Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
I was going to start this review with a line such as “Satirical movies…”, but then I realized that while this is a film which feels very much like satire, it’s actually based on a true story, which makes it all the more bonkers! Certainly what Spike Lee and company are doing with this film is embellishment, heightened truths to make light of a fairly ridiculous institution. In that way it is still very much a satire, just with the names and basic facts changed. Which makes it worse. This isn’t even a story that is inspired by or informed by something that happened. This is what happened!? Maddening. Truly. But for the benefit of audiences everywhere, this story is also extremely funny (and also tragic for the same reasons) and definitely entertaining.
The story is that of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department. After working the boring job behind the evidence desk, Stallworth gets a chance to do some real police work when he goes to a Black Panther speaker rally undercover, where he meets Patrice (Laura Harrier). He eventually gets even deeper when he cold calls the Ku Klux Klan and poses as a white man interested in joining the local chapter. Looking to follow through, Stallworth teams with his Jewish colleague Flip (Adam Driver), who poses as Stallworth when meeting with the klansmen. To take it even further, Stallworth even strikes up a phone friendship with David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard of the Klan, which catapults his chances of being named chapter president.
Honestly, any story that proposes to be this weird and out there has to be true. And with that in mind, the film’s greatest accomplishment in my mind is Spike Lee’s ability to balance the comedy with the weight of the true story. This is serious business: racism in America. And yet, Lee is also able to makes this movie over the top funny. A lot of this has to do with a very strong central performance from John David Washington, a relatively new name to me. He has a very measured delivery, which I am sure is intentional given his character is posing as a white man, but it works to highlight everything that’s wrong with the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists, which helps Lee mold the film into effective social commentary, especially with the current political climate (which is rather sad given the film is set in the 70s).
Part of what makes Washington’s performance work though is his partnership with Adam Driver, and vice versa. The pair play off each other very effectively and form a strong comedic and dramatic tandem. The supporting cast is rather spot on too, and representative of the balance I mentioned earlier. Topher Grace as David Duke is probably the best example of this as he is joyously silly in the role. Ashlie Atkinson and Paul Walter Hauser also occupy that silly space, but they’re balance by more seering performances from Jasper Paakkonen and Ryan Eggold. Even Harry Belafonte appears to give added weight to the proceedings. All of this rolls together like a fine oiled machine to surprisingly gel together and make an entertaining but also eye opening experience.
Spike Lee’s sensibilities have often been hit or miss for me, which shouldn’t be surprising given his rather brash approach to storytelling. When it works, boy does it work though, and BlacKkKlansman is one of his best. It may be pretty on the nose in terms of social commentary, but the times we live in don’t exactly afford the patience to be subtle. The film ends with a cut to actual footage from the Charlottesville, Virginia events. Seeing these events are truly horrifying, especially after having just sat through the film. Lee has this ability which makes it okay to laugh with his film, he encourages it with what he’s doing. Seeing Ron Stallworth, a black man, say the things he does on the phone, to see the Klansmen do the things they do, it seems comical that anyone would think and do these things. And yet. Here we are.