kevinyang’s review published on Letterboxd:
It seems counterintuitive in theory to call a Spike Lee film about the KKK lifeless, noncommittal, and disappointingly safe, but that's exactly what it is. Lee has managed to create an easily digestible film out of incredibly thought provoking subject matter, ultimately playing very well to a white liberal crowd because it exercises just enough—if not too much—restraint in order to not offend anyone. And by restraint I mean distance, because it very rarely challenges the audience and instead hovers around the edges of race instead of truly engaging with it.
You may dismiss this as a purely social judgment on the film, but there's a problem because the filmmaking choices are glaringly ill suited to what Lee himself has been selling on his press tour. What is the logic, for instance, behind spending so much time with Adam Driver's character in the Klan to the point where Ron Stallworth's story feels like an afterthought? The point of the film is not simply to laugh at these racist buffoons saying ridiculous things, but that's what it feels like when we so often spotlight Driver—whose character has zero development whatsoever—infiltrating the Klan. The premise is undoubtedly intriguing, but it perhaps may have been misguided stylistically to drag on one side of the story at the expense of the supposed main focus. There's tremendous value in humor, and there's tremendous value in not being subtle. However, when your script reduces itself to humor by entrenching itself in the ridiculously awful and sidelining its black characters (especially that underdeveloped romance, which makes for some of the more interesting conversations in the film), then there's a disconnect.
It's a shame because the performances are all great, the film is reasonably entertaining, and there are some really fascinating points brought up about blaxpoitation and filmmaking. Those moments are few and far between, though, and the entire (long) thing just seems devoid of the urgency and energy that are desperately needed. A lot of that is due to the structure of the film, and the rest is due to Lee being a bit too complacent with his vision. The final sequence is an attempt to resonate deeply and draw parallels to our present, but it instead winds up feeling like a lazy, desperate overcorrection to the deficiencies of the preceding two hours. For a film that's supposed to be about our times, this all just feels surprisingly detached.