Director Spike Lee is known for his films which often deal with social and political issues, and are often deemed “controversial.” Well his latest “Joint,” “BlacKkKlansman,” is sure to attract the same controversy, but it is a story that needs to be told.
Based on a true story, “BlacKkKlansman” stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, the first Black detective in the Colorado Springs police department, who after literally answering a want ad by the KKK, begins a dangerous investigation in which he and his White partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), must infiltrate the Klan and expose their unlawful actions. To do so, Stallworth speaks to the Klan via telephone, and Zimmerman portrays Stallworth in all physical interactions.
The standout stars are of course Washington and Driver. Washington gives a great performance that balances a comical and dramatic tone. Some of the funniest scenes come from his interaction with Klan Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) via telephone, where Stallworth must pretend to be racist. While these scenes are mostly for laughs, Washington never loosens his grip on his acting chops and manages to slip back and forth as Detective Stallworth and Klan member Stallworth.
Driver is equally good in his role as Jewish detective Zimmerman. However, his scenes tend to be the ones that make the audience uncomfortable and squeamish, not due to the performance of the actor, but because it is here that we physically see the Klan. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Klan is that they are portrayed as normal, hardworking Americans. They have cookouts, poker games, and enjoy the company of their friends. Although some scenes involving Driver and the Klan are comical, they are never light-hearted, and the uneasy lingering of racism and prejudice is always present.
Lee implements several interesting stylistic choices that made the film more interesting to me. For instance, during a local rally where former Black Panther Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) speaks, the camera focuses on several different students in attendance by spotlighting their face and leaving the surrounding background black. It managed to show how powerful Ture’s words were to the students, and we as the audience were able to feel a small trinkle of the enormity that they felt.
The score was something that I also found memorable. Lee’s longtime collaborator, Terence Blanchard, returns to score “BlacKkKlansman” and it not only serves as a great tribute to the music of the 70’s, but gives Stallworth a theme song that manages to be iconic and seasons the film at some of its most emotional moments.
Truth be told the only parts of the film that seemed out of place were the interactions with Stallworth and his girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier). Not that Harrier wasn’t a fine actress, but the scenes were spread so far throughout the film, that it felt more like a commercial break when they occurred. However, they gave Washington a chance to show off his flirtatious personality and Harrier’s character the opportunity to shine as a strong and independent woman, so the slight breaks in flow are extremely forgivable.
But, perhaps the most intriguing and relevant aspect of the film is the message. Using actual clips from 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation,” Lee shows what his film truly is-the exact opposite of “The Birth of a Nation,” which for those of you who don’t know is perhaps cinema’s largest and most iconic pieces of racist propaganda. Lee’s film, although dealing with racism, is not that at all. It is a message of hope, that all races can one day not only coexist, but work together, much like Stallworth and Zimmerman. But the film also reminds us that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
It isn’t hard to draw comparisons between the society portrayed in the film and the society in which we live in today, which is a tough pill to swallow. Lee did not merely offer us just a film, but a brutal commentary on the racism that still lingers in our country. Often funny and often crushing, “BlacKkKlansman” is above all beautifully crafted and manages to deliver not only a potent message, but also a timely one that shows how we may not be as “progressive” as we’d like to believe.