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Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Directed by: Spike Lee

Premise: Based on a true story. In 1972, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) became the first African American in the Colorado Springs Police Department. He and a fellow officer (Adam Driver) infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

What Works: BlacKkKlansman is an impressive piece of historical filmmaking. The challenge with any historical piece is to use the past to comment upon the present. BlacKkKlansman does that in ways that are incisive and far reaching. The opening sequence is taken directly from Gone with the Wind and BlacKkKlansman periodically makes reference to the horrors of the Jim Crow era in ways that create a narrative through line and connect the past with the present. There are also telling moments in which the characters, especially the white supremacists, drop key phrases that will resonate with contemporary viewers. As a police investigation, BlacKkKlansman is deftly paced and filmmaker Spike Lee impressively manages the tone. The premise of BlacKkKlansman suggests absurdity—an African American infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan recalls a popular Dave Chappelle skit—and the filmmakers embrace humor when it is appropriate while making the rest of the movie credible. The investigation takes the officers into the racist underground and BlacKkKlansman makes the threat of white supremacist violence very real. Too often in popular culture white supremacy is treated as a joke, a past time for bumbling and incompetent rednecks. The white supremacists of BlacKkKlansman are genuinely frightening and the undercover scenes are tense. However, the most subversive element of BlacKkKlansman is its portrait of David Duke, the national director and Grand Wizard of the Klan, played terrifically by Topher Grace. The actor does not portray Duke as a sneering hick or a rabid hate monger. Instead, Grace plays Duke as a cosmopolitan and even bland figure who spouts racist rhetoric. This banality makes Duke disarming and therefore far more dangerous than he first appears. BlacKkKlansman is also a film about identity and the story deals with that in a sophisticated way. African American detective Ron Stallworth probes white supremacy while coping with coworkers whose sympathies rest with the very people he is investigating. Stallworth struggles to preserve his integrity and identity, do his job, and strive for justice all while working within a flawed system. Here again, BlacKkKlansman connects the past with the present and the film’s portrait of law enforcement is nuanced and well considered. 

What Doesn’t: BlacKkKlansman is based on a true story but the filmmakers fabricate some critical details about the events. The subplot in which Stallworth becomes romantically involved with the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College is a dramatic manufacture and the climax of BlacKkKlansman is complete fiction. Ultimately, these dramatic embellishments work for the movie. The filmmakers don’t distort the meaning of these events; the fictional elements mostly enhance them. The romance complements the film’s themes of black identity and it dovetails into the investigation in a way that gives the story a narrative shape. BlacKkKlansman ends on a coda sequence of footage from the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in which a counter-demonstrator was killed. The intent is to bookend the movie. BlacKkKlansman begins with a clip from Gone with the Wind and concludes with this news footage to draw a direct line between Reconstruction and the present day. But the coda is also very on the nose with the filmmakers spelling out the meaning to the audience.

Bottom Line: BlacKkKlansman mixes a detective story with a dose of humor and a thoughtful take on race, identity, and power. It’s a potent mix of entertainment and political filmmaking.

Episode: #712 (August 19, 2018)