BLACKKKLANSMAN— 4 STARS
The slogan of Spike Lee’s long-time production company 40 Acres and a Mule Filmwork is “by any means necessary,” a tagline that could not be more fitting of the urgency and purpose of Spike’s works. Nothing he puts his effort into ends up empty or meaningless. His lightning rod flair singes silver screens again with Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix prize winner BlacKkKlansman, stoking a period-piece true story into a potent punch of hard truths stamped for the present day.
LESSON #1: THE DEFINITION OF PROVOCATIVE — Merriam Webster defines the adjective in question to mean “serving or tending to provoke, excite, or stimulate. From Do The Right Thing to Chi-Raq and everything in between, Spike Lee aims to make provocative statements built on messages presented by an uncanny and unequal brew of satire and drama. BlacKkKlansman supports Lee’s embodiment of this definition and the three connected verbs it services.
The true root of BlacKkKlansman is the masquerade being touted by one of its first posters, showing a groovy African-American man armed with his fist, a hair pick, and a badge hiding under the white hood synonymous with the Ku Klux Klan. The man under the sheet is Ron Stallworth, played by HBO Ballers star and former pro football player John David Washington. Based on Stallworth’s book Black Klansman, the film shines as an excellent undercover cop flick with Spike’s signature panache on the tip of every point and tongue. Lee, assisted by his Chi-Raq collaborator Kevin Willmott and short film specialists David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel, squeeze just enough of the “so crazy we couldn’t make this up” edge (or as Lee titles it in the credits as “fo’ real, fo’ real s — t”) to spark engaging and colorful intrigue.
In the 1970s, Ron Stallworth joined a “minorities encouraged to apply” movement of the Colorado Springs Police Department. After swallowing plenty of guff from unimpressed superiors Chief Bridges and Sergeant Trapp (solid character actors Robert John Burke and Ken Garito) and the bigoted Master Patrolman Landers (Frederick Waller) who all label him somewhere between a “hot s — t” and a “cold fart,” Ron scores a successful undercover assignment reporting on a local Black Panther rally. This grants him a shot at intelligence and detective assignments with his new partners Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi, younger brother of Steve).
LESSON #2: LEARN A NEW DIALECT — As brazenly simple as it happened, Stallworth modulates his voice slightly to pose as a contemptuous white man with his same name to phone an answer to a newspaper classified ad calling for new membership recruits for a local KKK start-up. Ron fashions himself as a young hip soul brother going for a blend of Richard Roundtree and Bernie Casey. To hear Stallworth explain to his partners about the King’s English and jive proves his smarts and that learning a dialect is as good as learning an entire new language. As a secondary sub-lesson, don’t believe the people you talk to on the phone until you meet them. They could be anyone.
Ron acts as the mouthpiece while Zimmerman becomes the face in the field, encountering the steady Walter Breachway (The Blacklist regular Ryan Eggold) and the unhinged, suspicious, and tenacious Felix Kendrickson (impressive Finnish superstar Jasper Pääkkönen of The Vikings). Stallworth’s gift of gab for relationship-building over the phone leads him all the way to ringing the Louisiana headquarters of David Duke himself, played by the perfect proper pissant in Topher Grace.
LESSON #3: CRUSADES VERSUS JOBS — This whole wild history may come across as thin parody, but, deep down, each of the players involved staunchly feel a sense of a larger importance in their missions. The white supremacists never waver their principles, even in defeat. Engrossed in their ick, Zimmerman learns a few of his own as he watches his Jewish heritage become more in meaningful in light of it being a secondary KKK target. Away from the case, to the strings and beat of the Cornelius Bros. and Sister Rose, Ron takes a shine to local student union leader Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier of Spider-Man: Homecoming) and sees that side’s unyielding dedication to their powerful voice, especially when his own “pig” profession is lumped in as incurable cause of the clashing climate of the day. Everyone believes they are right. It is not a stretch whatsoever to apply this same lesson to Lee himself. His films aren’t paychecks. They passion projects in every sense.
That passion comes from finesse and unquestionable artistic talent. Snare drum beats in the musical score from frequent Spike Lee collaborator and jazz extraordinaire Terence Blanchard sand its sound against the askew angles and retro lens filter looks from cinematographer Chayse Irvin (Beyoncé: Lemonade and Hannah) to keep BlacKkKlansman focused rather than entirely funky. Washington (the son of you-know-who) is a hell of a find stepping into his first lead film role with imposing screen presence and smooth confidence. He has a huge 2018 ahead of him between Sundance favorites Monster and Monsters and Men and David Lowery’s upcoming The Old Man & the Gun. Paired across from him, Adam Driver brings gravity to the half putting himself in physical danger. The chameleon actor can deliver the vitriol necessary to play the part and still exude the seriousness of his own growing determination.
LESSON #4: HISTORY TEACHES EVEN IN SATIRE — All of these incisive elements shout backwards and forwards in the name of history. The sad thing is when the unbelievable and preposterous satire can pass for plausible and even comparable to truth. BlacKkKlansman speaks volumes for this lesson (and more of the third) with two pairs of connected speeches, one at the beginning and the other towards the climax.
The film opens on Alec Baldwin’s Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, a KKK leader filming a propaganda video longing for the return of white protestant values and the warped chivalry of the previous era. Spitting take after take of fearful and hateful language alone into his camera and backed by projected imagery, what begins as dismissively silly at first look, especially with Baldwin’s penchant for these kinds of performances, becomes simmeringly pungent because of the realization hits that people drank this rhetoric in, then and now.
That scene is matched soon after by the rally speech delivered by the visiting guest speaker Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a Kwame Ture, played by Corey Hawkins of Straight Outta Compton. Ture’s calls for retribution with a war coming boom behind echoed “boom-shaka-laka” audience response speech enhancers. Like Dr. B., he too lays his rhetoric on loud and thick for a welcome audience to hear.
To a near Sun Tzu Art of War level, one strength of Spike Lee’s creation of conflict is that he seeks to know his enemy. When Lee spins that acute level of caricature detail in Dr. B., the heightened lines of his parody blur to the shocking reality underneath, the truths outlined by Ture and other survivors of the real violence in the streets. These two openings frame the opposing ideals to come and stand as the first step of many where the dramatic license is sly enough to support the true story source.
The second pair reprising Lesson #4 culminates with both the yin and the yang battlefronts reaching opposing emotional peaks. A visiting David Duke arrives to initiate this new local chapter with a sermonizing speech and a raucous screening of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Lee mirrors their unchecked rancor with a sobering reflection of bated breath from the other side occurring among Patrice’s protesters. In a true treat, a cameoing 91-year-old Harry Belafonte plays a firsthand witness recounting the storied 1916 Jesse Washington lynching, a harrowing tale that tingles the spine greater than Quint’s U.S.S. Indianapolis yarn from Jaws. Pairing contrasting expressions of maddening emotions in such an exasperating and effective fashion makes for brilliant dichotomy on-screen.
Not stopping there, BlacKkKlansman concludes with an epilogue where the narrative irony boils over to the parallel non-fiction of where our American society stands today. It is a blistering and unforgettable volley of social and political commentary that is truly strong stuff. Once this point is reached, even after a kitschy and entertaining ’70s time capsule, no lightness would work and no strength would be enough for what Lee, to call back to Lesson #1, provokes, excites, and stimulates in his message. The coda is a reminder punctuation of how Spike Lee strikes like few other filmmaking voices of his generation.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#717)