Spike Lee returns to form with the fiercest film of the year.
It's been a while since I've left a theater after a screening feeling like I'd been punched in the stomach, full of emotions, and overwhelmed by the cinema-going experience. Fresh off of its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman is a force with which to be reckoned. A roaring retelling of a true story on the outside, what really stings are the facts on which the film shines a spotlight in regards to the America in which we currently find ourselves. It's no coincidence that the film's wide release falls on the one year anniversary of the Charlottesville massacre, an event that earns its quiet and horrifying moments as the film's finale. Without using terror as a means to sensationalize the events of modern America racism at work, instead Lee masterfully shows that as far as we've gone as a society, we're still only a few steps from where we've been. This is Lee's return to form and the film we need.
Relative newcomer John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, an African-American who joins the Colorado Springs Police Department and, in a clever mission, works with a team of fellow officers to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Hilarity and hijinks ensue, along with some nail-biting action, as the team successfully inches into the klan's most private of meetings ahead of a planned visit by the national leader, David Duke (Topher Grace). As this undercover operation takes place, Stallworth finds himself in turmoil over his own personal convictions about race, politics, and respect of people.
Lee's masterful and playful touch as a director has always been key to laying out necessary uncomfortable material in a palatable way. With his earliest and most affecting films, like the classic Do the Right Thing, the punch of an edit or musical cue or strange piece of dialogue was key to creating a very specific, but endearing, piece of film. On the surface, a Lee picture is a pop culture masterpiece, but underneath it's brooding with earned anger and a voice needing to be heard. This voice hasn't been heard in this way for a very long time. What he does with the structure of BlacKkKlansman is nothing short of a Lee picture and nothing short of masterpiece material.
The film begins with a narrative that completely lays out the underlying message at hand: America is a country of bigots who believe they are entitled to the best of the best and full of fear that those traits are on the chopping block. The enemy? Blacks, by morality, and Jews, by their financial wit. The victim? The entire white race. The pawn? The United States of America, the land of the free (if you're white). As Dr. Kennenbrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) so forcefully puts it, in a montage played shortly after a quick cue of Scarlett O'Hara floundering through a field of injured Confederates in a scene from Gone with the Wind, a storm is brewing and it has the power to take everything away from the white man, unless something is done to stop it.
Just as forcefully, we're quickly in the midst of a Black Power rally headed by the local college's Black Student Union. Its chapter president, Patrice (Laura Harrier), has invited speaker Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) to come and deliver a message of hope and spark a movement in the young voices. These moments of sincerity are what shapes the core of the film. Later, a timely cameo from Harry Belefonte as Jerome Turner begins to shape what will become the finale of the film, an opus to fighting for equality.
Lee carefully treats each character with the respect deserved. Duke never feels like a caricature, even if his moral compass is skewed. Instead, he's seen as someone very intelligent and convinced of the message he preaches, which is actually even more terrifying than someone who seems aloof. At the same time, Stallworth's merit comes from his passion for his work. He'd wanted to be a police officer since he was a boy and now he was living his dream. A stunning exchange of dialogue paints the confusing picture in which he finds himself as the murder of innocent blacks by a few dirty cops comes into question in regards to the morality of the entire force. The answer is one that states the force is like a family, the boys in blue protect each other, even the bad apples. The other end of the conversation, Patrice, points out that that idea of a family that protects at all costs sounds a lot similar to the boys in white they're fighting.
BlacKkKlansman is a story of redemption and fighting for what's right as much as it's a morality play of big speeches and a very clear message. It runs over two hours, but never feels lagging. The performance are a magical mix, with Washington's ad Driver's performances especially enlightening.
When the film feels like it's wrapped up the story nice and tidy, with a laugh-out-loud final shot at the true enemies of society, it quickly switches gears to real-life footage of the massacre we all witnessed on TV a year ago. A group of young, able-bodied white men carrying tiki torches through a burgeoning Virginia town. Chanting anti-semitic phrases and spreading a message of hate towards minorities, that group was a real-life image of the film we'd just watched. The dramatization was harrowing enough. Being reminded that the hate was real was awe-inspiring. News footage and video recorded on phones and cameras by people at the marches that day shine a light on those who joined in a voice of freedom and hope, trying to drive out the hate by chanting "Black lives matter!" A car swerving and driving through the crowd of people at full force is still shocking, a year later. A memorial to Heather Heyer is one of the last images we see.
As the credits began to roll, the theater was solemnly still and quiet. What began as a high-energy report on the state of racism throughout history, lead quickly to today, where it's apparent we haven't learned much from our past mistakes.
Though Lee has always been an affecting filmmaker, choosing topics culturally relevant or purposefully irreverent, BlacKkKlansman comes as his most important work since his early days. His voice is so very clear and his message never more timely. This is a film that should be seen by the masses.