“BlacKkKlansman” may be Spike Lee’s most conventional film in recent years. And I say that as a compliment. Though I’m no expert on his filmography, it doesn’t have the fourth wall breaks like his classic “Do The Right Thing” (1989) or characters speaking in rhyme like his last major feature, “Chi-Raq” (2015). Both of these films are brilliant and have their appropriate spaces for emotional appeal, but “BlacKkKlansman” has a little extra room, raising the stakes and giving the audience a strong investment in its characters. Ironically, this film is marketed as a comedy, and though it holds those comedic elements dearly, the overall effect is cathartic, perhaps to match these dark times.
Chronicling the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), an African American police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in 1979 Colorado Springs, Lee’s film blends comedy, theatrics, drama, and prominent social issues together in seamless fashion. He “joins” the hate group over the phone using a “white voice,” and has a surrogate officer (Adam Driver) attend meetings. The premise is outright hilarious, but Lee doesn’t allow it to burst into an exaggerated comedy that tries to tackle every social obstacle imaginable (looking at you, Boots Riley of “Sorry to Bother You”). Instead, we’re given a taste of narrative genius: Lee reveals every side of a single issue and lets it branch out naturally. In this case, the issue is African American rights in the late 1970s vs oppressive white cops. Ron, a cop himself, defends himself and the righteous officers he works with. His girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier, playing a singular, fictional character to represent the Black Power Movement) on the other hand, is the president of an African American student group, and refers to all cops as “pigs.” In the middle of this dispute we have the obvious villains: racist cops and of course, the KKK. Just like in “Chi-Raq,” Lee balances constantly shifting dynamics and ideologies with a superb script, based off of Stallworth’s book of the same name.
Unsurprisingly, “BlacKkKlansman” makes connections to present day race relations, especially the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, whose one year anniversary was August 11th 2018, the release date of this film. These connections are powerful and appropriately so, and despite the intense scenarios of the film, it’s not an advocate for violence. When there’s talk of a race war (interestingly enough, incited by the African American student group), Stallworth is adamant to prevent it. When images of violence are mentioned or shown, they’re searing, not entertaining. I have to compare “BlacKkKlansman” to the brilliant “Chi-Raq” once more; Lee strikes the heart of issues with relative ease. In “Chi-Raq,” he focused on the accessibility of firearms in regard to black on black crime in Chicago, and in “BlacKkKlansman,” he focuses on individuals of integrity seeking justice. There are certainly gray areas, but they don’t distract; they warrant reflection.
For a film with such themes, the style should complement the material, and “BlacKkKlansman” has signature Spike Lee trademarks while still being a film that hits emotionally. There are still split-screen sequences, movie posters appearing onscreen as characters reference them, and uncomfortably long takes. But they are scarce compared to other Spike Lee films, and they still enhance the smart writing and performances. They help provide context for the time period. And when I say that this is one of Lee’s most “conventional” films to date, I mean that it has striking, even iconic, images that you would expect from a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg or Stanley Kubrick. Perhaps Jordan Peele’s (“Get Out”) hand in the production team has something to do with this. Regardless, my personal favorite is a scene at a shooting range: KKK members are playing target practice, with Stallworth hiding in the bushes, listening in on their plans. When they depart, he approaches the targets, which we don’t see clearly until he does. They are gross silhouettes of African American children running, and the image Lee captures of Stallworth approaching these targets is haunting. These kinds of visuals are peppered throughout the film, and they are often accompanied by sharp editing and incredibly fitting soundtrack choices.
By the end, everything comes together to make “BlacKkKlansman” an excellently engaging and controversial film, with light moments to strengthen the dark undertones. Though there’s a bit of disconnect at the film’s conclusion when Lee is desperate to prove to us that things are just as bad today, it’s neither unwarranted nor tossed in last second. It’s the kind of ending to make you sit until the credits are finished, perhaps hoping for something more.