“BlacKkKlansman” is the newest film directed by Spike Lee, which strikingly and comically adapts a story based on some “fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t.” Presenting the heart of racism in America as a dichotomy between absurdist political satire and the horrifyingly real state of the nation, this film ultimately culminates into what is perhaps Spike Lee’s most timely, relevant and important film in years.
The astonishingly true story follows the case of young black police detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), as he attempts to infiltrate and subterfuge the Ku Klux Klan from the inside with the aid of his Jewish partner Flipp Zimmerman (Adam Driver), eventually leading the two into a surreal narrative where cross burnings are chatted over crackers and cheese, and the white supremacists are played as bizarre domestic couples who view their weekly Klan meetings as if they were a monthly book club. This added layer of domesticality and humanity transforms what would normally be a group of generically “bad people” who are played up for laughs into a group of scarily real three-dimensional characters who’d feel right at place marching hand in hand with tiki torches held high. This characterization of the KKK is culminated in the character of David Duke (Topher Grace), Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and frequent corresponder with his new fast friend, Ron Stallworth, talking over the phone in casual Sunday chats about the ideals of “America first” politics and the prospects of making America “great again.”
Although the subject is grim, Lee, along with screenwriters David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott, manage to engage in a healthy dose of humor throughout the film. This is seen most commonly in Stallworth’s phone conversations, which serve as nice counters to the edge-of-your-seat tension in Zimmerman’s scenes. It’s fascinating to see how ambitiously the film tries to handle the tonal seesaw it creates, which, when done right, results in hearty laughter quickly followed by shocked gasps. This rapidly changing and fairly inconsistent style may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly does accentuate the idea of the hidden evil among us. This ultimately creates a film heavily based upon the idea of dualities, not just fact and fiction or the past and the present, but also in the mirroring of character relations, ideals, and the core idea of white vs. black power.
However, as complex and entertaining as the movie’s writing may be, the film still requires the need for a charismatic and slick protagonist in order to believably pull-off the sheer absurdity of Stallworth’s plan. Sadly, as Washington’s first big movie role goes, it simply comes across as an adequate and altogether bland performance at best. Washington’s performance is mainly solid, but he lacks the true charisma and pure acting talent that his contemporaries seem to have in spades. Luckily for the film and Washington, the rest of the supporting cast is fantastically portrayed. With highly comedic and dreadfully threatening performances on full display by Jasper Pääkkönen and Topher Grace, both of which ultimately pale in comparison to the show-stealing Adam Driver. Delivering what is perhaps one of the most poignant and important speeches of the movie, this role only solidifies Driver as one of the best, young modern actors around today, leaving the film with its most memorable performance by far.
Full of long-lensed wide shots coupled with period-perfect lighting and costuming, Lee still hits his signature cinematic style (complete with the signature dolly shot), while simultaneously evoking the stylings of ‘70s blaxploitation cinema, going so far as to openly reference the likes of both Shaft and Superfly, and topping itself off with a score of funky strings and bass. The movie both revels in its stylistic direction while managing to not get buried under its own weight of nostalgia.
It’s certainly safe to say this is Lee’s best film in years, managing to be both an entertaining and absurdist ‘70s action-thriller romp and a powerful social commentary. Even though the constantly switching tone between drama, comedy, thriller and political commentary may lead to an audience struggling to keep a consistent feeling of urgency, the fact that Lee manages to smoothly do so throughout the majority of the film makes this one of his best, most impressive films since 2006’s Inside Man. Transforming itself into a bizarre mixture of Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, “BlacKkKlansman” leaves you with an ending that is perhaps one of the most powerful, shocking and daringly bittersweet in cinema this year. Even the most crowded of theaters become so silent, you could hear a pin drop. Lee has a lot to say with this film, and despite a few foibles, “BlacKkKlansman” packs a fantastically well-acted cast of supporting characters, strong direction and cinematography, and an intriguing, entertaining, and utterly absurdist true-to-life plot. “BlacKkKlansman” is a real conversation starter and an important film that America needs to see.