Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

BlacKkKlansman stands as a reminder of how talented Spike Lee is as a storyteller and entertainer. While his reputation is as a unflinching chronicler of social injustice and contemporary African-American life, Lee also flourishes as a popular filmmaker. I mean this in the best sense, in that Lee has shown on multiple occasions his ability to make films that stand out for their craft, their inviting and rich characterizations, and their ability to keep an audience enraptured by their stories, but which also act as a chronicles of the wounds inflicted upon African Americans to this day. Additionally, while Spike Lee is known for his righteous anger and condemnation of the ways that popular entertainment has mistreated African Americans, he is also a devotee and historian of American cinema—and a gifted one at that. For much of its runtime, BlacKkKlansman thrills and entertains as much as any other film I’ve watched this year. It’s a funny, romantic, exciting, and tense film; but then, turning on a dime, it precipitates a sudden realization and shock, as the horror of racism and white supremacy in America shatters the fantasy that he has led you to want to believe in.

The story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is enticing on the face of it. The true story of the first black cop in Colorado Springs conducting an undercover investigation of the Ku Klux Klan is almost too wild to believe. The gleeful thrill of the story lies in the African-American Stallworth pulling one over on both the inept rednecks of the local Colorado chapter of the KKK and also its media-savvy leader, David Duke. It’s a film set in a particular moment in history, and yet also serves as a kind of righteous fantasy of comeuppance for contemporary audiences as well, who might wish to do the same to the white supremacist powers of today.

The film begins with Ron joining the police department as its first black officer. He is recruited in part because his racial identity combined with his college-education and clean-cut reputation makes him a valuable tool for interacting with the African American community. His hiring is blatantly treated by his superiors as a PR coup, but Ron is also immediately set to the task of playing race-traitor, asked to investigate the local black students union at a rally featuring a former-Black Panther and civil rights leader, Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). While at the rally, Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) and falls for her, developing a personal conflict that matches the political one.

Soon after, while reading the classifieds, Ron discovers an ad for the Ku Klux Klan and calls up pretending to be a white racist. Securing an invitation to the group’s local meetings, but using his real name, Ron pushes his department to investigate the group. He recruits a fellow officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to pose as “Ron Stallworth” while at the meetings, while continuing to communicate with the local leader, Walter (Ryan Eggold), over the phone. Flip, who is Jewish, is placed into increasingly dangerous situations as the operation continues, especially when the particularly unstable Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) suspects Flip’s Jewish roots.

Over the phone, Ron eventually manages to get in contact with David Duke (Topher Grace), the KKK’s new Grand Wizard, who for PR reasons has rebranded as their “National Director.” The film culminates in Duke’s visit to Colorado Springs for “Ron Stallworth’s” initiation ceremony, while Flip and Ron uncover more sinister and violent intentions on the part of Felix.

BlacKkKlansman has received criticism, from both black activists who worry that Lee is making cops into civil rights heroes and alt-right types who believe that he exaggerates the danger that the local KKK chapter posed to the community. But recognizing that Lee is crafting a genre piece that simultaneously speaks to present anxieties is key here. The film more than goes out of its way to dramatize how Ron’s actions reveal a conflict between his identity as an African American and as a cop. Lee makes this conflict personal as well through Ron’s relationship with Patrice. He is a man literally divided, much as the “Ron Stallworth” created for the investigation is a composite of the real Ron and Flip.

In fact, Lee is so concerned with this dichotomy between “Ron the Cop” and “Ron the African American,” he never lets the viewer avoid addressing the real disconnect between his job and his identity. Ron and Flip engage in a discussion of “passing,” and the role that Flip’s Jewish heritage has or hasn’t played in his life due to his ability to be seen as “white.” The whole investigation precipitates an awakening of sorts for Flip, forcing him to think about his place in American society where he can mostly “pass,” but also recognizing the real hatred groups like the KKK have for Jewish people. Later, Ron and Patrice have a discussion about “double consciousness” and W. E. B. Du Bois, making the thematic thread explicit.

However, going back to my earlier comment that Lee is himself both a gifted popular filmmaker in the Hollywood idiom, and a firebrand of African American rights in his films, the film is also acutely aware of its own status as a work of “double consciousness”: a Hollywood studio film (produced by Universal/Focus Features) and an indictment of America’s continued institution of white supremacy in media and elsewhere.

Perhaps the key moment in the film is a screening of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that plays a double historical role as both the inauguration of Hollywood feature filmmaking and the film that brought the the KKK back to popularity in the 20th century. Lee crosscuts between Duke and his cronies howling in laughter at the grotesque images of racism in Griffith’s film and an aging civil rights leader played by entertainment icon Harry Belafonte speaking to the black student’s union about the very real consequences of such films. It’s a striking contrast that hammers the point home, borrowing the very editing techniques that Griffith himself developed in Birth of a Nation and turning them against the racist purposes they had been used for in the past.

Yet, in the end Lee won’t let the present off the hook. He ends the film with footage from the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and the persistent presence of white supremacy in America to this day. Yet, he also dedicates the film to Heather Heyer, a student activist who was killed that day in 2017, recognizing that the fight against white supremacy is not just for black people to undertake, but requires everyone’s vigilance. While the film dramatizes this double consciousness on many levels, the ending leaves no question as to where Lee’s ultimate allegiance lies. In the final image before the documentary footage he utilizes his famous double dolly as Ron and Patrice must face and confront the image of a burning cross on a hill. It’s unnerving and serves as a stark wake-up call in the wake of an earlier scene where Ron reveals his identity to Duke in a crowd pleasing moment of catharsis. Lee won’t let us sit with catharsis, but wants to stir us to consciousness.

BlacKkKlansman is a film that embodies the question of double consciousness in the very dichotomy I’ve mentioned between its role as a political film and a piece of entertainment. Simply in its casting, the film manages to look forward while paying respect to the past. Adam Driver is excellent as the internally conflicted Flip. He remains one of my favourite actors on screen today who continues to make great choices, in both blockbusters and indie cinema. Laura Harrier is captivating and gorgeous while believably strident and convicting as Patrice. Topher Grace perfectly shows how white supremacy tries to cloak itself in respectability and a posture of harmlessness. And the presence of Belafonte testifies to Lee’s links to black pioneers in Hollywood. But it is in John David Washington that the duality between past and present is most literally embodied, as a promising new face, but also as the son of Denzel Washington, an actor who can credibly lay claim to being one of the most famous and successful black actors of all time. Young Washington has his dad’s charm and even a bit of his distinctive laugh.

A review like this can only begin to scratch the surface of a film like this. BlacKkKlansman is simultaneously bold and classical; it’s incredibly bracing and confrontational in moments, and comforting and crowd pleasing in others. If people are talking about this film, it’s because it does what Spike Lee does well, which is navigate that line between personal and political, entertainment and pedagogy. It is ultimately, a Spike Lee joint. And for that reason, I loved it.

9 out of 10

BlacKkKlansman (2018, USA)

Directed by Spike Lee; written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee, based on the book by Ron Stallworth; starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ryan Eggold, Corey Hawkins, Harry Belafonte.