Saturday, September 15, 2018

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

I do love me some Spike Lee. Not all of his work is good but at least none that I’ve seen is boring. The last of his flicks that I saw (and loved) was Chiraq (2015), a messy and passionate film that was unfairly overlooked. I’m glad to see that BlacKkKlansman is in no danger of being so ignored, though I wish people would stop saying “Spike Lee is BACK!” like he ever left.

BlacKkKlansman is set in the early 1970’s and inspired by the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first Black cop in Colorado Springs, who decides on a whim to answer an ad in the local paper recruiting for a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He’s so effective at impersonating a white racist that he’s instantly invited to a face to face meeting. Ron argues that rather than focus on the largely peaceful Black student protesters that his supervisors are convinced must be plotting something, the Klan is almost certainly more dangerous and worthy of police time and effort.

Unfortunately, like a true rookie, he used his real name and office phone number. So his plan requires a white officer to pretend to be “Ron Stallworth” and show up for the in person meetings. This responsibility falls to Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver in the film’s best performance. Despite being Jewish, as “Ron” he has to convincingly spout unhinged rhetoric that goes against his conscience, never flagging in his stated desire to “take America back” from (read “murder”) Blacks, Jews and anybody else the Klan doesn’t like. On top of this he finds himself constantly on the verge of exposure by the suspicious, violent Felix (played with luscious eeeevil by Jasper Pääkkönen). 

Meanwhile, in addition to calling the shots of the Klan investigation, the real Ron starts dating Patrice (Laura Harrier), a leading student revolutionary who he met while undercover and would be furious to learn Ron was actually a cop. This is the least satisfying leg of the movie, mostly there to explore the contradiction of trying to fight racism while joining a police force known for its overt harassment and repression of the black community. Unfortunately, there’s no real conclusion to this thread (Ron and Patrice are essentially interrupted mid-argument by the film’s ending), so Lee is basically lampshading a shortcoming of the script without doing anything to fix it.

Despite the dense themes involved, much of BlacKkKlansman is a fast-moving, exciting thriller. Ron and Flip are constantly walking a tightrope to maintain their illusion and it feels like at any moment it could all come crashing down. And the film’s villains are just so damn good: If Felix represents the violent heart of the Klan, its public face is portrayed by David Duke (Topher Grace in the film’s other scene stealing performance). The real-life Duke has spent decades working to normalize racism for mainstream consumption, and Grace has done an amazing job of getting into Duke’s head. Not only does he come across as a straight talking, charming, amiable fellow, but Grace also conveys the sheer depth of Duke’s convictions when necessary. His mask of politeness occasionally slips revealing hatred so strong that Black people seem to make him physically ill.

Any time a filmmaker tells a story about racism from decades ago that happens to have a happy ending, they run the risk of sending the audience home with the implication that racism is a past evil, rather than one still actively harming us today. Lee deals with this in a few ways, first in a (relatively) subtle way by having the film’s racists espouse variations on modern alt-right / Trumpian slogans (“America First!”). In addition, despite being filmed in the 1970’s, the film rarely feels like a period piece but rather something that could happen in some parts of America today and still look and feel relatively similar.

Lee may have overshot the mark with the film’s coda, which confronts the audience with footage of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. The narrative film’s closing cross burning transitions into last year’s tiki-torch mob screaming slogans as Trump is heard sticking up for “beautiful people on both sides”. The real David Duke (in his 80’s) is seen still fighting the racist fight. And finally there is uncompromising, street level footage of the car crash that killed Heather Heyer. The effect this has on the audience is undeniable, but it drastically unbalances the movie. As the credits rolled, I felt like I could barely remember anything that happened before all of that screaming and horror.

But Spike is gonna be Spike, and given the chance to hit complacent audiences in the gut at the expense of the artistic stability of his movie, it’s not at all surprising that he took it. Once I got over the shock of its conclusion, I realized that BlacKkKlansman has an awful lot going for it. While I think Chiraq was a more memorable film, BlacKkKlansman is much less erratic and self-indulgent, and it’s clearly struck a chord with a lot more people. In the end, I’m sure that at least Spike Lee prefers that outcome.