Turning Racism Against Itself
Spike Lee follows up his keenly poignant comedy/drama/musical Chi-Raq with BlacKkKlansman, another film that shares the same frustratingly uneven tone and disjointed structure yet always manages to slap its intended target squarely upside the head. And that target is you and me.
As with 2015’s Chi-Raq, the magic in Lee’s BlacKkKlansman doesn’t come from what he has to say. We all know and understand his message. It’s the same one the filmmaker has been peddling for years. Rather, the triumph of his accomplishment in both films (all of his films, really) comes from all the gloriously entertaining ways in which he delivers that message. Lee possesses a masterful ability to turn the hate, bigotry, discrimination, and injustice against the perpetrator by using humor, irony, and often the wrong-doer’s own words. Though often difficult subject matter to watch, his films are always on point and never boring. And that is certainly the case with BlacKkKlansman in which Lee satirizes the idea of a pure, white America with his story about an African-American police detective who, back in the late ‘70s, infiltrated a local chapter of the KKK.
It is the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), a rookie -- and the first African American -- in the Colorado Springs police department, who sets out to prove to his superiors that his talents can be better utilized by going undercover and faking white supremacist beliefs to pose as a citizen interested in joining the local chapter of the KKK. Via a series of shockingly racist phone calls, Ron attempts to set up a meeting with the head of “The Association” -- as the members call it. Eventually, the worst possible scenario comes to fruition as Ron gets his meeting… but realizes he can’t attend for obvious reasons. However, fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who is Jewish, can and is soon convinced to be the “face” of Ron Stallworth in the person-to-person meetings with the movers and shakers of the KKK.
Lee, with co-writers David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, and Kevin Willmott, give the politically-charged subject matter a laser-like focus by weaving America’s current events into the fray -- specifically, the Trump presidency and the Charlottesville right-wing protests, snippets of which are featured prominently in the film. Actual footage from the events isn’t always integrated seamlessly, and there’s a hammer-to-the-head nuance to most everything we see, but Lee has never been subtle and it’s not what we’ve come to expect from his films. They work best when he’s being loud and angry. His repurposing of the non-fiction imagery makes an impactful statement by turning the original intent of the footage against itself.
There’s also a sloppily-handled side plot that features Stallworth’s relationship with Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the local University’s black student union. It feels like an afterthought but acts as a much-appreciated means for the audience to view the internal conflict of Stallworth as both a black man and a police officer.
With BlacKkKlansman, Lee takes on an astonishingly vast amount of assorted topics and disjointed sub-themes born from the singular subject of racism in America. And he mishandles most of them in the way that only Spike Lee can. But that’s why we love his films, right?
BlacKkKlansman is messy. It is brash. It is offensive. And it is as subtle as a flying brick. But there’s a uniquely satisfying sense of revenge that comes from watching Lee turn the vile words and hateful actions of racists and bigots against themselves. It’s amazing that we’ve made it so easy for him.
(Released by Focus Features and rated “R” by MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.