Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Summer of Sam, Inside Man) directs this comedic crime biography about Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black rookie police office in Colorado who, with the help of a white undercover counterpart (Adam Driver), becomes a member of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. (135 min.)
Glen What starts like a comedic spoof of a '70s Blaxploitation flick ends with a real-world visceral gut punch in this affecting new film by Spike Lee. It's his most lucid and potent comment on U.S. race relations since Do the Right Thing and doesn't let its (most likely and largely) white liberal audience off the hook. If the film's message is anything, it's that culturally we've progressed very little since the film's 1970s milieu. Ron Stallworth is a former Army brat, college educated, and a believer in the system. He's always dreamed of becoming a policeman, and when he sees the Cold Springs, Colorado, police department advertising for new officers, specifically minority officers, he applies. Stallworth's counterparts are local black college students, angered by their second-class citizen status and mistreatment by the police. When black activist Kwame Ture, formerly known as the Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, comes to speak, Stallworth is sent undercover to monitor the local black power movement. There he meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), president of the Black Student Union. What follows is Stallworth's awakening, which leads him to attempt to infiltrate the KKK, first by phone, speaking to local chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold). To "play" Stallworth's racist persona, he enlists white officer Flip Zimmerman, who's ethnically Jewish, though he doesn't think of himself as a Jew. Undercover in the KKK, Flip feels the full force of the Klan's anti-Semitism, leading to his own kind of awakening. The Klansmen—Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser), and Felix's wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson)—are portrayed as uneducated, paranoid hatemongers. Later Stallworth contacts national KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (an excellent Topher Grace), who's portrayed as a huckster in a cheap three-piece suit. To spice things up and remind us that the lines between good and evil are never clearly drawn, Stallworth also has to deal with racist officers in his midst, in particular Master Patrolman Andy Landers (Frederick Weller). An engaging, well crafted, nuanced film, BlacKkKlansman offers lots of food for thought as it continually reminds us of similarities between the '70s and today. It's bitter medicine to swallow, but swallow it we must.
Anna We happened to see this film on the one year anniversary of Heather Heyer's murder, the woman who lost her life after a man drove into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. While we realized our timing only after the fact, the film's release and the horrifying events of just a year ago coincide with thought and vigor. The easy way out would be to end this film with some feel-good quippy lines about success and sticking it to the man, but Spike Lee doesn't fall for the ease of a quick fix. Instead he confronts his audience with God's honest truth: This isn't a problem that was solved then, and it isn't solved now. Interjecting all too familiar phrases about "making America great again" pokes fun at the obvious parallels between politics and divisiveness consistent throughout time and on through today. While the message is a powerhouse, it certainly isn't the only thing going for this film. Stylized and sexy in those classic '70s tones, the look is warm and vibrant. The way Spike Lee set up shots in this film is really interesting. When Flip was posing as an up-and-coming KKK hopeful, he was palling around with his "brothers," but my pulse always quickened and the energy from the characters—Felix especially—was stifling. My inner voice was screaming, "Get out of there!" And while he managed to fool the white-lovin' group of dumbasses for long enough, the fear of getting found out was never far from the surface.
Glen It would be easy to accuse this film of not knowing what it wants to be. There's the thriller tension of undercover work, the comic biting humor of a spoof, the real political commentary of current politics—but instead of being disjointed, I'd describe the film as a deftly combined mash-up. It's all those things, and it does all of them with spot-on competence and lucidity. All those various genres and tones are the set-up for the finale. While you're laughing at the comedy and feeling smug that the racists will get their just deserts, Lee is teeing you up for the mother of all wake-up calls, and I heard audience members stifling tears and gasps. If at the end you feel guilty for laughing along with the film, I'd say that's exactly what Lee intended. Yes, Lee is preaching to the choir, but he's also telling the choir we need to do more than just feel the feels and talk the talk—racism remains a real, insidious, thoroughly entrenched problem in America, as recent events in Charlottesville and Ferguson attest. It's not enough to simply feel outraged; it's time for political action. This is absolutely a film that captures our troubling zeitgeist.
Anna After the screen went dark, we sat as an audience crying together for a minute. I haven't felt that sort of collective punch-to-your-gut heartache from a film in a long time. If you can manage to make me cry the day after I see a film, when time and reflection have washed away the raw bits, I'm impressed. This is one that did that. While it does sort of feel like a "mean trick" to let us have all this fun and success taking down this chapter of the KKK, then pull away the mask in the last few moments, it makes it more potent. It's important to recognize our reality and to make the hard choices, to get up and march, to shout out loud that it's not OK, and to both educate and punish those who take it upon themselves to treat fellow humans as less than. BlacKkKlansman may be the story of this undercover investigation, but it's also the story of crooked cops, the black relationship with law enforcement, and the balance that falls somewhere between resistance and violence when lives are at stake. I hope this one stays in theaters with seats packed for a long time. It's a gem. Δ
Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at [email protected].