The first time I ever really sat down to watch a Spike Lee movie was in college, and that film was Do the Right Thing, the film that is widely considered to be Lee’s best. The first time I saw it, I disliked it immensely. Granted, it was probably the most in-your-face film I had seem up until this point, which may be the reason that I reacted so negatively towards it. But the longer I thought about the film, the more I started to understand it, and eventually, I wound up truly appreciating the film. After that, I have seen quite a few other films by Spike Lee, and while I find him to be a bit hit or miss (I absolutely hate Summer of Sam), BlacKkKlansman proves to be one of the most thought-provoking, rage-inducing films I’ve seen in a while and one of the very best films of the year.
Upon first view of the title, one would think this is a full-length adaptation of Dave Chappelle’s Clayton Bigsby sketch, but it’s actually based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the former Colorado Springs detective that infiltrated the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan despite being (very clearly) African American. Teaming up with a white officer, who posed as Stallworth for real-life meetings with Klan members, Stallworth continued the investigation for nine months, and included a phone conversation with David Duke, head of the KKK at the time.
In BlacKkKlansman, John David Washington steps into the shoes of Ron Stallworth, the titular Black Klansman, with Adam Driver playing Detective Flip Zimmerman, the other half of the fake Ron Stallworth. Together, they gain information on the klan’s dealings, thwart cross burnings, and try to prevent their even bigger plans, as the klan clashes with the local black student union.
Through his career, Spike Lee has never been subtle. He doesn’t mince his words, most likely because he feels the points he’s trying to make are too important to beat around the bush. In this film, Lee wants to make damn sure that, while the film may take place in the past, the issues that this film tackles are not ancient history. Dropping one or two “make America great agains” has a purpose, and it’s not to make an ironic joke. This is to bridge the gap; to make sure that the audience knows that this film may take place over 40 years ago, but the events are still relevant today. And while Lee may be making this statement with a baseball bat throughout the film, he drives the point home at the end with a goddamn sledgehammer.
Like Do the Right Thing, this film made me angry, but I love this movie for that, and it’s important that Lee saves it all for the end. Make no mistake: BlacKkKlansman is one of the most accessible films to date, and when someone says that, they mean (most) white people will enjoy it. This film is as much of crowd-pleaser as you can make when you center something around the reprehensible KKK. However, he doesn’t let the audience off the hook.
Lee chooses to end the film with footage and stills from the original Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia (not coincidentally being released on the one-year anniversary). Juxtaposed with the image of the KKK at a cross-burning at the end of the narrative, this film’s version of Chekhov’s gun, is the footage of Unite the Right movement carrying tiki torches, chanting “You will not replace us.” In a vacuum, the image of young white men holding tiki torches that you can buy at your local Walmart seems comical, but against the images of the ominously hooded figures, it becomes abundantly clear what this sort of movement could potentially mean.
If he had stopped there, Lee would’ve made his point; but he didn’t. Instead, Lee is unrelenting, assaulting the audience with anger-inducing footage from the rally, all the way to the heartbreaking final moments of Heather Heyer, the young woman murdered when James Alex Field Jr. drove his vehicle into a crowd of people. It’s a powerful moment to end on, and Lee’s point is abundantly clear.
The message of the film is propped up by a couple of fine performances from John David Washington and Adam Driver, with Washington doing much of the heavy lifting. The two of them have great chemistry together, as they work together to become a seamless Ron Stallworth. It almost comes off as a buddy cop movie, though the heavy weight of the subject matter prevents it from becoming a full 48 Hours type experience.
Spike Lee allows the story to have its own power, but he is also able to add his own sense of style and flair to things. Ever so often, he’ll allow some show-stopping moments that may not advance the plot, but are also welcome distractions and sometimes, sobering moments. Harry Belafonte has a cameo and his scene is one of the most powerful moments in the film.
BlacKkKlansman is an incendiary film and an incredible piece of work by Spike Lee. While most of the runtime is about as crowd-pleasing as a Spike Lee film can get, it doesn’t let its audience off that easy. It’s an important, timely film, and one of the best of the year.