Director: Spike Lee
Writers: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee
Composers: Terence Blanchard
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
Distributor: Focus Features
Genre: Crime, Drama
When my wife informed me that Spike Lee had released a new film, I was like, “who?” While it is true that he did not fall off the face of the earth with modern releases such as Chi-Raq, the brotha has yet to recapture the magic of She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, or He Got Game—movies released before many of our current staff and readers were born. Spike is from the era of peers like John Singleton and F. Gary Gray, and it has been a literal generation since he has created a film what commands import and demands exigency.
BlackKklansman is not a movie that I necessarily wanted to see; it is a movie that I had to see because I knew that people in my social circle would ask me about it. Sure enough, on its opening weekend Sunday, I was accosted by some church congregants who were dying to know what I thought. For their benefit and anyone else who reads this, I offer my commentary here.
Violence/Scary Imagery: The standard kind of violence that one would expect in this section is surprisingly limited to a pair of police officers ironically waylaying and clubbing an innocent black man at the whims of an individual who feigns innocence. In a related scene, a parcel explodes, killing a vehicle full of passengers.
The remaining violence in this film is primarily psychological. For example, an undercover officer discharges a weapon at his partner as an act to demonstrate his dedication to the white nationalist cause. Other Klansmen fantasize about how many Jews died in the Holocaust while simultaneously snickering about such an event never taking place. In the meantime, they engage in slippery language, saying that racism exists in America—racism against whites. In preparation for a revolutionary event, several members of the Klan practice their shooting using targets modeled after black people with exaggerated lips, noses, and afros. BlackKklansman concludes with a scene where two characters walk down a hall, guns pointing toward the camera (audience) toward a window where they see a cross burning.
This final scene could be interpreted as a call to arms, certainly ideologically, arguably literally. If one who watches BlackKklansman lacks reason, Spike Lee traces the dots by showing footage of the Charlottesville Riot of 2017 complete with white supremacists marching to “blood and soil” chants, President Donald Trump’s desultory “both sides” commentary, and the violence of the event. The violence includes people fist-fighting in the streets as the police passively look on to James Alex Fields Jr ramming a Mustang into a crowd, injuring nineteen, with Heather Heyer suffering fatal injuries (Fields is currently being charged with twenty-eight federal hate crimes for this act to which at the time of this writing, he has pleaded not-guilty).
Language/Crude Humor: As BlackKklansman is a crime drama, one should expect plenty of foul language as is common to the genre. There is no shortage of four-letter words, though the film demonstrates a fondness for s***t and f**k, including repeatedly taking the Lord’s name in vain. While approaching Wolf of Wallstreet in terms of vulgarity, the most offensive audible aspects of this movie are that it boasts an exhaustive catalog of racial slurs. Ostensibly, the N-word is the highest frequency term, but no ethnic background is safe from scrutiny, either. The Klan hates all but a select few.
Drug and Alcohol Use: Set during a time period when only hospitals and gas stations were smoke-free, cigarettes in BlackKklansman are as common as people wearing clothes. During casual Klan gatherings, beer is the beverage of choice.
Spiritual Content: One scene features Kwame Ture giving a speech in a church, but it is one of self-determination rather than dependency on any divine being. In contrast, there is a tangible density to the WASPy (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) ideologies of Klan, who believe that their superiority is divinely ordained. During a ceremony honoring two new Klan initiates, David Duke conducts a ceremony where he baptizes the entire roster of the local Klan chapter, individually.
Sexuality: This is a continuation of the violence section though these features are specific to sex. Klansmen speculate about black men raping white women, enacting the true womanhood ideological conundrum—one Klansman’s wife exudes puerile subservience as an illustrative example. Elsewhere, a police officer sexually assaults the protagonist’s love interest in a scene that will remind fans of movies in this topic area of the Academy Award-winning Crash. Finally, one Klansman asks a new recruit to show him his penis to check for circumcision; he is suspicious of Jewish lineage.
Positive Content: BackKklansman raises the question concerning the possibility of being able to change an oppressive institution, legal or extra-legal, from within. It is possible to fact-check this film, which is based upon a true story.
BlackKklansman opens with a prelude; Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) renders a pseudo-intellectual tirade. As a pro-segregationist, Dr. Beauregard lays it on real thick how he thinks that blacks are a threat to civilization. A Bull Connor look-alike, the man spews his vitriol as pro-Confederate footage plays in the background. Preceding this scene, BlackKklansan rolls footage from Gone with the Wind, featuring Scarlet O’Hara traversing several football fields of injured Confederate soldiers, ending with a point-blank centered shot of a torn Confederate flag giving in to the whims of the wind. If director Spike Lee had desired to say “Y’all lost; U mad?” with emphasis, I cannot imagine what he could have done differently.
BlackKklansman exists as a definite answer to a rhetorical question: yes, they are still mad; behold how. As a result, the pacing of the first quarter of the film suffers from these elongated overtures toward the primary narrative which concerns Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) integrating the Colorado Springs Police Department for reasons that the film never discloses. Stallworth simply desires to become the only black officer on the force and is immediately banished into the records room.
Desiring a more challenging assignment, he appeals to Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) for a transfer. The Chief obliges—Stallworth’s first mission in the investigative department is to intrude a gathering of black radicals who wish to see Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins). Though Stallworth is on assignment, he seems vulnerable to, if not moved by, Ture’s minister-like delivery of his speech on black self-determination. Here, Stallworth also meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the leader behind organizing this rally, thus beginning a predicament where Stallworth confuses work with play.
Upon his return to the police station, abruptly moving Stallworth’s career path forward with break-neck speed because the script demands it, he is placed into the intelligence division where his office is an open room shared with several peers. Also by sheer happenstance and plot devices, Stallworth sees an ad for the Ku Klux Klan in a newspaper. After what feels like a lapse of thirty to forty-five minutes of the film, it is at this point where the movie gets to the point. Taking advantage of telecommunication, Stallworth calls the Klan and leaves a message an answering machine—high tech back in the 70’s. Someone returns his call, claiming to be part of “the organization,” a considerably clandestine designation. While proving his worth to the man on the phone, Stallworth shocks his cohort by reciting a soliloquy of racial epithets most vile…while using his real name because he is a rookie. D’oh! The man on the phone nevertheless invites him the next meeting, which would be awkward considering that the Klan hates black people—unfortunate for Stallworth.
BlackKklansman finally gains momentum when Lee reveals his subversive purpose; this project begins with Dr. Beauregard’s repulsive demonstration of racial hatred and transitions to the police who immediately send Stallworth to spy on the black radicals as if they are a threat. Stallworth determines that the Klan, rather than the pseudo-Black Panthers, are the threat to the future. He recruits his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to the cause. The mission is that Zimmerman will infiltrate the Klan to determine if they are planning any terrorist acts.
Here, the movie makes its third genre transition, from historiographical meta-fiction to drama to satire. Members of the Klan position themselves in a spectrum from plain stupid to sly to incredulous, but all utterly irredeemable. Zimmerman is put to the test, as one distrustful member of the white supremacists, Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen), persistently butts into Zimmerman-as-Stallworth’s face, questioning if he’s a “****ing Jew.” Zimmerman takes Stallworth’s approach by throwing in a few choice words for the disparaged ethnic group to demonstrate his “disgust” for his own people. Now the film offers social commentary concerning the complex topic of passing: Zimmerman will later confide with Stallworth that though he was born ethnically Jewish, he was not a practitioner of the faith, and thought himself as white until he took on this mission and had to actively, rather than passively, make the choice of denying his own identity in order to survive.
This revelation is effective, yet BlackKklansman lacks similar moments like these that deliver. Spirling in multiple directions, there are too many components in play which deny a tight product. The juxtaposition between Ture’s speech and Harry Belafonte‘s recollection of a lynching is powerful but might be more suitable for a documentary. Of course, had Lee gone in that direction, the people who needed to see it, like Ava DuVernay’s 13th, might have skipped it. Even so, Lee fools no one, for there are no olive branches offered here—he emphatically rejects the impotent notion of “both sides.”
Meanwhile, such a message is diluted by scenes such as an excessively long dance at a club featuring Stallworth and Patrice, the fictional character created as a love interest in an attempt to make the film more interesting. Without her, the only other prominent woman in the film would be an obsequious Klansman’s wife; needless to say, BlackKklansman fails the Bechdel Test. Pressing on, during a romantic walk, Stallworth and Patrice reminisce about Blaxploitation movies in case the audience has yet to catch on to Lee’s subversive vision. Between Dr. Beauregard’s introduction, a crooked cop hazing Stallworth and later sexually assaulting Patrice, or David Duke’s (Topher Grace) musings on white superiority, Lee lays things on really thick when a light serving would have sufficed.
Additionally, Stallworth is the protagonist, yet he lacks charm. He says to his cohort that he is able to hang with them, while also get down with the “BPP,” yet a refrigerator radiates with more personality. It is possible that this is Lee’s intent, to portray the story of a black man who just-so-happens to be black, rather than one who performs blackness. For the purposes of the film, Patrice and David Duke are convinced, but I am not.
Sadly, Topher Grace’s Duke is the most charismatic character in the film, which is appropriate for the villain, but it is an uncomfortable feeling when the bad guy is more charming than the hero. Beyond those two, the rest of the cast falls into tropes: strong, independent black woman, confounded partner, redneck, psychopath, criminal mastermind, crooked cop, bossman, and so on. With the exception of John David Washington’s Stallworth, all others are splendid.
Speaking of, rather than toward Blaxploitation, BlackKklansman excels at capturing the visuals and aesthetics of the 70’s. The afros are tight. The clothes are far out. The mood bounces from tense to boss. The music, such as “We Are Gonna Be Okay” sends me back in time. The ominousness of “Photo Ops” really drives the point home that racial struggle was never “back then,” but is right now. Blut Und Boden (Blood and Soil)” in all of its outrageous irony serves as a proper hero’s theme.
No mind might be changed from watching BlackKklansman. In visual form, it sits within the context of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The First White President,” while offering no new revelation. This film is, therefore, a declaration of a checkmate in a game where the opponent who should be playing could care less. Perhaps in the very least it effectively serves to sift allies from the enemies.
+ Clever premise + Effective soundtrack + Actors (and actresses) deliver
- Editing - Stallworth's plainness - Premise is a misdirection
The Bottom Line
Indecisive in its focus as comedy, history, documentary, crime drama, or social commentary, BlackKlansman is a Picasso's puzzle of elements that will only engage a limited audience.