(2018—Director: Spike Lee)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
The piano and wails of the late musician Prince in his 1983 cover of “Mary Don’t You Weep” play over the credits to BlacKkKlansman, the latest film or “joint” by filmmaker Spike Lee. As with the late musician, Lee’s career consists of a handful of underrated gems and many disappointing struggles to reattain the heights of his bona-fide masterpieces—1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1992’s Malcolm X. BlacKkKlansman, Lee’s biographical drama about a most fascinating episode in the life of police officer Ron Stallworth, is a confident return to form for the 61-year-old stalwart of politically and racially charged cinema.
It is 1972. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) joins the Colorado Springs Police Department as its first African-American detective. Feeling confident, Stallworth dares to infiltrate and expose the extremist and racist Ku Klux Klan (KKK) for conspiring to attack minorities. Stallworth teams up with his Jewish co-worker, Philip “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to go undercover in the “Organization” (as Klan members refer to their group). Since the rookie detective made the mistake of using his own name, Zimmerman must also act and talk as Stallworth—a challenge, considering their racial backgrounds. Between cozying up to the Klan’s “Grand Wizard”/national director David Duke (Topher Grace) and his intent to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream and confronting their own cultural identities in the fight to eradicate hate, Stallworth and Zimmerman embark on the undercover investigation of their lives.
Despite the heavy weight and sensitivity of its subject matter, BlacKkKlansman’s greatest asset is the noticeable joy that exudes from each frame and all the actors inhabiting them. Leading the way is former professional football player turned actor John David Washington, son of famed actor Denzel Washington. Washington interacts with many of his fellow cast members, transitioning between “King’s” English and jive as the movie’s embodiment the internal of tug o’ war experienced by every American citizen of color, especially those of African descent. Though co-star Adam Driver’s role is less flashy, he conveys just as well how Zimmerman’s unpracticed Jewish heritage compels him to commit to investigating the KKK, which hates Jews about as much as those of African descent.
Beyond the leading duo are supporting players who vary between functional and noteworthy. Corey Hawkins gets an extended rousing speech and a brief police pullover scene as the Trinidadian Civil Rights and Pan-African activist Kwame Ture. Topher Grace gets just enough screentime as the affable David Duke, whose passion for the KKK’s dark agenda matches his lack of awareness when having one-to-one phone conversations with Ron Stallworth. On the other hand, Laura Harrier (who last appeared in Spider-Man: Homecoming) could have used more scenes as Patrice Dumas, president of the local Black Student Union. Her forever-low view of the police as an institution does little to cover her standard role as Stallworth’s love interest.
Surprisingly, two of BlacKkKlansman’s secret weapons are cast members of European descent: Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen gets to overuse his “Jew radar” as testy “Organization” member Felix Kendrickson. Kendrickson’s interrogation of the undercover Zimmerman and whether he has been “circumstanced” [sic] registers as one of biographical drama’s funniest scenes. Ashlie Atkinson plays Kendrickson’s faithful wife Connie as an outsider adorably itching to participate in her husband’s KKK activities. Both actors relish their characters’ racism the most from among the cast. One can imagine Lee, Pääkkönen, and Atkinson having many laughs while discussing this acting choice between takes.
2018 has proved itself as a monumental year for films centered on those of African descent. I rank BlacKkKlansman just above Disney-Marvel’s Black Panther (already the subgenre’s representative for 2018), yet I ultimately prefer the innovative bonkers of Sorry to Bother You and the grounded conciseness of Blindspotting. Still, I hope BlacKkKlansman marks the official start of a bountiful autumn season in Spike Lee’s storied filmmaking career.
Now, onward to the dance floor! “It’s too late / to turn back now / I believe, I believe, I believe I’m fallin’ in love…”
(Parental Note: BlacKkKlansman has been rated R by the MPAA “for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “racist violence and language,” and “very strong language”.)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.