Why Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ is the movie event of the summer
Lee is behind a slew of incredible films, from the funny (Do the Right Thing), to the revolutionary (She’s Gotta Have It), to the topical (Malcolm X). In BlacKkKlansman, these traits all come together with a film that is political, radical, and so outrageous, you can’t help but laugh in disbelief – funny that, considering it just so happens to be based on a true story.
Drawing from the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) – a black Colorado Springs police officer who went undercover in the late 70s to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan – the character handles much of his business over the phone, wearing the trademark hooded outfit, or sending white (and Jewish) Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) masquerading as Stallworth for face-to-face contact.
The film did favorably upon its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, receiving a six-minute standing ovation and taking home the Grand Prix prize. Critics gave a slew of positive reviews, many of which hailed BlacKkKlansman as a highlight in Lee’s career.
“Cannes winner is his best in years – sharp, powerful, and timely,” declared Deadline. “A major comeback for Spike Lee,” said Variety, “this incredible true story gives the outspoken director a ripe opportunity to focus his frustration in a constructive way.”
IndieWire rated it a B+, stating: “If The Birth of a Nation was history written with lightning, BlacKkKlansman is a roll of the thunder we’ve been waiting for ever since.” Elsewhere, The Guardian said the broad satirical comedy “responds fiercely, contemptuously to the crassness at the heart of the Trump regime and gleefully pays it back in its own coin.”
The praise for Lee’s work has been unanimous and when you see the film, you’ll understand why. BlacKkKlansman uses the history of America’s race war to offer eye-wincingly trenchant commentary on current events, providing an insight into how the country still struggles with racial tension and discrimination.
And despite BlacKkKlansman’s 70s setting, its narrative is incredibly timely, even featuring a final clip of Trump refusing to condemn the actions of white nationalists during the 2017 Charlottesville riot.
But it’s not just this moment that signifies the racial tensions still present in society today, as Lee weaves in digs at the current POTUS throughout the film, for example when one KKK member discusses an “America first” policy along with calls for the country to “achieve its greatness again.” Similarities are drawn between Trump’s rise to political power with that of the KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).
It’s a blistering move from an auteur who has not been afraid to comment on such topics throughout his prolific career. Only in this instance (perhaps a reflection of the times) Lee has sprayed the film all over with political hints. And yet, they’re made all the more effective by being dealt with from a satirical angle.
Much of the humor comes from the white supremacists of the story, who are so easily tricked into welcoming a black man to their inner circle that the racism sitting at the core of the KKK is exposed and presented for what it is: Utter idiocy. The Klansmen are presented as dopes, while Grace gives a truly creepy turn as Duke.
The mocking phone calls between him and Ron bring the laughs, as Duke swears he can tell the difference between black and white people based on their voice.
“They also serve a second, and more critical function,” noted IndieWire, “as Lee’s script . . . uses their duality as a vehicle to explore the quest for pluralism at the heart of this story. Is it truly possible for a black American to be both of those things at once? Is it possible for a Jew? Wasn’t the fundamental promise of this country that we could all be together ourselves?”
It’s moments like these that provide a comical spin to the undercurrent of anger aimed at the normalization of racism and bigotry found in society today.
The film is lifted by a set of solid performances too, not just from Grace as the real-life antagonist. Washington (Monster) and Driver (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) have an on-screen chemistry that allows them to play off one another in a cool and authentic manner.
The former shows off his acting skillset by folding one performance within another, while Washington’s turn as a man caught in a risky game of make believe is simply stunning.
As the reviews so unequivocally state, BlacKkKlansman (released August 10) is one of Lee’s best works in years and is well worth a watch on the big screen. Ultimately, it’s a topical satire that points an accusatory lens at the racism that lies within society at a time when cartoonish baddies make up the political mainstream. So while BlacKkKlansman is funny, its core message is no joke.