Minor spoiler warning.
Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is a disturbing and provocative condemnation of hatred, making it one of 2018’s must-see films.
“BlacKkKlansman” centers around an African-American man in the 1970s named Ron Stallworth, played brilliantly by John David Washington, who bravely sets out to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in an undercover operation. Stallworth, the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, finds an advertisement for the KKK in the local newspaper and decides to phone the community organizer. With a shocking, over-the-top performance (including a hilarious pronunciation of the word “white”), Stallworth successfully “befriends” the Klansman on the other end of the line and sets up a meeting. However, Stallworth accidentally uses his real name on the call, which creates a problem. Obviously, he can’t show up to this meeting. Instead, another Colorado Springs officer named Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, goes to the meeting, pretending to be Stallworth. Soon enough, Stallworth and Flip find themselves deep undercover, but how long can they successfully pull this off? And no, this wasn’t a “Saturday Night Live” sketch — this was based on a true story.
John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, gives a performance that’s impossible to overlook. Stallworth is a great human being, whose bravery in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles makes him admirable. Washington has palpable control of every scene he’s in, powerfully expressing a wide range of emotions in a role that begins comically but takes numerous hard-hitting turns. The other performances are undeniably impressive, especially Laura Harrier as a student activist, but Washington steals the show.
Perhaps it was intentional that “BlacKkKlansman” spends equally as much time with Klansmen as it does with Stallworth himself. Lee doesn’t sanitize the Klansman characters, showcasing their vile personalities in prolonged scenes that are often hard to watch. Despite a couple over-the-top characters, the screenplay keeps the Klansmen grounded in enough reality to make them frighteningly believable. For example, the film portrays the demonic David Duke, played by Topher Grace, as a fool, but a fool who’s still intensely persuasive to all his misguided followers.
Lee’s film is suspenseful, compelling and profoundly uncomfortable, likely to make viewers squirm all the way through.
This isn’t to say the film doesn’t have comedic moments, but just like all Lee joints, “BlacKkKlansman” is above all a film with ambitious, timely themes and social commentary.
By making viewers spend time with these horrible characters, Lee’s references to present-day America prove all the more powerful. At one point, Lee shows footage of the Charlottesville, Virginia “Unite the Right” march that occurred a little over a year ago, including footage of the white supremacist who drove his car into a group of counter-protestors and killed an innocent woman. Lee follows this with footage of President Donald Trump who, in an opportunity to condemn white supremacists, said there “are good people on both sides.” Lee packs “BlacKkKlansman” with painful, depressing reminders of the continued hatred and racism that continue today, likely leaving audiences shaken.
Lee fully understands cinema’s power to move audiences to take action against injustice and prejudice. While the film isn’t “entertaining” in an escapist way, largely because of the harsh subject matter, even though the soundtrack elicits pure bliss, it’s important to see films that are unafraid to confront their audience.
While the film is no “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” with its outstanding action and crowd-pleasing appeal, it achieves something greater –– actual social relevance.
Lee shows footage from “Gone With The Wind” where a confederate flag is proudly displayed in the opening moments of “BlacKkKlansman,” as well as footage from the 1900s silent film “Birth of a Nation,” which was used as a propaganda tool for the KKK. Art, film included, has the power to change worldviews and perspectives, either for better or worse. Indeed, watching “BlacKkKlansman” isn’t a passive experience. Rather, viewers are meant to involve themselves in the film, be compelled by the fascinating story, and leave the theater outraged at how contemporary politics have somehow allowed hatred and prejudice to endure.
While a heavy viewing experience, “BlacKkKlansman” is a film that should be watched by as many serious moviegoers as possible. Maybe this film can help change the world.