BlacKkKlansman a Spike Lee Masterpiece

Directed by Spike Lee
Focus Pictures, 135 minutes, R (language)

Spike Lee has made a lot of good movies, but I was starting to wonder if he’d ever again make a great one akin to Do the Right Thing (1989). BlacKkKlansman is such a film. Ironically, its narrative structure, style, and feel make it the most conventional film Lee has ever made. A second irony lies with the fact that it is, in many ways, both a prequel and a sequel to Do the Right Thing.

Lee tells the improbable but true story of Ron Stallworth, who in the early 1970s became the first African-American officer on the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD).  Early on, Ron (John David Washington) suffers all the expected indignities of a pioneer. Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) tells Ron that he’s the Jackie Robinson of the CSPD, a role that entails being alone, putting in time in the mind-numbing records office, and turning away from the racist guff of Patrolman Landers. He also carries the Robinsonesque burden of representing all African Americans and proving that they belong at the table. Ron is up for the job in many ways, not the least of which is that, though he sports a sizable Afro and looks the part of a countercultural rebel, he’s actually a military brat, has always wanted to be a cop, and is about as straight an arrow as you’ll find in the quiver. Before long, Ron makes detective.

A newspaper recruiting ad for the local Ku Klux Klan prompts Ron to make an impulse call for information—the vague goal being to investigate its activities. The call goes well; as Ron reminds Bridges, he’s fluent “in both white and jive.” Meeting recruiters face-to-face, of course, is another matter. Thus begins a scheme so crazy we’d not believe it had it not actually happened. Ron does all of the phone calling and behind the scenes work, but his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) masquerades as Ron on the ground. It’s a very dangerous game. Ron wears a wire—that the KKK didn’t do a body pat down is incredulous—and Flip is a Jew who must master the Klan’s full hate speech repertoire, including its anti-Semitic rants.

But wait, the story gets more remarkable. Ron’s own consciousness is shaken, if not stirred, by a Kwame Ture speech he’s casing undercover, and that’s also exactly where he’d like to be with a Colorado College student he meets. She’s no easy conquest, though. Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) is an Angela Davis-like firebrand who is president of the Black Student Union and conversant in Black nationalist theory.

Talk about your balancing acts! Ron is simultaneously scripting Zimmerman, courting a Black nationalist while posing as a construction worker, and ingratiating himself (in absentia, of course) into the top ranks of the Klan, including buttering up Grand Imperial Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). Before the narrative part of the film concludes, Lee also treats us to dangers galore, plots thwarted ad launched, heart-stopping action, and Ron’s one-day assignment as Duke’s bodyguard.

John David Washington is quite good as Stallworth. He strikes a nice balance between determination, playfulness, and vulnerability. Ms. Harrier is even better as Patrice. She brings to the screen something that’s been lacking in too many past Spike Lee films: a strong, independent Black female in control of things other than her sexuality. It may sound odd to say this in a film focusing on Black characters, but Adam Driver’s performance is the best of all. He portrays a secular Jew for whom all manner of truths begin to dawn, including the connectedness of all oppressions. Yet he also has a commonsense center and makes no bones about not wishing to be a martyr to anyone’s cause. It would be a travesty were Driver not a Best Supporting Actor nominee.

The same goes for Spike Lee for Best Director honors. Lee has learned that sometimes less is more. I couldn’t help but think of how BlacKkKlansman reminded me of a take-up-the-cause John Sayles film. Lee does something, though, that often stumps Sayles: he makes his villains complex rather than cardboard cutouts. No simplistic “deplorables” here; Lee shows the Klan as venomous and incendiary, but he subtly gives us varied reasons for individual hatreds: economic marginalization, alcoholism, feelings of powerlessness, fear of cultural change, the lure of tribalism, low IQ, sociopathic tendencies, and even just a desire to be “helpful.” Lee doesn’t ask us to like Klansmen or feel sympathy toward them, but he does suggest you need to know your enemies to counter them.

Letting us down easy isn’t a Spike Lee trait. If you’ve seen Do the Right Thing you’ll certainly remember its powerful post-riot postscript: a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. repudiating violence, and Malcolm X’s famed “by any means necessary” warning. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee reprises such sentiments, but in images rather than words. Watch what he does with a freeze frame zoom shot when Ron and Patrice answer a late-night knock at the door. Watch again what happens to images of the American flag as the credits roll.

I called this a prequel because it’s set in the 1970s and Do the Right Thing in the 1980s. It is also a documentary-style sequel. Lee released the film into theaters on August 10, the one-year anniversary of Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned violent. The heinous David Duke was the keynote speaker. Lee appends footage of the rally—still more deftness from Lee. It is first a reminder that the same hatreds that led Ron Stallworth to take on the Klan and Lee to make Do the Right Thing remain. There’s also footage of Donald Trump making vomit-inducing claims that there were “bad” people on both sides of the Charlottesville tragedy. Lest anyone accuse Lee of being a hater as well, there is a dedication to Heather Heyer, the white woman mowed down by a white supremacist.

This film has already won the Grand Prix at Cannes. I can’t imagine you’ll see a better American film this year. You certainly won’t see a more important one. Expect BlacKkKlansman to win multiple Academy Awards early next year.

Rob Weir

No comments: