No director has been written off more than Spike Lee. For a man that’s made cinematic classics, such as Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, and Jungle Fever, he’s often disregarded. Most directors with that kind of filmography would be hailed as geniuses, yet Lee has been left for dead time-and-time again. Much of that has to do with the blunt and honest nature of his films, especially with respect to race. He’s “polarizing” to some, but his voice has always been important. Here, with BlacKKKlansman, from the novel of the same name, he creates not only one of his best films, but the biggest salvo in a year filled with much needed meditations on race.
Opening with a spoof of Gone with the Wind, Lee makes his statement. He takes what’s considered a cinematic classic and re-opens what black audiences have always known about the film, and is often forgotten, that it eulogizes the south. Though its pernicious message is subtler than D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (a film that’s routinely referred to throughout BlacKKKlansman), it still basks in the “rebel” motif of the “noble cause.” This opening will galvanize audiences and tickle film aficionados.
Lee then transitions to Dr. Beauregard (Alec Baldwin), a white nationalist who is filming a newsreel. Lee uses hues of red over Baldwin’s face, as his character does take-after-take, complaining of black rights and “MLcoon.” It’s a sequence that may be funny to some, but shouldn’t. As Beauregard spews slur after slur, it’s a haunting reminder of how common such speech once was.
BlacKKKlansman is filled with many of these vignettes. Lee throughout the film is trying to accomplish numerous aims. The film shifts from film criticism, to slight bits of satire, to a rallying cry. It covers Gone with the Wind, Birth of a Nation, and the Blaxploitation films of the 70’s.
However, the central story of the film is Ron Stallworth’s. He’s the first black officer of the Colorado Springs police force and he wants to go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan. Stallworth, played by John David Washington, is intelligent and keen. Stallworth was a real person, and the film is based on his autobiography. Here, Washington is deceptively cool and looks like a veteran in his short career. Stallworth’s story is supported by Flip (Adam Driver), his partner in an undercover assignment, which begins with Stallworth finding the KKK’s phone number on an ad and calling it. He becomes the voice, while Flip is the stooge. It’s a treat to see what role Driver will take, as there’s no actor on a hotter run than him. His name is almost a harbinger of quality right now, and he delivers a workman like performance here.
In the background is Stallworth’s relationship with Patrice (Laura Harrier), a “militant” organizer. Their sequences provide a dichotomy in BlaKKKlansman, between Stallworth’s white and black world. With Patrice, he debates the best Blaxploitation films, such as Superfly, Cleopatra Jones, and Shaft. However, their most powerful scene is in their first meeting. Stallworth, uncover, comes into contact with her at a Stoakley Carmichael/ Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) rally. Hawkins appears in the film for less than 8 minutes, but his time is well spent. The scene is a “wow” moment as Ture gives a fiery speech, a moment that causes even the undercover Stallworth to mutter in agreement. The scene is going to be studied in film for years to come, as shots of Ture delivering his speech are interspersed with profile shots of the audience listening to him. It’s stunning, chilling, and brilliant, and will be received warmly or halfheartedly depending on the audience.
One of the better scenes is also the dance sequence following the speech, between Stallworth and Patrice, reminiscent of a Soul Train line. Lee does these callbacks to black heritage with exuberance and reverence. Often it feels as though Lee wants to dwell on these moments longer and more intimately, and sometimes I wish he would. Indeed, many of these vignettes would make for stunning shorts. And in these sequences, Lee does some work of recovery. Taking the genre of Blaxsploitation and returning it back its political and proud cultural roots.
Lee’s film is so jammed that the actual undercover scenes sometimes take a backseat. The switching between the KKK meetings and these meditations on black culture sometimes creates an uneven tone, but it’s often mended by Lee making connections between the protests done by the black students and the KKK (though the ending is still tonally deaf).
Lee’s vision of the KKK is that of dangerous buffoons. The very nature of an organization duping themselves into believing that they can tell the difference between whites and blacks, and then being fooled into accepting a black man into their ranks feeds into it. Topher Grace as David Duke is perfectly cast. Jasper Pääkkönen and Ashlie Atkinson as the Kendricksons are batty true believers, while Pääkkönen in particular is down right frightening. The line detector sequence is another vignette that will leave audiences at the edge of their seats. Also, Paul Walter Hauser as Ivanhoe is making a career out of playing stupid, inhabiting a character much like the one he played in I, Tonya. We rarely see these Klan members in their white hoods, but the “normalization” of them is the exact fear that Lee is playing off here. The racists aren’t caught by their garb or the signs on their lawn, they are caught by the flags they fly and behind closed doors. They’re caught not by burning crosses, but by Tiki torches.
Lee realizes this. That racism is camouflaged, yet cogent, and often hides behinds the highest of offices. The score, written by Terence Blanchard, mixes these sentiments as images of the Klan are often accompanied by patriotic music. In the background to every Klan moment is usually a picture of Nixon. It’s one of the subtle ways that Lee makes a film about the 70’s that’s really about today.
And in 5 years, there will be those who will write off Lee. They will call him overrated. They will say that his message has lost its sheen or that his films play on race too often. However, Spike Lee is one of the best directors of his generation. BlacKKKlansman assures him of that title, even if his coronation has come 10 years too late.