Monday, August 13, 2018

Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman ***** / *****
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee based on the book by Ron Stallworth.
Starring: John David Washington (Ron Stallworth), Adam Driver (Flip Zimmerman), Topher Grace (David Duke), Laura Harrier (Patrice Dumas), Ryan Eggold (Walter Breachway), Jasper Pääkkönen (Felix Kendrickson), Paul Walter Hauser (Ivanhoe), Ashlie Atkinson (Connie Kendrickson), Robert John Burke (Chief Bridges), Brian Tarantina (Officer Clay Mulaney), Arthur J. Nascarella (Officer Wheaton), Ken Garito (Sergeant Trapp), Frederick Weller (Master Patrolman Andy Landers), Michael Buscemi  (Jimmy Creek), Damaris Lewis (Odetta), Ato Blankson-Wood (Hakeem), Corey Hawkins (Kwame Ture), Dared Wright (Officer Cincer), Faron Salisbury (Officer Sharpe), Victor Colicchio (Steve), Paul Diomede (Jerry), Danny Hoch (Agent Y), Nicholas Turturro (Walker), Harry Belafonte (Jerome Turner), Alec Baldwin (Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Mr. Turrentine).
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the year’s angriest, most provocative film – and also one of the funniest and most entertaining. Lee has the skill to craft both of those things, and somehow bring it together into a coherent whole. The film takes place in the 1970s, in Colorado Springs, and yet from the beginning, Lee makes it clear he is talking about today, 2018, as much as he is talking about the 1970s. The film is meant to provoke and prod you – make you uncomfortable – to borrow a phrase from many earlier films, this is another “Wake Up” call from Lee. And its wrapped in a package that is as entertaining as anything as Lee has ever made. It’s a masterpiece.
In the 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, showing his father’s charisma) wants to become a cop in Colorado Springs. They have never had a black cop before, but for the sake of optics, they want one. His interview is uncomfortable, as he is told that he would be the Jackie Robinson of the CSPD, and they would expect him to turn the other cheek like Robinson did – even if a fellow officer called him a nigger. “Would that happen?” Stallworth asks. If I tell you one of the interviewers is Isiah Whitlock Jr., you know what the answer is.
They stick him in the records room, but Stallworth hates it. He gets his chance to move up, when Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, great in his one scene) is coming to town to make a speech – and for obvious reasons, Stallworth is the only officer who can attend and draw not attention. There he meets the leader of the Black Student Union, Patrice (Laura Harrier) – and a tentative romance starts between the two of them, complicated by the fact that she (justly) think the police are racist, and the fact that he cannot tell her who he really is. This gets Stallworth moved up to undercover work – which will start the assignment that takes up the rest of the film. Seeing an ad for the KKK, Stallworth calls the number, spouts off a lot of racist rhetoric, and gets himself invited for a face-to-face – which obviously he cannot attend. Enlisting a white officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a non-practicing Jew to play Stallworth in the in person meetings. The real Stallworth keeps up the talk on the phone – getting so far as to talk to the leader of the KKK, David Duke (Topher Grace) on the phone.
Lee almost splits the movie in two. The scenes on the phone between Stallworth and KKK members – particularly Duke – are almost played for laughs, despite the racism being spewed. There is something undeniably funny to see a black man like Washington, spewing out that racism (Dave Chappelle knew this well, more than a decade ago, when he created the blind KKK member who doesn’t know he’s black). Stallworth is playing the KKK for fools, and they unwillingly play along with him. Stallworth is also given scenes with Patrice – she has drawn the attention of the KKK, and they have reason to think she, and their group, will be a target at their next major speech. As tough as all this is on the real Stallworth, there is also joy there – and a life outside of the investigations.
Driver’s Flip is given none of that – and it makes him perhaps the most fascinating character in the film. There’s no real, immediate danger for the real Stallworth on the phone, but Zimmerman faces it each and every time he meets with the group – one of whom, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), who is truly frightening, has Zimmerman pegged as a Jew from the start, and never really lets up. Zimmerman has to spew the same vile rhetoric Stallworth does, and do it face to face. He is someone who has never really thought about being Jewish – he is, but it was never a big deal in his life. Now he is, of course, forced to deal with it on a larger level than ever before. While Stallworth’s scenes are often funny, despite the racism on display, Zimmerman’s scenes never cease to be anything but truly frightening.
All of this comes to a head, of course, in one of the best sequences Lee has ever directed. First, there is the scene where he intercuts a speech about the lynching of a young black man in 1916, told by a legend, with a scene of the KKK gathering together to watch D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) – which they cackle and laugh through. This isn’t the first time Lee has took direct aim at Griffith’s “masterpiece” – not even the first time he’s done so in this film (he opens the film with a scene from Gone with the Wind, and then cuts over to Alec Baldwin, playing someone called Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (a shot at Jeff Sessions perhaps?) giving a vile speech about integration, which uses a lot of footage from Griffith’s film). Griffith, and his film, has been a long time target of Lee’s – with justification of course, as the film is vile in ways that the technological and storytelling advances Griffith’s film had in no way justifies or excuses. In this film, Lee is using the film against itself – and indicting those watching.
He indicts others as well. Throughout the film, there is an unmistakable rhetoric being spouted by the more “moderate” members of the KKK like Duke, that sound deliberately like the rhetoric used by the current occupant of the White House. To make this even clearer, there is a scene where an officer lays out precisely how people like Duke are going to move away for deliberately racist language – no one likes to be called racist – and couch their racism is kinder, gentler, less provocative terms, but the outcome will be the same. “But America would never elect someone like that President?” Stallworth asks, and is told that it is an incredibly naïve thing for a black man to say.
Lee drives home the point one last time in his closing – just when you think he wasn’t going to use his “people mover” shot, he does (it’s one of his best uses of it) and then cuts to footage from last year’s Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally – and the response from both the President, and modern day David Duke. I know there will be some who say that Lee perhaps could have – and should have – been more subtle. But subtly isn’t Lee’s style – it never has been – and he’s going to ensure no one can leave the theater thinking he has made a movie about America’s racist past, and remark on how far the country has come since then. The effect of that footage is overwhelming, and ends this masterpiece on the perfect note. This is one of the very best films of 2018 – and one of the very best of Lee’s career.

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