In an era where white-supremacists can march “proudly” in Charlottesville and the president claims that there are “bad people on both sides,” a movie like “BlacKkKlansman” is more important than ever. The new Spike Lee joint, based on a true story and set in 1970s Colorado Springs, follows two police officers in the Colorado Springs Police Department as they go undercover in the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black officer to join the CSPD, leads the investigation with his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), both of whom have personal stake in the termination of the KKK.
The main plot kicks off when Stallworth makes a cold call to a number for the KKK he finds in the local paper. Zimmerman, who comes from a Jewish heritage, takes on the role of “Ron” to meet up with the group and infiltrate in person while the real Ron handles working his way up the group over the phone. One of the funniest jokes in the movie is when Ron hangs up the phone after calling up “The Organization” and Zimmerman looks at him and asks, “Did you just use your real name?” This becomes more important to the plot later on, but it definitely sets the tone for what the film has in store.
What it does have in store is a wild, inventive, disturbing, hilarious and powerful ride. This movie is something special. Spike Lee obviously hasn’t lost his touch as a director. The social commentary in this movie is relevant and biting, with some not-so-subtle jabs at our current political situation and climate. That being said, this isn’t some political drama, rife with tears and lines fumbled out through sobs. This is a movie that balances a light-hearted, fun buddy-cop adventure with some heavy, dark themes. It takes the time to appreciate and reflect on the darkness of the situation, but it never feels like there is tonal inconsistency. The two major tones of the movie meld powerfully and make for an even more entertaining and impactful experience. Often these moments of seriousness were cued with a specific cut of The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)” that brings in a funky bass line that gives these moments a feeling of harkening back to the blaxploitation films of the early ’70s. There’s even a scene where Ron and his romantic interest Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), who is the president of the Black Student Union at the local college, discuss that era of film and the validity it has in black culture.
“BlacKkKlansman” touches on a lot of different viewpoints and takes on furthering justice. It is also obviously meant to be a takedown of Trumpism and the rise of the alt-right. It was interesting to see these different perspectives on equality play out and how they affected the different characters in different ways, often having to do with their upbringing. There are interesting conversations about topics like passing for white, how to fix a broken system, the morality of violent protest, and many others. All of these are approached in ways that are compelling and persuasive, which is a testament to the writing of this film.
The script of this movie is fantastic. The pacing is very smooth; it’s clever and funny, while still being compelling and emotional. The script is brought to life by the performances, which are top-notch across the board. This was the first time I had seen both Washington and Harrier, and I was blown away by both. They brought a lot of complexity and emotion to the roles. Driver was strong and had a lot of funny moments as he stumbled his way through trying to fit in with the other members of the KKK.
The portrayal of the Klan in this movie is interesting. There is a wide range of members, from violent radicals to people who are meant to be more “grounded” and “rational.” Overall, the members of the clan are largely used as a source of both humor and tension. As the audience, we’re supposed to laugh when Walter (Ryan Eggold) or Felix (Jasper Paakkonen) say something racist, but there is still a darkness to both the humor and the characters. There are moments where you realize that these aren’t just people saying stupid things, these are characters who represent real people who believe these things. The movie did a great job at making me laugh and then pointing out that I should feel uncomfortable for laughing, which is what it was trying to do. The performances from actors portraying the KKK members were strong across the board. I was pleasantly surprised at how good Topher Grace was as David Duke, which was an interesting casting choice, but it paid off. It really drove home the idea that this is just a group of insecure, sad white men who blame all of their problems on minorities. They’re supposed to be weak and weasley. The only performance that I thought fell short was Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser), who was supposed to be a drunkard white-supremacist and was meant to be comedic relief, but he was more annoying than funny.
The film was also beautifully shot, and the score was an interesting mix of folk, rock, blues and funk, as well as the occasional orchestral soundtracking. But again, all of these different ideas meld together so well and really help to bring the movie to life. The movie had me constantly engaged, laughing one moment and being outraged the next. It built to a conclusion that left a deep, uncomfortable pit in my stomach, and I left the theater feeling sad and angry, but motivated to go and do something about it, which I think was Spike Lee’s goal for the film. The parallels between this film and modern times are terrifying, and I strongly recommend experiencing it for yourself. “BlacKkKlansman” hits theaters Aug. 10, and it’s important that you go see it.