BlacKkKlansman ★★★★

Added to: Spike Lee Ranked and 2018 Ranked

After recently rewatching Spike Lee’s furious damnation of gun violence Chi-Raq, I was all kinds of hyped to see his latest, much-lauded BlacKkKlansman. While coming close to the suffocating reality he sketched in the former, his buddy cop-crime drama is a wholly different kind of beast, both for better and for worse.

Opening in the early 70’s, young Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is hoping to find a job as a detective at the Colorado Springs police department. Right from the start, the soon-to-come tension is made perfectly clear as his job interview is mainly comprised of questions regarding his eventual place among the crew or, for that matter, among the rest of the town. An African-American cop is seemingly completely new to them and even before he gets to do a single thing, he’s already got a big warning as to what kind of trouble might be coming his way. His chief (playing it safe), puts him in the records room. Aside from being bored out of his mind, Stallworth is also constantly annoyed with the harassment of his white co-workers. He asks to be replaced and soon enough works himself to a job infiltrating a local civil rights rally. After this goes rather smoothly, he manages to start his first big case and singlehandedly conceives a plan to infiltrate the local KKK. He makes contact on the phone and sends one of his colleagues out to act on his behalf.

From there on out, BlacKkKlansman becomes a tense and at times even comedic buddy-cop comedy. Both the real Ron and the fake Ron, Flip Zimmerman, (Adam Driver) work their way deep into the organization. While Flip puts on an almost too perfect racist cover, dropping slurs left and right, even hiding his own Jewish identity in the process, Stallworth himself manages to become pals with Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) himself. While most of their work is just making sure the Klansmen don’t go nuts, it is clear that a confrontation of sorts is brewing.

Because, aside from mingling with the KKK, Stallworth also meets up with the president of the Black student union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and closely follows all their, fortunately, more peaceful steps towards a brighter America. Along the way we follow the growing angst in both these groups, finalizing in a visually striking moment where a rousing viewing by the KKK of Birth of a Nation coincides with a meeting of the union where an elderly man tells a gut-churning tale of how his friend was hung, burned and dismembered after a false accusation. The moment switches from horrific to horrifyingly comedic but ultimately leaves you with a bitter taste. It’s what Lee does best. This film, much like other films I’ve seen of him so far, has an uneven tone, a mix of ironic and satirical comedy and grim as hell drama. Taking in its totality it feels as much as a blaxploitation flick as it does a horrifying true-to-life biopic - especially with a montage at the end recounting the events in Charlottesville in 2017. While that messy combination of fun and furious does tend to be a bit of a flaw at points in Lee’s career and also in this film, it is also what makes his work so strong.

Lee’s films have always been cries for help. From the very beginning, he was yelling the same message as he is here. It’s a simple one but also one that nobody seems to listen to: just accept each other and learn to live together. As simple as that message may be, it’s still hard to present characters who live on that glorious middle line, not fighting for one cause but fighting for everybody’s cause. It’s therefore that even the people in his films who seem to be on the same side, struggle with each other’s believes. A strong example in BlacKkKlansman is how Stallworth wants to fight racism from within the conservative police department but his love interest Patrice is strongly against them and their oppressive behavior. Lee manages to show that, no matter how much we want it, bringing two sides together isn’t as easy as we might hope it to be. If it’s already hard enough to convince someone that not all cops are corrupt, racist and sexually harassing their victims, imagine how tough of a job it can be to just bring a white man and a black man together and let them shake hands.

Balance is Lee’s strongest bet here. He knows how to find a way to view a bigger issue through multiple lenses without losing focus of the greater message. And yes, that finale is indeed the horrifying call for help that puts an extra exclamation mark at the end of that message. Back in 1989, Lee’s Do the Right Thing already proved how much racism was still a thing in the present and not just a flourish of the past. Now, nearly 30 years later, nothing seems to have changed. His film may be a snapshot of a small adventure somewhere in the mists of the 70’s, but the story is one that is being told for ages and ages without end.

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