Spike Lee Returns To Form With "BlacKkKlansman"

Imagine a Mount Rushmore of living American filmmakers. Is Spike Lee there? He should be. His oeuvre may not have the consistency of a Scorsese or the singularity of a Lynch, but his highs have been every bit as skyscraping. “Do The Right Thing” remains the definitive 1980s moviegoing experience: a sweltering, turbulent studio picture that continues to blow minds and change them to this day.

“BlacKkKlansman” is one of the auteur’s strongest narrative efforts since, more subtle than could be reasonably expected given the source material. It is unmistakably Spike Lee from beginning to end, unflinching in its simultaneously rousing and troubling tangle of American racism that spans forty years.

Although it chronicles a real-life tale of subterfuge that went down in the late 1970s, the film ends with footage of the 2017 “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – the event that resulted in the death of counter-protestor Heather Heyer, not to mention Donald Trump’s ignominious declaration of “very fine people on both sides.” These images, every bit as alarming as they were a year ago, tie a solemn bow on the preceding two-plus hours. Thus Lee caps his slow motion finger snap rousing any stragglers from the hypnotic façade of “post-racism” ascribed by some to the Obama presidency.

Denzel’s Washington’s eldest son John David plays Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in the history of Colorado Springs. Washington is a relative newcomer with a long way to go to match his father’s boundless screen presence, but his inexperience proves an asset here. In the film Stallworth’s legacy is that of a half-assured, half-uncertain trailblazer. But it doesn’t end there. He’s the man who, almost accidentally, infiltrates the town’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

When our lead half-jokingly answers a KKK ad in the local newspaper, putting on his best white voice to request more information, a Klan member obliges without hesitation. This leads Stallworth to recruit fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (the brilliant Adam Driver) to be his in-person avatar, for obvious reasons. (Zimmerman is Jewish but ultimately passes for a garden-variety white supremacist.) The two go on to uncover a rotten core of white supremacy beneath Colorado Springs, a bubbling hot spring on the verge of erupting into violence.

What unfurls is purposefully an IV drip of a movie, its striking logline belying its multi-dimensionality and measured tempo. From an early scene where civil rights organizer and originator of the term “Black Power” Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) gives an impassioned speech to a hall full of college students, it’s clear Lee has no intention of turning his subject matter into an economical thriller. There are thrills, certainly, but the script (credited to Lee and three other writers) breathes deep breaths, in the same vein as David Fincher’s masterwork, 2007 police procedural “Zodiac.”

Stallworth and Zimmerman’s close calls with being found out are electrifying but serve a purpose greater than adrenal glands.

Some viewers may struggle with the film’s ruminative nature, mistaking it for imbalance. But very little is unwittingly off balance here, neither pace nor tone ever out of Lee’s control no matter how fluid the structure. Each part is of one whole, capturing a righteous anger that manifests itself in many forms – humor, defiance, disgust, and more.

There’s no better testament to Lee’s craftwork here than a scene set on a backwoods shooting range. The Klan gunmen, having an invariably leisurely conversation about their guns, are shot in medium close-up, their targets stubbornly out of sight. After a false ending to the scene, Lee cuts to a trailing Stallworth and then a crane shot that functions as the film’s most haunting moment – a reveal that no viewer will soon forget.

There are so many arresting scenes and characters that it’s easy to overlook the thankless work of the actors playing the antagonists. Topher Grace is uncharacteristically memorable as KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, a terrifyingly banal marionette of a man whose surface is put-on normality, his innards full-blown poison. (A mid-film reference to Duke as someone America would never elect to the presidency is bone-chilling.)

Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen’s performance as a Klasman named Felix is even scarier. The character and his vile wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) split an arrow through the types of superficially conventional racists that live among us even today, now hiding behind avatars and usernames on Reddit and Twitter.

The movie’s only faults are a middling love story between Stallworth and cop-wary Black Power activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) that doesn’t ring as true as the rest of the film, and two, a climax clunkier than it should be. Although Lee understandably opts not to revel in bloodshed – there is no cathartically gory comeuppance for the antagonists like in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” – the resolution of his rising action is an unsatisfying visual muddle.

Thankfully Stallworth gets his own denouement, both a necessary release and a wellspring of laughter.

But “BlacKkKlansman” doesn’t end on that note. It can’t. Instead it ends on a classic, eerie Spike Lee dolly shot followed by the aforementioned Charlottesville footage, a tag on the country’s inborn racial ills. American racism may not have worn a white hood between 1979 and 2016, but it’s always lurked in the shadows, waiting for a populist voice to give it its grand re-entrance. Lee’s extraordinary film doubles as a visceral entertainment and an urgent reminder of a past we haven’t been able to shake.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: August 10, 2018
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriters: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Paul Walter Hauser, Michael Buscemi, Robert John Burke, Ashlie Atkinson, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references)