Ryan’s review published on Letterboxd:
Patrice: "That was a Black Exploitation Movie. A fantasy. Real life's not like that. In real life there's no Cleopatra Jones or Coffy."
The earliest distinct audience reaction I can remember witnessing in a theater is from John Q.
A righteous movie tackling the real-world health insurance crisis, John Q is about a man who locks down an ER and takes doctors and patients hostage in order to get his son the treatment for a life-threatening illness that was not covered by his HMO.
It may sound like a Hollywoodized take on the issue, but apparently its SWAT advisors told filmmakers about a similar incident in Canada of all places.
Over the course of the film we get to know the hostages and that includes a woman and her abusive boyfriend. I don't recall the specifics of the events, but their arc climaxes when she fights back.
The crowd responded to her kicking him with raucous applause as the probably broadly drawn jackass was finally getting what was coming to him following screen time designated to show him treating her like trash.
I may not have done something as palpable as getting up and turning around to see the theater's reception but the memory is tinged with that sensation following the crowd pleasing moment.
The majority of BlacKkKlansman is designed to serve that vein of the entertaining, feel-good Hollywood issues movie building a genial nature where the bad guys and good guys are clearly defined, the only shades of grey coming from the protagonist who starts to see the world in a different light.
In fact, in this retelling of the true events involving a black officer infiltrating the KKK we see Ron, the first black officer to the police department, focused on the local threat of the organization.
When he is being told by the superior officer he reports to of the national implications that comes from David Duke's initiative to move the KKK away from burning crosses in white robes to "civil" politics in suits, Ron is in disbelief.
America would never elect David Duke President of the United States.
The audience laughs because they know the movie is talking about Donald Trump, who isn't even civil and has channeled similar racist rhetoric on his way to, and now inside, the White House.
If a similar thing was done during the Katrina aftermath or thirty years ago under Reagan, it would have been an incendiary remark to make of a sitting President, but we are in a world where a majority white audience can laugh at the comparison of Duke with the current President and how silly it is to think someone who acts civilly but preaches white superiority can not become POTUS in the '70s.
Fifty years later and you don't even have to be civil to win a national election with backwards thinking.
Beyond the KKK, Spike has a sub-antagonist in Master Patrolman Landers (Frederick Weller). The other cops know he isn't great, has a questionable shooting, but no one is willing to cross the blue line. Beyond that, as the viewing audience, it becomes clear to us that he is a racist.
We see him groping Patrice Dumas, President of the local Black Student Union, as she accompanies Kwame Ture home following his speech.
Like me you may think of the maligned Best Picture winner Crash, of which I am a known defender, where a similar incident of a gleeful, racially-motivated assault occurs in front of a black man to emasculate him.
Landers has little business in the picture outside of a physical representation of the friction Ron faces in trying to deal with a system that Patrice, who later becomes Ron's girlfriend, believes can't be changed but which Ron believes can be changed by becoming a part of it.
By the end, and yes you should assume spoilers, after we've dealt with the KKK attempt to bomb innocents the racist copTM is dealt with neatly.
The resolution is too neat in fact.
He is captured on tape and, presumably due to Ron's courage to be wired, is arrested for admitting to the assault on Patrice as he shows his cruel nature and how he's utilizing his badge to get away with murder.
The crowd r o a r s, or at least that is how my memory remembers it, when Adam Driver's Flip turns around with his recording equipment saying he got the confession and the Police Chief comes out to arrest Landers for police brutality.
But would that scene happen in reality?
Is it like The Help with Aibileen confronting her employer before she quits? Sacrificing reality for entertainment and a feelgood ending?
Ron, the only black cop in the department in the early '70s, being what the media tells us cops hate, a rat. Would his colleagues be applauding him when he comes in to work?
Some might not pick it up, but Lee, in a series of tags to the climax, is playing various versions of the tidy wrappings to one of these issue movies.
We see Ron talking to Duke after the events of the bombing. Pretending how it was a shame what has happened to the bomber, Ron lets on who he is to finally thumb his nose at Duke by admitting a black man tricked him into thinking he was white.
It's fun! The crowd applauds but it does nothing. A minor victory akin to a tweet making fun of something dumb Donald Trump did on the 2016 campaign trail.
Duke will hang up his phone, continue molding and recruiting for the KKK only to win a Louisiana House seat in a runoff to a special election because the other candidate, supported by President Bush and Reagan, said he might raise taxes.
What we hear earlier in the film about Duke's white supremacy background not mattering if he moves more to policy issues to raise support became a reality.
An unseen knock on Ron's door.
Ron and Patrice, now a gun owner, head down the hallway ready to shoot. They reach the window and see faraway on the hill a cross burning.
The series of tags were light and fun but unrealistic.
The danger still out there.
While some have been critical of its depiction of KKK members as being overly hickish, I see that as intentional and a little more nuanced.
The start of a Spike Lee movie is important.
Deconstructing the mythologizing, Hollywoodizing of cinema while also showing repugnant racism that is packaged different from what we’ll see with Duke. Both are in suits, but the intensity removed.
The presentation different.
Later, crosscutting between the Klan having a great time at DIY screening of The Birth of a Nation's fictionalized, racist depiction of blacks, which they are viewing through a diseased lens as the truth, and Harry Belafonte describing to a gathering the somber reality of the South through Jesse Washington's lynching, we are confronted with the divide cinema often has from truth.
Spotlighting the transition of the movement at the time, we see members who stretch from the cliches of the hillbilly Felix (the one who unravels the identity of these officers and never trusts Flip either) and the always drunk Ivanhoe (likely a member only because he pays his dues) to Felix's wife and the formal David Duke both of whom appear to be rather charming or comforting like a next door neighbor when they aren't spouting their clearly white supremacist views.
Chapter president Walter is more of a bridge between the two groups in this spectrum of hate that plays with bombs on one side and politics and PR on the other. Walter is described as "affable" in the script and he bristles at Ivanhoe and Felix frequently as he tries to recruit Ron and go up the KKK (a name he doesn't use) ladder.
Outside of Adam Driver, given a nice supporting character that has both comedy and pathos, BlacKkKlansman is not the type of movie where the performances are going to stand out too much, yet there is intention behind the way Topher Grace is directed to play Duke as matter of fact and casual about the racism under a sort of genial civility that differentiates from the blunt Landers.
Felix's wife and Duke are off putting because they look like your neighbors and behind closed doors you hear their hateful views.
The real Stallworth case focused on members who were military personnel with high ranking positions. This danger of racists hidden, ingratiated in society is observed when Stallworth in the movie gives the chapter's roster to an FBI agent.
The real fear. The real danger.
The movie ends with footage of Charlottesville. Showing the terrorized victims and the terrorists.
The aftermath with the President's comments about there being good people on both sides.
Finally we see the American Flag, upside down (as I discovered years ago from In the Valley of Elah, this signals distress), fading to black and white.
The audience applauding minutes earlier is left silent.
The room is dark and they are sniffling.
This is America. Not a feel good movie.