For as inconsistent as his filmography has ever been, Spike Lee has never been anything less than one of the most interesting American filmmakers working today. But even if he has struggled to find the same success today as he did during his prime with Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, he’s never left – he’s always remained so angry and it’s a defining aspect of his filmmaking. And for all the misses that he’s had recently, I’m happy to say that BlacKkKlansman is indeed Spike Lee’s best film to come out in quite some time. It’s a film that takes on the form of a past identity only to remind you that things haven’t changed as much as we would like to think, and for all we know Lee had been shouting this in the years since Do the Right Thing had come out. And of course Spike Lee isn’t showing everything to be nearly as comfortable as we would like to think it could be thanks to the way we would like to think it is, but it’s only one among many reasons his films hit every bit as hard as they do.
Based on the story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American detective who ended up launching an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan and even becoming the head of the local chapter by posing as a white man over the telephone, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman explores the roots of where organized racism begins – and what it does to America’s own identity as a nation. In the role of Ron Stallworth is none other than Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington, who already captures the same charisma that his father carried and represents a cinematic hero for the black viewer akin to that of a blaxploitation film, right from the film’s aesthetic – pairing with the white detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to infiltrate the KKK. The premise of BlacKkKlansman already sounds like it could make a great buddy cop movie, and even Spike Lee knows that, but he’s also sticking to the fact that all of this happens to have been based on a true story and what comes forth is a film that is dead set on reminding you that it’s still reality.
Spike Lee’s films can always be characterized by how they are rooted inside of this sort of anger, but BlacKkKlansman takes on another form that speaks to an audience that already knows everything that they want to see. But even with the film’s timely setting given as it originated from a true story, it still manages to resonate perfectly with today’s audience because we still recognize the worst of America’s past ever remaining so prominent today. But Spike Lee doesn’t leave everything only as a background detail, because what he explores in BlacKkKlansman goes beyond the very idea that racism from America’s past is still prominent today, but also about the very definition of the American identity. How exactly can it be defined, with America having been colonized in history and with Native American voices only being less prominent day by day? Is it simply defined just from being white and adhering only to Christian beliefs? If anything, Spike Lee has always known that African-American voices are not the only ones being silenced out by a conservative definition of the American identity – and here he still clings onto that as shown from as much as a telephone conversation between the real Ron Stallworth and David Duke.
Exploring the film through the eyes of Ron Stallworth, the very best thing that Spike Lee can do is treat “Ron Stallworth” not as any other person but as a force that looks over the direction America is moving towards in its future. Given as the film is all about the fact that a black man managed to become the head of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, we still feel his presence through the white detective Flip Zimmerman’s own posing as “Ron Stallworth” as he enters local KKK meetings, and we still feel the anger of a black perspective remaining prominent. Zimmerman is so clearly disgusted by everything that the Klan seeks to promote, and is even suspected by one of the members to be a Jew, and you already feel the discomfort from Adam Driver’s own performance as a result. In order to keep his cover, he’s saying things that he’s clearly very disgusted by, and Spike Lee manages to share that feeling with you as an audience member. For Adam Driver, it’s also not a particularly easy role to pull off so perfectly but he only manages to remain so impactful in that very moment because you already feel every bit as trapped as he is, inside a world that only seeks to inspire cruelty.
It already opens most fittingly, with a scene from Gone with the Wind being narrated by Alec Baldwin playing a white supremacist – trying to give you the idea of what defines America’s own history. But with the image from Gone with the Wind alone you still feel Lee’s anger remaining present, and it’s also fitting given the subject matter of said film. You already feel a sense of disgust as the racism from Gone with the Wind is being made clear and right in front of your own eyes, but that’s not before we get to the weaponizing of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, mixed together with the reactions it drives from those watching it. You’re already made aware how ugly everything is, but you see how audiences react as they watch the film and you already get a glimpse of where the ugliest aspects of society today are already building themselves. You’re already hit with the idea that this is still happening in today’s world, and it also sets a most fitting note afoot on Spike Lee’s own end. It just sets in mind what you’re only going to make of the very environment that Ron Stallworth lives within, because you recognize that as being no different from the very world we inhabit.
It must also be noted that as we continue to see everything from the eyes of Ron Stallworth, as both a police officer and a black man living in America in the 1970’s, you already see a clear divide in what society defines to be “equality for all.” If there’s anything that BlacKkKlansman has ever managed to so perfectly capture on the screen, it’s the very way in which this divide has ended up becoming what defines America as it is. Everything is set in stone because of a conservative standard, but clearly it’s also been used to the benefit of some while at the expense of others. Lee makes this dissonance clear from how Ron Stallworth is made to investigate a protest led by Kwame Ture, his relationship with Laura Harrier’s Patrice Dumas and the way he interacts with other people at the police station where he works – where the sense of power has already corrupted the minds of some. The very dissonance in perspectives that you feel already gives an idea of who’s empowered and who isn’t, but it also stings viciously because of what it says about how America defines progress into the future – have people really come to truly understand, or have they only remained as ignorant as ever?
The already much-discussed final moments are what solidifies that what we want to believe is fantasy is also reality without a happy ending. For some, I can only imagine that it would hit close to home, but Spike Lee’s visual cue leading up to that very moment is what solidifies this film’s timelessness for me. It’s a brilliant break from fantasy into reality, just from the very way in which it is filmed to the moment we finally see where everything has resulted. And given the timing of the film’s release, it also feels like a perfect reminder that all of this anger is set to explode into something if we never listen to its source. If there’s anything else I can say that would tell you that you need to see BlacKkKlansman, it would be that we all need the wake-up call that this film is eliciting. This is a movie that is only set to pass forward that anger as time goes by. It’s a film that bridges entertainment and reality in order to perfectly convey its own message about what it is that we continue to define as being acceptable in society’s words. With all of this dissonance, how far do we really move as a species?
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Focus Features.
Directed by Spike Lee
Screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott, from the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth
Produced by Jason Blum, Spike Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele, Shaun Redick
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 135 minutes