The following is a review of BlacKkKlansman — Directed by Spike Lee.
Director Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is based on the memoir of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American officer and detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, and the film tells the story of how Ron (played by John David Washington) and his partner Detective Flip Zimmermann (played by Adam Driver) infiltrated the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan.
Did you know that Spike Lee has taught classes on filmmaking at major Universities? When you see his latest feature film, BlacKkKlansman, you are reminded of his knowledge of the medium (and the history of the medium), because BlacKkKlansman immediately reveals itself to be a frustrated but unsubtle discussion of propagandist cinema and entertainment disguised as a buddy cop movie.
As you get deeper into this brilliant film you discover its more dramatic discussions of racial issues mixed in with uncomfortable laughs. It is a juggling act, but the juggling act works as Lee prepares to cut you open with an unforgettable and uncomfortable rage-filled epilogue — I call it an uncomfortable reminder.
A couple of months ago I handed in my master’s thesis, which dealt with the way entertainment texts have presented or discussed the presidential character in recent years. As I was watching Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman in an almost empty movie theater room on its opening day in Denmark, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wish I had had the chance to watch this film when I was writing my thesis. Because this feels like the most political and timely mainstream film released in a long time. Where other films may have tiptoed around its points, Spike Lee doesn’t choose that same restraint.
This is a film that passes judgment on members of the American police departments, a film that juxtaposes a group promoting “All power to all the people” with a group of Klansmen that could easily choke on their popcorn as they take joy in watching D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, but, at the same time, it also appears to be a mainstream buddy cop movie with two men from two different communities uniting for a common goal.
I think this film works best in the moments when Lee decides to juxtapose the two groups that are polar opposites to some but not all of the characters in the film. I thought it was particularly smart how the film showcased the way the police department reacted to both groups.
It begins when Stallworth returns from an undercover assignment at a Civil Rights rally organized by the black student union at Colorado College. Once Chief Bridges (played by Robert John Burke) heard what a civil rights leader said in his passionate speech at the rally, Bridges was quick to assume that an attack was imminent (which both Stallworth and Zimmermann said wasn’t likely).
But when Bridges hears what the Colorado Springs members of the Ku Klux Klan said about African-Americans — and what they wanted to do to them — he wasn’t sure they really meant what they were saying or that they were capable of what they were planning — Bridges needed more evidence for one group but not the other.
These comparisons are even more powerful much later in the film when Lee crosscuts between a scene with Harry Belafonte’s character (you’ll know the scene when you see it) and the scene showing the initiation of new KKK-members. A well-made point about D. W. Griffith’s film is presented while the hateful men are frothing at the mouth or cheering at the film — their attitudes are so different.
These are powerful scenes, but Lee also throws in more conventional buddy cop, comedy, or thriller scenes here and there. There are nail-bitingly tense scenes between undercover agents and hateful KKK-members, somewhat comedic scenes depicting phone conversations between Stallworth and David Duke (played by Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard of the KKK.
In all of these scenes, John David Washington shows off his talents in a potentially star-making performance. He lives up to the immense pressure of being the son of Pauletta and Denzel Washington. Adam Driver, who most audiences will know as Kylo Ren from Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy, makes a strong appearance as Stallworth’s partner. He takes part in the tensest scene in the film, and I thought that this was yet another memorable performance from the magnetic relatively new star. Topher Grace’s performance as David Duke is also quite memorable.
Before I discuss perhaps the film’s most ‘provocative’ and uncomfortable sequence, I want to talk about what did not work so well for the film. Firstly, I think the film is just a little bit too long. I think the extent to which this film’s message is unsubtle will frustrate some audiences, and I am sure the epilogue that I will discuss in the next paragraphs won’t be received well by everyone.
I think one of the confusing things about the film is the idea that Ron Stallworth keeps being the voice of the undercover agent on the phone even after Zimmermann has met with the Klansmen. But, really, those are my issues with the film. So there really isn’t much I dislike about it. I don’t think it is a problem that this film is so clearly political because I think all art is.
So, now, I have to talk about the ending of this film, and, in order to avoid spoiling too much, I won’t give too many details. But towards the end of the film, there is a longer sequence of celebration, happiness, and protagonist enjoying what they achieved. But then Spike Lee wakes you up. During a scene that discusses the effect that the American police has on the lives of people of color, two main characters hear a sound outside. Then we get the classic Spike Lee dolly before we get the ‘uncomfortable reminder.’
With palpable rage, Lee shows us real-life videos of present-day America, he reminds us who is the President of the United States, and he shows us that this isn’t just a story, it isn’t just something from the past, and that even though a Hollywood movie always ends one way, a victory isn’t so black and white in real life.
This isn’t something new from Spike Lee. With Malcolm X‘s opening, he took what might have been a dry and ordinary biopic and gave it a hard edge by taking us out of the theater. Back then, Lee wanted Americans to remember police brutality and what had happened to Rodney King. BlacKkKlansman could’ve just been an ordinary, slightly comedic buddy cop movie — but with this ending Lee shakes the genre conventions out of the picture and finally lets the rage out for all to see.
Call it what you will, but the uncomfortable reminder worked for me. The coda may be an afterthought, but I thought it was a necessary and uncomfortable wake-up call for audience members who may have been lulled into a false sense of security by the buddy cop genre conventions. You leave the movie with genuine emotions, and that is more than you can say for most film endings.
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is an unsubtle film with an uncomfortable ending, but these are uncomfortable times where, perhaps, subtlety doesn’t work as intended. Here Lee masterfully juggles multiple threads and genres before he knocks down the four walls of the theater room for the purpose of forcing you to remember the state of the political climate, as well as how ugly some rallies are today. This is easily one of the best films of the year.
9 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.