Once upon a time, a new movie from Spike Lee was anxiously awaited. Very few filmmakers had a run right out of the gate like he did. She’s Gotta Have It. School Daze. Do the Right Thing. Mo Better Blues. Jungle Fever. Malcolm X. Even Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, his master’s degree thesis film from his NYU days, showcased an exciting new talent who was going to set the film world ablaze. But then, by chasing mainstream studio success, Lee went on to make some project choices that, while still often technically dazzling, left much to be desired. The poor choices of projects like Clockers, Summer of Sam and 25th Hour were, in some degrees, saved by the interesting choices he was making with projects like Get on the Bus and Bamboozled, and the devastating 4 Little Girls and When the Levee Breaks. But whatever choices he made, you had to know that Spike Lee was going to make at least one more film that could match his 1989 masterpiece in tone and style and fury and compassion. BlacKKKlansman, after 21 feature films and 11 documentaries, is the film that shows what he’s learned after thirty plus years behind the camera. BlacKKKlansman is the film Spike Lee was destined to make.
In the early 1970s, our nation was under a pronounced social cataclysm as the battle for Civil Rights thundered on. In the town of Colorado Springs, a young African-American man, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has just become the first detective of color in the local police department, and his arrival is received with incredulity and antagonism by some of his fellow officers. Eager to make a name for himself, Stallworth decides he knows exactly how to make that happen, after seeing a recruitment ad in a local paper: join the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Now, in a movie like Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man, in order to teach the bigoted white businessman a pointed lesson, he just wakes up one morning to find himself a member of the other race. But John Stallworth is a real man and this is a real story, so while it might be funny to make a black man white (a la the great Eddie Murphy “White Like Me” SNL sketch from 1984), Colorado Springs in the early 1970s probably didn’t have the talent or the means to constantly turn a black man in to a white man, so Ron, after making a strong enough impression over the telephone with one of the local Klansman for them to want to meet, is able to talk his chief in to starting up a task force, where fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) will become John Stallworth in all face to face meetings. Flip, as Ron, succeeds enough in these encounters to impress most of the local Klansman, but finds he cannot move forward as a Klansman, and get to participate in all the activities like cross burnings, until he gets his official membership card from the home office, which is having some problems with maintaining an organized office to facilitate timely functions like creating membership cards. By luck or fate or what have you, Ron calls up the main office of the KKK and ends up speaking to KK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace, a LOOOOOONG ways from his days from “That 70s Show”), who has already heard about Ron from the local chapter, and will not only make it a point of getting Ron’s membership card out as quickly as possible, but will be coming to Colorado Springs to personally initiate Ron as a member.
While all this is going on, Ron finds himself enamored with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the local President of a Black Power group, whom Ron meets when he is charged with going undercover to a Stokely Charmichael speaking engagement. A former Black Panther who had since changed his name to Kwame Ture, Ron’s boss was worried that Ture’s rhetoric might incite local violence. While the Ture engagement doesn’t end up causing any local problems, it does create a conflict for Ron, who has consistently lied to Patrice about who he is, since Patrice is leery of all “pigs.” So you can imagine how conflicted Ron becomes try to keep all his lies in place in order to keep the undercover KKK operation alive, and try to woo Patrice while lying to her about who he is.
Eventually, Ron and Flip discover multiple issues that the local KKK chapter is involved in, including going after Patrice for her speaking out publicly about her mistreatment by the local police while driving Ture back to his hotel after his speaking engagement. Everything comes to a boil during Duke’s visit to Colorado Springs, when Ron’s boss assigns him to be Duke’s local police protective presence, while one member of the local KKK chapter recognizes Flip from a police bust years ago during the KKK initiation process, and they also discover what the local KKK chapter has planned for Patrice and her group, who have gathered to listen to Jerome Tuner (Harry Belafonte) speak about the lynching of a friend he personally witnessed sixty years earlier.
In the hands of a less accomplished filmmaker, the tone of this story might veer too strongly to the natural melodramatic horror of a black man and a Jewish man trying to shut down the local chapter of the worst Extreme Hate Group in American history. Lee knows that the drama needs to be broken up with some well-placed moments of comedy to make the whole story more palatable, and there are points where Lee and his co-writers Charlie Wachtel, David Rabonowitz and Kevin Willmott (who previously worked with Lee on Chi-Raq and whose C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, a mockumentary about an America where the South won the Civil War and establishes a new Confederate nation, foreshadows a number of the beats here) thumb their noses at not only the KKK but a number of contemporaries, using their own words and actions against them. And that is where BlacKKKlansman is so masterful as transcends its own timeline. People like David Duke were actually using phrases like making America great again and putting America first decades before the point we find our nation and ourselves now. The KKK knew that they have to sanitize the violent rhetoric of decades past in order to have better appeal to the mainstream. It’s why David Duke stopped calling himself The Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and started calling himself The National Director of “The Organization.” Words matter. How words are used matter. How we treat our fellow human beings matter. It mattered in the early 1970s, and it matters today. And how Lee connects them all together is why BlacKKKlansman is, so far and quite possibly will remain, the best and most relevant movie of 2018.
That John David Washington shines on screen as Ron Stallworth should not be much of a surprise. This industry thrives on the talented children of those who came before. It’s not surprising Rob Reiner has found so much success, considering his parents are Rob Reiner and Estelle Reiner (who I had the pleasure of meeting on a film set in 1999, and was far funnier and talented than her husband or her child). It’s not surprising Michael Douglas has found so much success, when you have someone like Kirk Douglas as your immediate mentor. Ditto Angelina Jolie, Ben Stiller, Carrie Fisher, Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, Mamie and Grace Gummer, Keifer Sutherland, Zoe Kravitz and Rashida Jones. Being the son of a legend like Denzel Washington gives you a leg up on most young actors, getting to talk shop with a two-time Academy Award winner anytime you want, being able to watch him do his craft over the course of many years. Washington père must have been a hell of a mentor (he also helped Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman spend a summer acting at Oxford), because Washington fils effortlessly hits every proper note required to play the naiveté and the vulnerability and cocksureness of this young man trying to find his place in a world that doesn’t know what to do with him. Adam Driver, who I have to admit I didn’t like much when I first saw him on “Girls,” continues to impress with his role selections and portrayals. Driver has a number of moments where he makes great acting choices, none more powerful than when his Flip confesses to Ron how he hasn’t thought much about what it meant to be a Jewish man until he started working with Ron on this assignment. As Patrice, Harrier is tough and though-provoking, drawing upon the power of both the Black Power movement then and the Black Lives Matter movement now to highlight how much the struggle for equality as races and as genders hasn’t really changed that much over the past five decades. And it’s hard to write “Topher Grace is exceptional as the contemptible racist David Duke,” but, man, does he nail it.
(In fact, Lee does such a good job getting Grace to the place he needs to be that I fear that, in the hands of an enterprising racist a few months down the road when this comes out on digital download, they will be able to craft an effective tool of hatred from Duke’s scenes here. That some parts of this film, meant to show how easily gullible people in legitimate pain can be suckered by a slick talking huckster, could be reclaimed by racists and turned in to a propaganda tool to enlist people in legitimate pain for their nefarious goals… it’s a sickening thought, and one I have little doubt will end up happening.)
Three special shout-outs to fine actors who shine in their briefs moments on screen.
Robert John Burke is one of our finest actors today, and it’s a damn shame that he can be so damn good in almost everything he’s done, from early Hal Hartley films to Robocop 3 to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to his seven year run as Father Mickey on “Rescue Me,” and still not be a household name. As Chief Bridges here, Burke gives yet another finely tuned performance that doesn’t fall in to the typical police chief stereotype. The man should have been a bigger star. This isn’t the first time he’s worked with Lee, and let’s hope they can continue their fruitful collaborations far in to the future.
Corey Hawkins is a little newer to the acting game. If you know him at all, it’s from his starring role as Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton, which announced him as a force to be reckoned with. His Kwame Ture here has but one scene in this movie, maybe four minutes running time in total, and he not only owns the screen during that scene, but casts a wide net that hangs over the remainder of the film. Simply mesmerizing.
And how wonderful would it be if Harry Belafonte were to finally score an Academy Award nomination because of his scene here? His first on screen performance in twelve years is what could easily be called a Master Class in acting. One man, telling a story quietly and effectively. No wild gesticulations. No needing to raise his voice to punctuate the repulsion of what he’s saying. In the voice of the right speaker, the words carry the power, and Belafonte (even more than an exceptional orator like Poitier) is exactly the person who needs to tell this story.
BlacKKKlansman is quite possibly the best film Spike Lee has ever made, or is his best film since Do the Right Thing, depending on where you stand on the latter film. It also makes for an interesting bookend to Boots Riley’s summer release Sorry to Bother You, which also features a young African-American male using his inner white voice to move ahead. Both movies are amongst the very best of the year, and it’s heartening to see distributors like Focus Features and Annapurna not only giving these movies a chance to be seen in theatres, but giving them both prime summer releases, when most distributors would hold these off until mid to late November, throw them in to a couple screens in Los Angeles and New York City and slowly build a platform release depending on reviews and ticket sales. It takes guts to send these types of movies out against the Mission: Impossibles of the summer movie season and allow audiences to discover them.
And discover them you should. If you claim to be tired of big budget films that are derivative of so many other movies that came before, here’s your chance to be wildly entertained while simultaneously being asked to think about what’s happening on screen and in reality, and support the type of filmmaking that is regularly being shuffled off to streaming services that don’t care about anything else can filling a pipeline with new product every single week.