One of my favorite clichés is that true stories make some of the best movies. Alright it’s not really a cliché, but it should be because it’s true especially when that story just happens to be timely and fit right in with modern societal issues worth exploring. Sometimes they’re eye opening and insightful and sometimes they’re pandering and over the top. And then sometimes there’s that rare movie that manages to be both without necessarily being bad. Take “BlacKkKlansman” for example, the latest offering by Spike Lee that attempts to take a real life story of fighting against racism in the shadows and adapt it in a way that makes it relevant to modern audiences. As I said it’s both pandering and thought provoking, but how well do these approaches mesh? Is it a worthy work of social commentary or a mess trying to be too much to too many viewers? Let’s find out. This is my review of “BlacKkKlansman”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“BlacKkKlansman” focuses on the real life story of Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department who infiltrated the KKK in 1972. In the film Stallworth begins his career infiltrating a local rally for civil rights leader Kwame Ture where he meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) the leader of the local student black union who becomes his romantic interest. Stallworth’s success on the job earns him a promotion to detective where he teams with Jewish Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Acting as a white man, Stallworth makes a call to the local chapter of the KKK and organizes a meeting and eventually earns membership with Zimmerman acting as Stallworth in person to keep up the ruse. Together they earn the trust of David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard, and discover a plot that puts Patrice and other local black activists in danger. Meanwhile Stallworth struggles with his position as a black cop which presents issues of its own with racism within his department and judgement from many of his fellow black men and women who have come to label police as universally racist.
Personally, I found this to be a fantastic movie on many levels. Sometimes a film shines because of its subtlety, but in the case of “BlacKkKlansman” it takes a more in your face approach mixing humor and blunt social commentary to tackle issues of today and yesterday head on. Now yes there are some issues with the pretentiousness of this movie, but for the most part is works. It’s a balancing act and it’s only the latest, and possibly the most tasteful, in his long line of Spike Lee films putting the focus on a touchy subject. The most immediate thing that stands out for me with “BlacKkKlansman”, and to me the most satisfying aspect of the entire film, is that it’s not afraid to look at either side of the racial divide and point out important hypocrisies. Despite specifically calling the KKK a horrible organization filled with questionable people it never truly demonizes ALL members of the organization presenting them as violent and lost individuals who fail to see the error of their ways. On the flip side it also doesn’t shy away from commentary on the black population, specifically when it comes to the issue of police versus African Americans. This is a relevant issue today as many know and a running theme in the film is Ron Stallworth juggling a relationship with Patrice, a woman he has to hide his profession from because he feels he will be an outcast for being part of the police force. Stallworth even says several times in the movie that not all cops are bad and that the profession shouldn’t be defined by the action of the few and the same goes for the black race. Its these duel perspectives that Spike Lee uses to prove that not either side is truly right. I’ll expend on this in a bit but first let’s look at the acting and presentation.
“BlacKkKlansman” is presented in as pleasantly focused and well-paced story that shows the evolution of Ron Stallworth as a person as well as those around him. Over the course of the movie we find Stallworth changing from an overconfident rookie to a compassionate man who can see the positives and negatives of both sides of the coin. He acknowledges there are problems with racism but realizes these don’t define everyone. Having a black character come to this realization, especially in the face of evil like the KKK, feels inspiring and in this day and age it’s an important message to send to an increasingly divided America. Of course, it helps that Stallworth receives an awesome, energetic and committed portrayal from John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, who shines in his first true starring role proving he is a capable and multilayered actor who can bring out the nuances and subtleties of such a complicated character. He’s humorous, he’s charming but he’s also a take-no-prisoners cocky badass who is genuinely human in his errors and personal struggles. I’ve know little about the real Stallworth but this portrayal makes him seem very human and very down to earth as he should be.
Washington is not the only shining star in this cast however. Adam Driver plays Stallwroth’s partner, Jewish undercover detective Flip Zimmerman, who has to portray Stallworth in person to fool the KKK. Despite several members slightly seeing through Zimmerman’s ruse Driver and his character remain calm, cool and collected as they try to be convincing racists. Driver has to portray a cop going against type, pretending to be someone he’s not and to hate people like himself and his partner. It’s pretty cool because you can see his inner struggle. Subtle facial twitches and moments of weakness show that he is having genuine difficulty staying in character in the context of the film. We see Zimmerman evolve just like Stallworth specifically with one great scene where he discusses his Jewish heritage with his partner including the fact that he never thought anything of it and how only now, when he realizes the hate in the world, does he feel it’s an important part of his identity. It’s a great human moment where two characters of different skin colors and background agree that they are fighting the same fight.
Another pair of great performances I want to mention before I move on are Laura Harrier and Topher Grace. Harrier, known for her role in “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, plays Patrice, a woman Stallworth gets involved with who is completely against all cops seeing them as racist. This to me was an important addition to the narrative because it gives us a character who embraces the other side of the closeminded spectrum, a black person who refuses to see the good in their enemies. But, Patrice is not evil, she’s not unlikable, and she’s not mean like the white members of the KKK. She’s just devoted to her cause, but blindly so. She’s the typical liberal who sees her social justice fight as the only thing that matters but in many ways she’s a blind hypocrite just like those she despises and wants to change. Its a brutally honest portrayal of someone on the right side of history who isn’t completely void of her own hypocritical wrongdoing. Then we get her polar opposite in David Duke, a real life Grand Wizard of the KKK portrayed by Topher Grace. Grace gives Duke confidence and a sense of royalty, a man who thinks he owns the world because in his mind he is superior. He’s genuinely unlikable but also insanely charming and it’s easy to understand how such a man could win over people with only a smile. Grace isn’t always cast appropriately in films (see “Spider-Man 3”), but when he is he nails it and Duke is the perfect kind of character for him. He’s a pretty boy who believes he’s more important than he really is and it’s oh so satisfying to see what becomes of him in the end.
Well I know I’ve talked a lot about the acting but back to the plot of the film and the style. “BlacKkKlansman” is one of many movies tackling the racial divide of America that has been released in the past few years and I found myself comparing it to another amazing movie of 2018, “Sorry to Bother You”. Whereas “Sorry to Bother You” worked because it was willing to push the envelope maybe a bit too much at times, “BlacKkKlansman” works because it follows a formula but puts a unique spin on it. We’ve seen Blaxploitation movies before, hell several of them are even namedropped in this movie, but “BlacKkKlansman” doesn’t feel like it was made to be shocking or exploitative…well that is until the very end but I’ll get to that. It feels like this film was made for the simple purpose of opening eyes and bringing very real awareness to the realities of racial separation. It’s a ballsy film that uses comedy, visuals, well written characters and an awesome screenplay to tell the audience what they need to hear, that there are two sides to every coin and neither of them are necessarily a hundred perfect right. Even Ron Stallworth isn’t right all the time, but he rides the middle line between both extremes on a very personal issue proving that not everyone knows the absolute truths about what they are fighting for. Yes there are times this movie feels pretentious, which I’ll touch on in just a second, but overall I truly enjoyed what it had to say and found it to be a well rounded and controlled movie and narrative worth viewing.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
There are two things I felt were worth mentioning as negatives in “BlacKkKlansman”, the first being that as I said, yes, this movie does feel pretentious at certain moments. I gave the movie credit as a well-balanced product that does a lot to discuss the divide that America is struggling with even today, a difference in ideals that refuses to compromise. But the few times Spike Lee and the cast do decide to embellish a bit are by far the worst parts of an otherwise amazing movie. Take for instance the subplot of a racist cop being in Ron Stallworth’s department. This is a running storyline in the film and involves the mistreatment of both Stallworth and Patrice on different occasions by the same white cop. It eventually works its way to a resolution, but the entire side story it wasn’t needed. It felt like a pandering moment in the movie where a bad cop gets what’s coming to him to force-feed the “not all cops are bad” narrative in the film. It doesn’t change anything in the grand scheme of things as we come to find out in the final moments of the film and feels like a needless moment where Stallworth gets to one-up someone who did him wrong. There are several moments like this throughout the movie, many near the end, that betray the film’s otherwise very human and subtle storytelling style. They are moments where Spike Lee makes the mistake of forcing an emotional reaction from the viewer and that brings me to the one moment in this movie that truly rubbed me the wrong way.
The one part of the film that just took me right out of the experience was the ending. There’s a cool artistic shot in the final moments that would have been a great way to end the film. But Spike Lee didn’t stop there. He took things to a different level. Before I go farther I need to preface this complaint my stating I feel for Heather Heyer and her family. I’m not a fan by any means of what occurred during the Untie the Right rally in 2017 and I do not support Donald Trump’s comments in the wake of that event. HOWEVER, we didn’t need to bring that issue into this film. The final moments call back to the events in Charlottesville, which isn’t a surprise seeing as this movie was meant to be released to coincide with the event’s anniversary. But that’s not what this movie was about. Maybe the general concept, the people versus the people, was worked into this movie but this was not a film about Charlottesville.
Yes, many of the ideas included in this story are relevant to today but the purpose of a film is not to force this realization into the minds of viewers. “BlacKkKlansman” accomplishes this on its own without the need for flashbacks and videos to stir an emotional response. It just didn’t need it and I thought this film would have been much better off allowing the viewer to make the connection themselves. Spike Lee made the mistake of showing viewers how they’re supposed to feel with these final moments, but we didn’t need to be told. We shouldn’t have been told. It’s up to the viewer to see what you’re trying to say with your art. If you just tell us then where’s the fun in that. Don’t get me wrong I respect what Spike Lee was trying to do. It’s a nice moment, a tribute to those who stood for what was right on that day in my opinion, but I had to take my blinders off and realize that it was unneeded and felt out of place. I just watched this awesome film about how the racial divide is more than just blacks and white, it’s also ideals versus ideals and ignorance versus ignorance and now I’m getting bombarded with images meant to bring an emotional response I was already enjoying from the basic story. it also waters down any grey area that may have been open for interpretation by the viewer.
Despite my issues with later portions of the film and the few moments of pandering and pretentiousness that “BlacKkKlansman” does contain I have to say this is by far one of the best movies I’ve ever seen tackling the race issue in America. It’s artistic quality and balance of drama and humor make it easy to follow and appreciate with several actors standing out by fully realizing the subtleties and human characteristics of their assigned characters. Most of all however it’s a movie that manages to say something I personally feel needed to be said. It has the unmitigated gall to tell the world that neither side of the racial divide is truly correct. Those who are fighting for racial equality betray their cause by hating others based on the few and those who think they are righteous enough to be the superior race are actually in a minority as hate-filled sores on society. However, both sides present humanity in their own way as each member of the opposing force are confident in who they are and what they fight for, for better or worse. It’s the man in the middle, Ron Stallworth, who is trying to find the true peace in the world even if it means he has to make compromises to achieve the greater good. In the end it’s a great story presented expertly by a great director and an awesome cast. I’d go see it again in a heartbeat and I’d go so far as to call it a potentially definitive film of our time worthy of respect, admiration and a hopefully legacy as a classic that shows just how far America still has to go to get things right.