Movie Review: “BlackkKlansman” – Righteous Film, Right Time

Written by Jeremiah Greville September 07, 2018

BlackkKlansman

BlackkKlansman comes out at an interesting moment in film history. Following the groundbreaking success of Black Panther earlier this year, and the release of indie darling Sorry to Bother You, it’s another in a line of black-led popular films made in direct response to the rise of white nationalism in the western world. Unlike those other films, however, BlackkKlansman is explicit in this purpose. It’s there on the poster—this is a movie about a black man infiltrating the KKK. What’s more, it’s actually based on a true story. But while the message is something everyone should hear, the content may be tough for some viewers…especially if you happen to be racist.

BlackkKlansman is set in 1979 and stars John David Washington as Detective Ron Stallworth, the first black officer and detective in the Colorado Springs police department. When Stallworth happens upon an ad for the KKK in his local newspaper, he contacts the group by phone and pretends to be a racist. From there, he infiltrates the group with the help of a white cop, Flip, played by Adam Driver. Laura Harrier also stars as Patrice Dumas, a local student activist and romantic interest for Ron. Topher Grace rounds out the cast as David Duke, Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s directed by Spike Lee and co-produced by Jordan Peele, based off of the 2014 book “Black Klansman” by Ron Stallworth.

“All power to all people”

While BlackkKlansman is based on a true story, it is heavily embellished to add drama and deeper meaning. It also doesn’t shy away from raw discussions and depictions of racism and violence. The language throughout is vulgar, and the hate speech is plenty hateful. Most viewers will no doubt have an idea of what to expect going in, but the experience can still be jarring. More than one person left my showing in the first half-hour, not to return. Yet the most vulgar and detestable moments of the film are often some of the funniest and most disarming. Lee doesn’t hesitate or hold back in showing the depravity or limited worldview of the KKK members. He has a lot of fun at their expense, and it’s hard not to chuckle at their bumbling antics.

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These moments are intentionally funny—you’re allowed to laugh at racists for being racists. Yet, there’s never a moment where you’re allowed to forget about the broader implications and social context. Several audience members in my showing were dead silent through some of the film’s funniest scenes, because of this apparent disparity. This is one BlackkKlansman‘s greatest strengths, but could be difficult for some people to get through. Lee’s film doesn’t sugar-coat the danger or insidiousness of racism. The KKK are a group of barely functional, unstable buffoons, but they’re still a threat. Lee balances several conflicting themes and approaches, and never lets you forget about the larger picture taking shape. When the film is funny, it’s really funny, but it never stops being serious either.

“For you it’s a crusade. For me it’s a job.”

Lee has been publicly criticized for his depiction of police in the film, and has also offered his response. He’s since said that not all cops are bad, and shows the police department in the film as flawed but vital. However, Harrier’s character, Patrice, created specifically for the film, seems to exist largely to point out police racism and argue against their existence. As a white critic, I ultimately can’t say how effective this balancing act is—only that Lee walks it. He also devotes long sections of BlackkKlansman to juxtaposing racist white views with black solidarity. Seeing the KKK chant ‘white power’ and the Colorado Springs black community chant ‘black power’ at the same time is startling, because Lee never lets us forget why they’re doing it.

BlackkKlansman

Washington, a former football player and eldest son of Denzel Washington, is great as Stallworth. He walks the tightrope Lee provides him with aplomb, subtly portraying Stallworth’s naivety, ambition, and inner conflict across a minefield of difficult material. Driver’s just as good as his partner, Flip, but he’s there largely to support Washington’s role. Despite having most of the tense undercover scenes to himself, Driver never steals the show from his co-star. The actors depicting the KKK members are also worthy of mention, though it feels strange to lend them much praise due to their roles. Topher Grace seems like an odd choice for Duke at first, until you see pictures of Duke from that period. His soft-spoken approach underscores the terrifying new face of racism he presents. He is the face of modern white supremacy—well-dressed, polite, politically motivated, and deeply evil.

“The true white American race…”

The strangest thing about the film, and the most difficult aspect to review by far, is the ending. It’s difficult to discuss without spoiling. Don’t worry, I won’t give it away here. The reason it needs to be mentioned is twofold: it risks undermining the film’s entire narrative, yet also underscores the film’s central themes and modern significance. Wow, that was mouthful! I fully recommend seeing this movie so you can experience the ending for yourself. It is jarring, unexpected, powerful, and sobering. BlackkKlansman, the film, is rooted in transgressive hope and optimism. It’s a film about overcoming struggle, and about classic good winning over classic evil. The ending, however calls all of that into question, yet shows just how important that idea still is.

BlackkKlansman

BlackkKlansman is a direct response to the current political climate, and explicitly sets itself against white supremacy. In doing so, director Spike Lee not only calls out the KKK, or even historical bigotry, but sets his sight on modern racists as well. While Lee certainly shows the dark, insidious nature of white supremacy with Grace’s Duke, it’s a shame that he seems more focused on the broad, stereotypical racism of the cartoonish klan members. As film fodder, they’re entertaining to watch, but as social commentary, they don’t go far enough. But I trust that Spike Lee understands this, and is concerned with something deeper. BlackkKlansman is an extraordinary film, pulling double duty as great entertainment and political commentary. No jokes here—it’s a solid movie with an important message. You don’t want to miss it.

My Rating: 8/10

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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