Spike Lee burst on to the cinematic scene in the late 80’s and immediately became a name to be reckoned with. With his brash style and socially conscience films, Lee produced some masterful films, like Do the Right Thing, which is an American masterpiece, and Malcolm X, a searing biopic about the civil rights leader. Lee kicked off the 2000’s with one to the most underrated films of this millennium, 25th Hour, and it looked like he was going to be a force in this new era.
But after 2006’s Inside Man, the cinematic freight train that was Lee came to a screeching halt, as for the next twelve years, Lee would make continuous duds like Miracle at St. Anna, the ill-advised remake of Oldboy, and Chi-raq, a movie some people liked, but one I absolutely despised. Even Lee’s smaller efforts, like Red Hook Summer, were underwhelming, lacking Lee’s craft and energy from his previous films. I was worried that Lee had lost all that was once great about him.
That was until I saw his latest effort, BlackKklansman, which is one of Lee’s best movies and one of the best movies of 2018. Lee found his grove again, creating a kinetic, entertaining, beautifully made film that should scare the hell out of every American.
BlackKklansman is a film that’s on some, “fo’ real, fo’ real shit”, as it tells the crazy true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African American police officer from Colorado, who successfully infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth utilized the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a fellow white undercover cop who acts as the face of Ron Stallworth, while the actual Ron Stallworth is the voice contact.
This is the best ensemble Lee has worked with 25th Hour. Every actor came ready to play on this one and they all deliver. Washington, son of the great Denzel Washington, gives the breakout performance of the year. Stallworth is the only black police officer in a time where race tensions are high. He walks into his new role with a chip on his shoulder, trying to prove everyone wrong and show how good he really is. That’s exactly what Washington is going through here. He walks into this movie as the son of one of the best actors to ever grace the screen. Washington needed to prove that he didn’t get here because of his dad, but because he’s a talented actor who can succeed on his own merit. Washington delivers on all fronts, showing swagger, charisma, nailing the one-liners, and hitting his dramatic cues. It’s a great performance and one that will put Washington on the map.
Not to be outdone is the performance from Driver, which may be a new career best for him. Zimmerman is a true pro. A man who does his job and does it well, no matter where he has to go. Going undercover in the KKK, however, pushes Zimmerman further than any other assignment and changes him as a man. Zimmerman is Jewish, but never recognized it growing up. He claims that it was never a thing in his life. He never had a Bar Mitzvah, never went to temple, or anything. But seeing the hatred of the KKK makes him think deeper about his heritage and who he really is. Also, watching Zimmerman turn into a member of the KKK is extraordinary and that has to do with the confidence and craft of Driver. Both Washington and Driver deserve awards recognition for these performances, as they are two of the very best of the year.
It’s always tough playing such a hateful person like a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but the performances that we got here are stellar. Lee shows the KKK not just as a wild, rambunctious group. These guys are calculated, planning everything that they do, from cross burnings to bombings, which is even scarier and shows that everything this group does is intentional. The members we focus on are Walter (Ryan Eggold), the calm, methodical leader of this chapter, Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser), a drunk idiot, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) and hot-headed psycho who is the only who never trusts Stallworth, and David Duke (Topher Grace), the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Each actor brings a layer to this movie, whether it is level-headedness from Eggold, or how Grace shows us a new side to him as an actor and conveys a man who has no moral compass. I was particularly impressed by Pääkkönen, who is electric in every scene he’s in and goes toe-to-toe with Driver on a number of tense scenes. These performances are a pivotal piece to the movies success.
Lee is at his best in BlackKklansman. Lee, who usually shoots his films in his home city of New York, takes us to the cold, snowy mountains of Colorado, showcasing the beautiful nature backdrop along with rural Colorado. He also puts us right in the time with the colors, clothes, and music. We get Lee staples, like his legendary dolly shot, but Lee uses these shots for a purpose. This is a different Lee. A more restrained Lee. He stays within the rails, never over styling movie, but making it a true Spike Lee joint.
Lee has always been one of our more outspoken directors and his voice couldn’t be more important now. This is a look at an evil organization that is as relevant and threatening today as it was 40 years ago. Lee emphasizes this at the end of the film, by essentially showing us that everything that Stallworth, Zimmerman, and everyone involved did with this case was irrelevant, even though it should have started a cultural shift. Showing a stirring montage of recent horrific events, like the 2017 Charlottesville rally and our President’s disgraceful response, Lee holds a mirror up to America and shows us that nothing has changed in nearly half a century.
But what Lee wants to emphasize is that this isn’t a black versus white thing. This is a good versus evil thing. It wasn’t just Stallworth going after the KKK, it was Zimmerman and other white cops. It isn’t just the African American community protesting our President and speaking up against racists like the KKK, it’s people from all races and all backgrounds. During the final montage of the current climate of racism in America, Lee shows the moment when a car drove through an anti-fascist protest in Charlottesville, killing a woman named Heather Heyer. Lee ends the film with a dedication to Heyer and then shows an upside down U.S.A. flag, which, according to United States flag code, means dire distress of extreme danger to life. The red, white, and blue in the flag fades into black and gray, showing that the colors that represented honor, hope, and prosperity are now gone, and we are now in a dire state of hopelessness and evil. BlackKlansman is a sensational movie, but also tragic telling of the current United States. This is the movie we need in 2018 and the return of one of our most important filmmakers.