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« Showbiz History: The Vamp, a Psycho, and The Others | Main | Blueprints: "GLOW" »
Thursday
Aug092018

Review: BlacKkKlansman

by Murtada Elfadl

There’s a loaded line that Spike Lee has to navigate with BlacKkKlansman. The line is between entertaining the audience while being faithful to the crazy but true story of Ron Stallworth and making a credible and incendiary link between the bigotry and systematic oppression that has always existed and our current wretched circumstances in this country. For the most part he is successful.

The stranger than fiction story from the 1970s is about a rookie cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) in Colorado Springs, who pretended  to be white on a lark and called the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He was so believable as a racist white man on the phone, that he convinced his superiors to let him lead a broader investigation to infiltrate the Klan. He was helped by his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who “played” him when meeting with the Klan...

Simultaneously Stallworth starts a relationship with a militant college student leader, Patrice (Laura Harrier) who doesn’t mince words when disparaging the racism and brutality of the police.

The set-up is so preposterous that the film can’t help but be funny. We follow Stallworth as he forges a phone friendship with David Duke (Topher Grace) while Flip is trying to gain trust and rise in the ranks of the local Klan chapter. It’s not easy to mock the bigoted Klan members and to present them as dangerous at the same time. Yet it’s done well here and sometimes within the same scene. Maintaining a hilarious yet sober tone while juggling all these threads is where Lee proves to be at his sharpest. He takes even more audacious risks, too. At one point he stops the narrative to introduce Harry Belafonte telling us the harrowingly detailed story of the lynching of Jesse Washington, the black mentally challenged teenager who was accused of raping a white woman in Texas in 1916. Lee and his faithful editor Barry Alexander Brown intercut that with the Klan watching and cheering The Birth of A Nation, D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film that heralded the reinvigoration of the Klan. Ballsy indeed, yet Lee pulls it off.

Washington grounds the absurdity of his character’s actions with charisma and credibility even if the character is straightforwardly drawn. Ron and Patrice discuss all the big issues that the movie is concerned with and take opposing sides, such as with police oppression and brutality: the police can be the enemy to black people in this country, so do we need to fight this system of oppression from inside?  Since Stallworth is a cop and Patrice is a militant student union leader you can pretty much guess which sides they take. The discussions are balanced, natural, and flow easily but at the same time they limit the characters from getting into deeper more personal arcs. Driver has a more conflicted arc to play as Zimmerman is forced to reckon with passing as a white non-Jewish man who’s afforded the privilege of ignoring the racism of the klan (though I wish this had been explored more).

There’s a scene where Ron and Patrice dance in a club that particularly lifted me. Showing people of color singing, dancing, falling in love, having a good time, just living is a balm badly needed. Especially at a time when as people of color we are constantly being attacked in the news and the images we see in the media are often of death, incarceration and suffering. That Lee links that moment of levity and the many other moments of hilarity directly to our generally anxious current existence is his masterstroke.

Are the parallels of this story to current affairs sometimes presented too on the nose? Sure, but that also makes them more resonant.  Sometimes things need to be clear and not clouded in half-telegraphed metaphors. This is why this film is going to be popular and start many conversations.

Grade: B+

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Reader Comments (18)

Did you have to publish this the night before it opens?

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

What difference does it make? Publishing it will stop no one from going.

August 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlfred

/3rtful - I don't compute. If you'd rather wait until you've seen it, then Murtada's piece will still be here. Some folks also like to read reviews before they see a film for a number of reasons. And lol at the time of publishing, the film had already begun Thursday previews so your response is a headscratcher

August 10, 2018 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

Murtada - I loved the club scene you mentioned too and especially the early scene of Kwame Ture's speech

August 10, 2018 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

I love that poster up top.

August 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCash

/3rtful Nothing wring with posting it the night before it opens. As mentioned some will read a review in advance, and I will skip to the letter grade and read it in full after seeing it.

August 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBob

Chris & Murtada -- i also loved the club scene. And thought Driver and Washington had good chemistry. Liked it a lot but I was very surprised that it wasn't even close to being "comic" when the trailers suggested a really ballsy outrageously comic take on an absurd true story. Overall I was quite impressed with it, though I do agree that there isnt much character development.

But Spike Lee is one of those directors who is most entertaining when he is laying it on thick so I liked the overstatement ;)

August 10, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

yes the club scene is so good... does snyone know the song they were dancing to?

August 10, 2018 | Registered CommenterMurtada Elfadl

Murtada, great review. Any Oscar potential? Spike feels way, way overdue.

August 10, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

This has Oscar potential in spades : Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor for Grace and especially Driver.

August 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

brookesboy - for Oscar I agree with Michael R on pic, director and screenplay. I'd add editing and perhaps score. The actors don't really pop as much but I can see Washington and Driver being swept into nominations if the film is popular top 5 film with the academy. Grace will be a polarizong one. I thought he was fine but the character is so notorious that he'll be either love or hate for people, no middle ground.

August 11, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

@Murtada

It's called "Too Late to Turn Back Now" by Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose 

August 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKiki

Murtada: How likely are Costumes, Production Design, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing? That'd be nine if all of those hit.

August 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Thanks Kiki much appreciated.

Volvagia - I think those categories will depend on how the rest of the year shakes out. This is a film that will be considered by all branches.

August 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

I loved it and agree that Spike Lee isn't hampered by overstatement (and seeming overstatement in his films has actually aged well). The coda to the film was incredibly affecting and had me in tears.

I hope that he finally is nominated for Best Director for this film. It seems like it should be in the Best Picture race as long as it continues to perform at the box office.

August 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I smell a couple of Oscar nods: Best Picture, Best Director (Spike Lee), Best Actor (John David Washington), Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver), Best Adapted Screenplay and maybe Best Editing.
.
Washington is the frontrunner for the "black actor" seat in the Best Actor nominees shortlist and he's good enough to earn it - plus, he will benefit from the movie's momentum

August 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEd

It's worth a watch but I'm extremely ambivalent. At times I wondered why this film was even made and at others it felt necessary. I think the movie lives and dies by its committed lack of subtlety. Nothing here is nuanced or ambiguous or complicated (in characterization). With that it won't challenge any casually bigoted white audience member's false notion that racism is ONLY what we're seeing in this movie (i.e. a bunch of over the top Klansmen uttering the N word like it's going out of style). And that's a missed opportunity. Especially now, when dog whistle politics have reemerged, and an obtuse majority can't (or won't) discern what being against "criminal illegals" or kneeling NFL players or Black Lives Matter ACTUALLY means.

August 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKBJr

Everything Lee does right in this film is undone by his inability to make this incredible true story believable.

I spent the movie trying to figure out how anybody could believe for a second that Washington and Driver could sound the same.

What bothered me the most is how nice the movie is, even with the worst Klan's members, who never feel threatening but just dumb. Most of them seem to come out from a movie from the Coen Brothers.

You never feel the anger, the danger, the tension.... Everything rolls along pretty easily. You have to wait for the final Charlottesville montage to really feel involved.

August 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClement_Paris

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