by Tim Gordon
Almost 30 years after his searing examination of gentrification and police brutality in Do The Right Thing, director Spike Lee returns to form creating one of his strongest films in recent memory, the absurdly entertaining racial drama, BlackkKlansman.
Over the past 35 years, Lee has evolved from the greatest Black filmmaker that America has produced into a true auteur with the release of his feature films serving as “events.” While his star has diminished slightly over the last decade with films that are beneath his prestigious talent, Lee still remains a formidable force when he sinks his teeth into the right material, which gives him the opportunity to explore racial politics within the scope of cultural, social, inequity of the American divide.
His latest, based on Ron Stallworth’s book Black Klansman and co-written with Kevin Willmott (C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, Destination Planet Negro & Chi-Raq), provides Lee an opportunity to fuse his passion for storytelling with his perspective on how such an outrageous concept could take hold not just during the 1970s but how those events still resonate today. Throughout his illustrious career, Lee has rarely been presented with such a story that fits his sensibilities so acutely and accurately. The story is SO Spike that if it wasn’t true, it feels like something he could have written.
The story opens in the early 1970s in Colorado Springs, Colorado as an African-American, Stallworth (John David Washington) integrates the local police department. Challenged to absorb the physical, mental and verbal abuse of fellow officers and residents, Stallworth is hired to be the “Jackie Roosevelt Robinson” of the police force and placed in the records departments. After enduring his share of slights from his bigoted co-workers, he receives his big break when he given an undercover assignment monitoring a rally for former SNCC head, Kwame Ture (Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins), sponsored by the Colorado Black Student Union.
During his assignment, Stallworth has the good fortune to cross paths with the President of the Student Union, staunch Black Liberation activist, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) whose love for her people is only matched by her disdain for the “pigs” that constantly harass Black residents in their community. Hiding his vocation from Patrice, the two are soon fast friends providing Stallworth a welcome outlet for his ongoing stress. Eager to make his mark and prove his worth, Stallworth stumbles onto a new case that borders on sheer unbelievability when he establishes a dialogue with the local Klu Klux Klan chapter over the phone.
Faced with the prospect of having his cover blown meeting with the local Klan leader, Stallworth devises a plan where he creates “dual” versions of himself, one (himself) over the phone and his colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as Stallworth in person. If the description is nutty, imagine the visual manifestation of the ruse on screen. Soon, Stallworth finds himself in a delicate balancing act, equal points, spending time with Patrice and intensifying his investigation into “the organization” (the name the Klan uses to keep their anonymity). Soon, forces align within the community that may place members of the Black Student Union squarely in the crosshairs of those seeking to them harm and the “Stallworth Twins” find themselves squarely in the center of the proceedings. Unable to obtain his Klan membership, Stallworth’s reaches out to the top of the organization, Klan leader David Duke (Topher Grace) who is excited by the verbosity of his new recruit. Their absurd interaction is highlighted by a hilarious exchange between the two where Duke educates Stallworth on the difference of the letter “R” between the races.
One of four films that he will appear in this year (Monster, Monsters and Men, Old Men and the Gun) Washington shines in the lead role providing equal parts empathy and comedy as the proverbial “fish out of water” who slowly evolves into someone who displays his love for his people while staying faithful to his mission. Easily his strongest work, it is ironic that Lee pulls another great performance from another member of the Washington clan. Stepping outside of the Star Wars universe appears to have done wonders for Driver, as well, who is also solid opposite Washington. While each has their own motivation for pursuing the investigation into Klan, they both grow to embrace their differences and form a formidable professional duo.
The winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, BlackkKlansman is a very good film that misses the opportunity to be great. Over the course of his three-decade career, brevity has never been one of Lee’s strong suit. BlackkKlansman is a classic example of the axiom, “less is more.” There were several scenes which would have resonated with more power if they were trimmed for effect. Far be it from me to advise a Hollywood heavyweight, but hammering your point home may appeal to a generation that is less literate or patient but severely tests the tolerance of seasoned film aficionados. Lee has long developed the reputation as one of the most visually-stimulating auteurs in the business, BlackkKlansman provides him yet another cinematic palette to spotlight the inequities of African-Americans in this country, an effort which will rank high in his legendary canon.
Throughout his legendary career, Lee has excelled in creating stimulating conversations with his work which displays all facets of the African-American experience, BlackkKlansman is another storied chapter in his celebrated cinematic hall of fame. Over the course of his storied career, Lee’s work has set the bar sky high, while his latest almost reaches those celestial heights it still is his most accomplished since 2002’s 25th Hour. Welcome back, Mr. Lee!