Spike Lee returns with stunning ‘BlacKkKlansman’

September 14, 2018

There are a number of reasons Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” shouldn’t have won Best Picture or Best Director last year. But my main complaint—ironically, an aspect that likely helped the movie win—was with del Toro’s treatment of cinema. According to “Shape of Water,” cinema is, and always has been, the art form of the oppressed, a medium through which marginalized groups can unite around and within.

Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” presents a much more nuanced picture. It’s also a far better movie. In his stylish and stunning return to form, Lee acknowledges the power that movies and images have on the collective consciousness–as the film points out, D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster “The Birth of a Nation” restarted the Klu Klux Klan more than a century ago.

Set in the early seventies and based on a true story, the film follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black cop in Colorado Springs, C.O., as he infiltrates the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan. As Stallworth (obviously) could not go undercover by himself, he enlists the help of Jewish officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to handle in-person interactions with the Klan, with Stallworth himself speaking to Klan officials over the phone.

It’s an intriguing premise to say the least, borrowing elements of cop procedurals and classic “undercover” narratives. Lee also brings along his trademark sense of humor, pulling from a multitude of different genres. The closest parallel would probably be the “Chappelle’s Show” sketch about “Clayton Bigsby,” a politically incorrect lampoon of the Klan that centers on a blind, black white supremacist. But Lee mostly plays it straight—a tonal choice with a lot of potential for failure. Yet unlike Lee’s last feature—the bloated, messy “Chi-Raq”—“BlacKkKlansman” really works. This is powerful historical fiction, and the film successfully balances a portrayal of the Klan as the terrorists that they are and bigoted buffoons. Throw in solid cinematography, a (yet another) great performance from Adam Driver and striking commentary on Jewish identity and intersectionality, and you have a movie that does justice to the concepts it’s presenting.

That being said, there are a few problems with “BlacKkKlansman.” The film presents the age-old discussion of reforming the system from within vs. tearing it down from the outside, but never really picks a side in that ongoing argument, which is kind of a cop-out (pun intended). There’s also just a bit too much future-winking, as Klan members seem to invent phrases like “America First” on the fly. Finally, the central performance leaves a bit to be desired. Lead actor John David Washington (Denzel Washington’s son!) is alternately relaxed and stiff, but as a whole he never quite comes across as a real person. He seems to just materialize in front of the Colorado Springs Police Department, and I left the film with a bunch of questions about Ron Stallworth.

But man, Lee really nails the ending: unlike “Sorry to Bother You,” Lee concludes the story in a way that’s satisfying for the viewer without ignoring racist oppression that exists today. A veteran filmmaker, Lee finds a lot of memorable images in his seventies setting (it helps that he’s got cinematographer Chayse Irvin by his side, the guy who shot Beyonce’s “Lemonade”) and posits that cinema can also be used to aid progressive causes. But unlike “Shape of Water,” there’s no bull. Future relevance of “BlacKkKlansman” aside, releasing the film on the anniversary of the Charlottesville “rally” is a fitting move. It’s the cultural rebuttal to white supremacy we need right now.

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