BlacKkKlansman is a terrific film. It tells an unbelievable story in an exciting and swirling, twisting way, but it also doesn’t quite do what it sets out to achieve. Director Spike Lee has a history of using pastiche for evergreen cultural insight and portrayal, and he does for the most part, but he also fails to stick the landing.
Based on the memoirs of the real Ron Stallworth, this tells the story of a black undercover detective in Colorado Springs infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. The Stallworth here (John David Washington) is a rookie on the force trying to work his way out of the records room and works his first undercover gig at a black student organization’s speaking event featuring Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) where he meets student president Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and is drawn to the then-radical notion that black people still need to fight for equal rights.
Of course, that’s where the rub is; this is still a radical notion. To this day, black people (and people of all colors, gender identities, and sexual orientations) have to fight for the same rights as straight cisgender white men. It should be shocking to the viewer how much of what is happening still rings true. From police freely shooting black children in the street—a consequence of systemic racism villfying skin color—to more simple but equally horrifying everyday bigotry, we can’t escape that this, even 40 years later, is our current reality as well.
A lot of this is kicked off by the seemingly small but hugely impactful performance of Hawkins. Essentially a diegetic speech in a single scene that turns into a soliloquy to the audience, he lays out a great deal of the tribulations of black lives. He touches on how European morphology have dominated the concept of beauty and how Western media normalizes the idea that minorities are bestial, subhuman creatures meant to be conquered or killed. He more or less breaks down in a summary how, most likely, the viewer lives in or is complicit in the academic sense of racism.
In lesser hands of both cast and crew, this would have been a painful experience, but here it works. (As a huge caveat, though, for this and the rest of this review, I am not Black, so I cannot speak to how someone living this reality would react to this or any other scene in this movie. Hopefully, though, this offers a facet of understanding for this project that some of you haven’t yet considered.) Truly, much of this movie is carried by how the cast embodies these huge and hugely topical issues.
Case in point: Topher Grace’s David Duke, the then-current Grand Wizard of the KKK. He is the ideal portrayal of this tremendous piece of shit. He’s at once grounded in his daily demeanour and Disney villain-level demented in his interactions. He is the modern white supremacist, realizing that hoods and robs aren’t “cool anymore” and opting for suits and ties (mirroring modern neo-Nazis in demanding crisp polos and khakis to be taken seriously) and burying racist rhetoric under pseudo-intellectualism and flawed, biased science. He was Richard Spencer before Richard Spencer, and that should be the terror of this film.
He speaks about finding the greatness of America again, an obvious reference to Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan. Or the KKK initiates chanting “America First” over and over again or calling their enemies “rapists and murderers” or calling for an armed response to protests, all actual and direct quotes and actions of Trump himself. The horror is that this figure is the leader of the free world.
The problem is that he is perhaps the only viable reflection of today. Every other member of the Colorado Springs chapter of “The Organization” is either outright villainous or fat, slovenly, and stupid. Granted, that is a sizable portion of the militant right wing of today, but it gives a convenient out to the audience. They can easily look to these categorical fools and say, “Well, I’m not that, so I’m good.” But the reality is that the people that most enable the David Dukes of the world are the people that are passive and complicit in the system that oppresses and dehumanizes minorities. In effect, it is nearly every person in the world.
But with this out, viewers can walk out feeling a bit too righteous in their standing in the world. (Hey, I’m included.) Perhaps it’s a consequence of being based on a true story or production wrapping before the more heinous events of the past year (including Charlottesville in 2017, though Lee saw fit to close out the film with direct footage from that and Trump calling both sides bad yet full of very fine people. It’s unclear if Lee thought this would bring it all home for the audience or if he was afraid they would miss the point, but it is both a stirring and odd conclusion to the movie.
Between the deft handling of the outlandish story and the increasingly winding and treacherous plot and the incredible performances, however, this is still a fantastic movie. Adam Driver is terrific as the cool but fractured partner to Stallworth’s investigation, Jasper Pääkkönen is the quintessentially unhinged antagonistic force, and Washington manages to embody both unfailing confidence and sufficiently overwhelmed while being charming at all times. Heck, even Alec Baldwin as a white supremacist propaganda actor is gold since, as 30 Rock explored, he has the perfect American accent. The biggest and perhaps only shortcoming, however, is that it’s just not an impactful one, or at least not as much as it would hope.
Final Score: 8 out of 10