Along with “Hereditary,” “BlacKkKlansman” is my favorite movie of the year thus far. This is a movie that shows why Spike Lee is considered one of the greats. He tackles issues that matter related to race and class and creates compelling characters. This film is a shining example of his expertise and I look forward to checking out more of his past work.
Spike Lee directed, produced and wrote this movie along with quite a few other folks. For producers, you might know Jason Blum, from Blumhouse Productions, and Jordan Peele, from “Get Out”. Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevil Willmott wrote it with Spike Lee. You can definitely see their influence in all the best ways, as Blum at his best brings tension and Peele brings awareness.
The story follows Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzil Washington) as the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He infiltrates the KKK after a phone conversation with their leader David Duke (Topher Grace) leading to the department assigning Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be the face people see as they uncover the operation the KKK has in the area.
The Cinematography – The cinematography is great at creating tension and Chayse Irvin does a fantastic job of making each scene feel a claustrophobic. This is a film where you feel the pressure of being undercover and just how awful humans can be. At times, it has the closeness of a documentary, but it still manages to capture the feel of an action film through the entire run. We see this from the beginning with Ron appearing small and confined in the Black Student Union events as well as the full room feeling small as well. This makes a second appearance at the end when the KKK burns a cross on the hill across from Patrice’s and Ron’s apartment in retaliation for the events of the film. The camera gets in close on their panic and pans out a small window to reveal the large seen of terror meant to overwhelm them. Claustrophobia is simply used masterfully for both symbolism and fear.
The Characters – The characters are the strongest part of this film. Each of them gives a different perspective in relationship to racism and justice. How that is explored gives different dimensions to all of them as the film progresses.
Flip – Adam Driver plays Detective Flip, a Jewish-American detective who goes undercover in the KKK as Ron Stallworth. It is here that he realizes just how deep anti-Semitism goes in the United States. From this, he begins to relate much more to Ron’s struggle as an African-American man in Colorado Springs. He questions the mission at first, but after coming around he gets angry at the Police Department for shutting down the investigation after they prevent a KKK terror attack.
Patrice – Patrice is the President of the Black Student Union at Colorado College. She doesn’t trust the police and we see why when one of them sexually abuses her after a march. Laura Herrier (Liz from “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) does an amazing job. She is wholly focused on justice and brings in speakers to the college. These lectures are throughout the film and boost the main themes present in the movie, as speakers talk about structural racism that exists and pervades in the United States.
Ron – Ron is the detective who is undercover in the Colorado College Black Student Union. As someone who relates to all they are going through (he is the first African-American cop in this small town and obviously grew up facing extreme racism) he speaks in defense of them and eventually uses his place on the force to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. He calls their headquarters and gets membership, convincing David Duke he is a white. Over the course of the film we see how his relationship with Patrice develops, with him eventually revealing that he is an undercover cop and why he was at Black Student Union events in the first place. This changes their relationship, but they get through it. She never ever trusts him fully, given her own past experiences and privileges provided to police and abuses she has experienced and witnessed. Ron understands this but doesn’t leave the force even though the chief at times looks down on him and he is never given the chance to do undercover work. Him calling David Duke was him taking action because he was bored and saw being on the narcotics force as doing nothing to help people. Any action he takes to make things better is him coming up against the system that he is a part of and it makes his relationship as a cop on the force intriguing.
History and Structural Racism – On what I said before, racism has not gone away. This is a film that recognizes that (it is Spike Lee, I’d be surprised if it didn’t). Spike Lee digs into the power of the KKK, of how the one guy who wants to go after them (Ron, and later his partner) get turned away by the police department because those in power don’t want those who sympathize or help the KKK to get heat. This is still reality. It is hard to say it has gotten better when the President says, “There are good people on both sides,” at a White Nationalist Rally where a counter protester was murdered. The current President of the United States said that, and that cannot be understated. Things don’t just change when laws are passed, racism is real as is the fact that if you are white in America, you are privileged and more likely to be in positions of power. History isn’t just erased, it moves forward with everything else and current events illustrate that horrifyingly.
The Past and Today – The end of the film ends with Trump failing to condemn the White Nationalists / KKK folks and saying there were good people on both sides. Something that should be easy wasn’t… who does someone like that surround themselves with? That is the reality of where we are today and why the fight for civil rights is ongoing. You don’t kill racism or upend structural racism in a generation. It takes time, generations and work. Look at anywhere around the world that has gone through extreme turmoil and oppression. The story of humanity isn’t pretty and the only way anything gets done is by speaking.
This was a film that deals with the modern terrors of the KKK, racism and the structural racism of the past and present and tells it through compelling history and characters. The demons of the past have never left the United States and I believe in this movies call to action. Call out racism where you see it and work to make things better for everyone. Structural racism and the sins of the past that seep through the present can’t be ignored. This country can be so much better, as can all the individuals who make up the U.S.A.
Final Score: 10 / 10. Perfect and relevant.