Opening today at an art house near me:
BLACKKKLANSMAN (Dir. Spike Lee, 2018)
It’s been quite a while since he’s made a truly relevant movie, but this true story adaptation of former police detective Ron Stallworth’s 2014 book about infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan in the ‘70s may be his most relevant movie ever.
Stallworth, sharply portrayed by John David Washington (son of Denzel), was the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, and we follow his rise in the ranks to the Intelligence Unit. Stallworth’s first assignment is to go undercover to observe the crowd reaction to a speech by ex-Black Panther member Stokely Carmichael, who had just changed his name to Kwame Ture.
At the event Stallworth has a meet cute with student activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), and asks Ture (Corey Hawkins) if he really thinks a race war is coming. “Arm yourself, brother, ‘cause the revolution is comin,’” Ture strongly stresses.
Stallworth comes upon an ad for the KKK in the newspaper, and calls the number on a classic black rotary phone that gets some dramatic close-ups to find himself talking to a recruiter saying that he hates blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Irish, Italians, and Chinese, “but my mouth to God’s ears, I really hate those black rats, and anyone else really that doesn’t have pure white Aryan blood running through their veins.”
This hate speech gets him invited to meet with members of the local charter, but, of course, he can’t go himself so he gets a fellow cop, Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go in his place and use his name (Stallworth used his real name when calling them because he didn’t know at the time that there would be an investigation).
Zimmerman or Stallworth #2 meets with some scary redneck types played by Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Pääkkönen, who suspects that their new recruit might be Jewish, and even tries to get him to take a lie detector test.
There are a number of likewise close scrapes where the detectives’ covers almost get blown including one riveting segment in which Washington’s Stallworth is assigned to be security for KKK Grand Wizard David Duke played with polished smarm by Topher Grace.
While the love interest was fabricated – the character Harrier plays is fictitious – what went down is reportedly accurate in this excellent film that’s part tense thriller, part powerful drama, and part history lesson. Being a Spike Lee Joint it has its fair share of well placed humor, but it’s too serious minded to get very silly.
It’s striking but not surprising that much of the rhetoric used by Duke and the other Klansmen is largely identical to the racist utterings of our current commander-in-chief, and his slogans such as “America first,” and “Make America Great Again” are also spouted. There’s even a moment where Stallworth is confounded by the idea that someone with this bigoted ideology could someday be elected President.
Lee arranged for this film to be released on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the tragic Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a counter protester, Heather Heyer, was killed. The movie ends as a tribute to Heyer, and we’re left with the horrifying thought that this shit is still happening with the flames being fanned by the asshole in the highest office in the land.
Lee knows that this story doesn’t need any flashy stylistic touches so he mostly plays it straight via cinematographer Chayse Irvin’s solid camerawork, but he does include some titled angle split screens, and he busts out one of his trademarked moves – the dolly shot – towards the end and it kills. He also employs his trusty longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard to provide the film’s often stirring score.
BLACKKKLANSMAN is a vital, piercing piece of work that is one of the best films of the year. With hope it will get some awards season action, especially since Lee really deserves to get something more than that Honorary Oscar he got a few years back.
But more importantly this movie deserves big audiences and to be in the national conversation. I know he doesn’t want to call it a comeback, but, dammit, I’m really glad that Lee has returned with the goods.