Spike Lee delivers one of his most significant and most provocative films.
Spike Lee is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore. One could have said the same thing after seeing the auteur’s last film Chi-Raq, but his latest truly bleeds of pure rage. With BlacKkKlansman, Lee does not lose the humor. Instead, the audience is dared to laugh, continue laughing, and then stop dead in their tracks as the brutal reality of the subject matter’s gravity explodes on screen.
The first frames of BlacKkKlansman are not of Lee’s camera but are instead from the classic Gone With The Wind. Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara walks gracefully past the bodies of hundreds of wounded Confederate soldiers. The camera then pans to a charred, yet still waving, confederate flag. Next, a title card announces that BlacKkKlansman is based upon “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” Regardless of fact or fiction, Lee’s script utilizes the styles both Blaxploitation and 1970’s crime thrillers to frame his story, while poking fun at the inherent fallacies of the former. John David Washington (in his third film of the year) stars as the titular character, Ron Stallworth, a newly hired African-American police officer working in an entirely white precinct. Stallworth is asked to go undercover to observe the speech of a civil rights figure (Corey Hawkins), whom his superiors suspect will encourage radical violence. The issue is that Stallworth speaks in “the King’s English,” rather than “jive,” and therefore fears he’ll have trouble fitting in. It is Stallworth’s speech pattern that leads to the ultimate conflict. Out of sheer curiosity, Stallworth dials the number for a Ku Klux Klan. He passes for a white supremacist on the phone, but after Stallworth sets up a meeting with a KKK leader, under his own name no less, he realizes that he needs to enlist the help of another officer. The officer is Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), and he’s Jewish. So Jewish Flip Zimmerman poses as white, Catholic Ron Stallworth, and enlists himself as a member of the KKK.
The film takes an interesting approach to its portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan members are mostly depicted as absolute morons, and Lee encourages his audience to laugh at them, even when the things they are saying are undeniably horrid. The mastery here comes from the fact that the humor is offensive within the film, yet is not necessarily an offensive piece. A particularly tense scene is one in which a Klansman accuses Flip (as Stallworth, of course) of being Jewish, and questions the ‘mutilation’ of Jewish men’s’ penises, demanding to see Flip’s ‘circumstanced’ member. This was particularly gut-busting for myself and a fellow Jewish film critic seated next to me. There’s an argument to be had that Lee portrays the Klan members as too cartoonish, somewhat lightening the monstrous nature of these men for the sake of humor. It’s an argument I can understand from both sides. That being said, Lee never asks his audience to laugh with these people, but rather at their sheer ignorance.
Though it is set in 1979, BlacKkKlansman explicitly links the events of the film to the current attitudes towards the racial politics in the United States. Of course, the film exists to force its audience to reflect on the shattered state of race relations in the US, but Lee’s use of phrases “America First” and “Make America Great Again” are pointed and appropriate. When the narrative reaches its conclusion, Lee uses the last few minutes of the film to change tone entirely, abandoning all humor to use the audience’s captivated attention to be frank and confrontational.
BlacKkKlansman is not only one of Lee’s greatest films, but it is an important and necessary piece of work. The film’s motives are taut, yet Lee never allows his anger to detract or act as a form of distanciation. A remarkable blend of rage and humor makes BlacKkKlansman at once both a necessary and timeless experience. It will shock most, offend some, but most importantly will spark conversation among all.
[Our review of BlacKkKlansman originally ran during Cannes 2018.]