Review – BlacKkKlansman (2018)

by Armando Vanegas

It’s a been a bittersweet time in this country that’s been mostly bitter in ways thanks to the current political state here in America. However, part of what’s been sweet about this year is that whether it’s coincidence or not, a lot of black voices have been able to get a chance to express themselves in such original ways as Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta, and now Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. For the most part, Lee succeeds with what he attempts to put on the screen. It’s a Spike Lee movie so you can definitely say that it’s not boring. The plot of the movie concerning Colorado Springs’ first black police officer in the 1970’s posing as a prospective KKK member who then recruits a Jewish officer to pose as the member in person to infiltrate the Klan. This is pretty unusual and to the movie’s credit, it does a lot with it by using it as a springboard to comment on recent political issues or social commentary that concerns the black community that may have been said before, but needs to reiterated for those who still aren’t able to get the message. For the most part, it never bothered me because it seems to come from a genuine place. While Lee is still Lee, this seem to be more mature and relatively calm to his other movies in its approach to its many ideas. It’s still very ambitious and maybe has too much to say. But it’s at least got some verve to it that I admire for bringing something to the table that will inspire some great food for thought, while simultaneously being an entertaining time at the movies.

John David Washington is entertaining and charismatic as Ron Stallworth, the aforementioned black cop who starts the investigation. He’s definitely proves that he’s in his element as he proves that he can handle the weight that some of these scenes carry due to the subject matter. Being the son of Denzel is a lot to live up to but he shows that he can fill those shoes when the time comes. While he has this cool demeanor for most of the movie, he does show some vulnerability when he’s forced to confront the fact that he’s a black cop in a predominantly white town, while also trying to prove his allegiance to his community. This mostly comes into play when he gets involved with Patrice (Laura Harrier), a member of the black student union, in which Ron finds himself not being able to tell her his real occupation when he’s assigned to infiltrate their group to ensure that the black residents aren’t being influenced by a popular black activist known as Kwame Ture, wonderfully played by Corey Hawkins. This part doesn’t really move the actual plot along but it does paint a great picture of showing what these young black people stand for as opposed to what the white supremacists later in the film stand for.

Many of the best scenes of the film feature just scenes where black community members have a chance to express themselves, whether it’s Ture telling people to appreciate and embrace their blackness or when Harry Belafonte has a speech about witnessing a young black man being killed over a crime he didn’t commit. The scenes with Ron and Patrice are pretty bland in terms of the romantic tension that goes on, but what surrounds them, and what they actually discuss in terms of the events of the movie is actually compelling stuff. Equally compelling but more intense to watch are the scenes where Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman, the undercover cop has to infiltrate the local Klan members. Many of these scenes feel like we’re headed into forbidden territory as many of the Klan members wear their hate on their sleeve much like how the black students wear their blackness on their sleeve. A lot of the white supremacists made for great foils as they got really committed in their roles. They’re almost too good at what they’re portraying at times, but that sells the tension of the situation very well. Driver is one of those guys where it’s strange that he’s become a big star in some ways because he never really carries himself like a typical movie star, but that’s what makes him so fascinating to watch. The fact that he’s not immediately made out to be the hero and that he doesn’t play it that way adds more mystery and dramatic tension as he doesn’t seem to have much of an identity, due in part to him not being in touch with his Jewish roots. The understatedness of the character really works wonders for him as you’re not always quite sure where his loyalties lie, as he’s very convincing being on both sides of the law. Ryan Eggold is believable as Walter, the pragmatic head of the local Klan chapter, and is very good at playing it. It was interesting seeing how he’s a hateful person, but he mostly able to stay in his lane and keep things under control. Jasper Pääkkönen as Felix, one of the other klansman is intimidating, yet also funny in how absurd his schemes are when he’s threatening to expose Driver as a Jewish man. But as it goes on, it becomes more convincing that he’s the real villain of the movie and when he does certain things that could be catastrophic, he feels like a real threat.

Felix’s wife, Connie, played by Ashlie Atkinson, is a hit and miss character that sometimes lays on the racism on too thick in a cartoonish way, but she annoyed me less as the movie went on. Paul Walter Hauser is overdoing it as Ivanhoe, a drunk klansman but admittedly, he has some funny moments here and there. Topher Grace is fantastic as the Grand Member of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, who Stallworth converses with on the phone while posing as a Klan member. Grace isn’t exactly what most people would call a chameleon in his roles and that’s not much different here. He’s basically just David Duke the way he, Topher Grace the actor, would play him and yet, it still works. He’s not overdoing it or making it this intentionally grand performance. He plays it simple and to the point, but the writing and direction helps Grace create out a compelling character without totally leaning into parody despite the tongue in cheek nature of his scenes. The casualness of Duke’s racism actually has a quietly sinister tone to it and grounds the movie in not just the reality of this fictional yet fact based world, but the reality we find ourselves living in right now.

As far as Spike Lee movies go, this is definitely up there with his best and most memorable. It wasn’t as funny as I thought it was going to be, but there are still some moments from time to time that are hilarious. More often than not, the humor worked to help the movie breathe and release the tension. It’s more compelling when it goes in the directions of being a drama or a thriller. When it leans into those aforementioned elements, it’s an effective yet sad reminder of how we as Americans are still unable to overcome whatever differences we have as a collective whole. It’s entertaining, but it doesn’t make it any less depressing how much things haven’t changed. I loved the 70’s feel all throughout with much help coming from Terence Blanchard’s groovy score. It has a good pace to it as there’s always something going on screen. Many of the actors do a fantastic job in their roles. While this movie doesn’t get to play with visuals as much as Lee’s other movies, there are still some fantastic shots in here that show how skillful he is behind the camera. The ending is an interesting touch in terms of what it attempts to communicate to the audience despite the fact that it’s the most on the nose part of the movie. It doesn’t make it any less troubling or upsetting to watch even if comes out of left field as I found it very effective in saying what it wanted to say. How some of the characters come together before the climax feels too far fetched to me, but I understand a movie needs to happen, and it seemed like the screenwriters wrote themselves in a corner. But I’ll forgive that very obvious convenience since it comes together by the end and is so thrilling to watch. It may feel unfocused or messy at times, but that’s part of what makes this movie such an intriguing watch from one of cinema’s most unique and provocative voices doing what he does best.

I am giving BlacKkKlansman a 4 out of 5 hairpieces!

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