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Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

August 23, 2018

Title: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

 

Genre: Biography/Drama/Comedy

 

Director: Spike Lee

 

Stars: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ryan Eggold

 

Bias: I've only seen a handful of Spike Lee films, and I'm generally not too interested in bio-pics or dramas.

 

In a Nutshell: The first black police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado responds over the phone to a newspaper ad soliciting for members of the KKK. He then comes up with a plan to infiltrate the organization on the eve of a visit from a newly politically-oriented David Duke.

 

Grade: A

 

The Critique: It will probably come as no surprise to anyone with an interest in film and a knowledge of Spike Lee's filmography that he is a master filmmaker. Not all of his films work, but when they do - as this one does - there is an effortless shifting of tone, daring-ness of content, and sheer technical adeptness that is amazing to watch. The story could easily have lent itself to a more explicit satire or (god forbid) parody. Instead Lee pitches the tone just enough toward a somewhat 70's comedic police procedural to lull you before the more overt gut-punches of reality occur. It wouldn't work, of course, without performances that are just arch enough to sell the light moments, yet grounded in enough reality to off-set the unbelievable nature of the plot and to sell the heavier scenes (including an early sequence in which Ron Stallworth (Washington) is sent to infiltrate and monitor a speech by Civil Rights advocate Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture, or later in the film when Adam Driver's Flip wrestles with his growing consciousness of his Jewish identity).

 

The two leads are surrounded by a number of strong supporting performances, including Harrier and Pääkkönen as the two local Klansmen alternately befriending and antagonizing Flip-as-Stallworth. I also liked the character of Patrice Dumas, the college activist who Ron falls in love with, though both the performance by Laura Harrier and the writing of the character by Lee were a bit flat. This also leads to one of the growing and fair complaints about the film, which is the messiness of the politics. Recently on Twitter, Sorry to Bother You writer/director Boots Riley challenged Spike Lee on the need for, or appropriateness of, yet another film in which the police are presented as heroes in black stories of racial oppression. To some extent Dumas exists to answer that criticism, as she is the voice of that conflict in the film. However, the flatness of the character, particularly in comparison to the leads, undercut some of the effectiveness of her critique. Still, while I can agree with Riley's criticism, I found the film itself very effective in unflinchingly presenting the racial conflicts of the time, and the degree to which they still continue (virtually unchanged) today, which (for me) blunts the "happy" ending we're momentarily presented with.

 

Trigger Warning: The film contains real life footage of racial violence, both historical and contemporary, and can be difficult to watch. I don't generally experience strong emotional or physical responses to films, and found myself shaking through the last several minutes, and viscerally angry for a period after. 

 

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