BlacKkKlansman will be up there with his best.
As the issue of race continues to divide our country and nationalism rises around the world, Spike Lee hurdles us on a journey through the dread and perils of racism. The film is based on the remarkable true story of Ron Stallworth (portrayed by John David Washington – Yes, Denzel’s son), an African-American Colorado police officer who manages to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
New to the force, Stallworth starts off in the evidence room and is immediately faced with racism within the force itself. He’s assigned an undercover task to infiltrate the local Black Student Union meeting where Kwame Ture is set to make an appearance. Ture better known as Stokley Carmichael leads a speech on black liberation, but Stallworth wants to see so much more than that.
Back at the bullpen, Stallworth sees a recruitment ad by the Ku Klux Klan. Cue Stallworth turning on his “white man” voice and successfully manages to arrange a meeting with the local KKK leader. There’s just one problem, Stallworth isn’t white. Enter Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman, a fellow police officer who Stallworth recruits to pose on his behalf. Zimmerman is Jewish! As the characters get deeper into their undercover operation, they also must adjust to their new identities, whether it’s the stinging scenes where Driver’s character is confronted during KKK meetings and asked if he is, in fact, Jewish; or Washington’s Stallworth being told “stop running away from being black.”
We are hit with a barrage of hate speech, but just as the film verges on becoming too dark, Lee switches to humor as relief, whether it’s banter between Zimmerman and Stallworth or else through the sheer ignorance that surrounds the Klansmen like noxious fumes, particularly with Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), Walter (Ryan Eggold) and I,Tonya’s Paul Walter Hauser who plays Ivanhoe. There’s always that underlying edge-of-seat tension as to whether Stallworth’s cover will be blown, the heart-racing close-call moments. Curt Beech’s production design is precise and resonant, bringing Lee’s vision to life with authenticity.
Barry Alexander Brown’s work as an editor keeps the pace rolling. His work particularly stands out during an incredible moment when Harry Belafonte as Jerome Turner appears, recounting a horrific account of the lynching and burning of Jesse Washington. As Turner tells this story that lasts seven minutes, his tale is intercut with the KKK simultaneously preparing for a rally.
There are so many aspects that make BlacKkKlansman one of the best films of 2018 and one of the most important you will see all year. Lee excels in balancing the multiple tones of the films seamlessly transitioning from humor to drama to downright mortifying. The KKK scenes are ugly, but Lee draws that line from there through to Trump’s America today and it’s a mortifying echo of the country’s steep descent.
If Lee’s Do The Right Thing was Lee’s vision of New York when culture was alive with newfound freedom but racial tensions were high and was a reflection on America at that point in time, then BlackKklansman is a direct look at the KKK, its history and today in Trump’s America today. There is no other film that has dared explore the frightening parallels escalating in America today. When Topher Grace emerges with a chilling but superb portrayal of Grand Wizard David Duke to talk about how issues such as affirmative action and voting rights can be manipulated to extend white supremacy, it sends shivers down your spine.
The film ends with Trump’s “fine people on both sides” speech, footage of the Charlottesville rally, and the senseless death of Heather Heyer. The real David Duke makes a jolting appearance. Lee strikes hard in depicting a harsh reality that reverberates not just here, but around the world. Its urgency, its importance and its vitality make this film one of Lee’s finest. No other director could deliver a more truthful gut-punch than Spike Lee. He unleashes the power of his unique cinematic voice to give us an urgent and thought-provoking film. BlacKKklansman will stay with you and is destined to be talked about for years to come.