Is Spike Lee’s explosive come back film “BlacKkKlansman” worth a date night this weekend? Maybe. The movie is a major Oscar contender for sure. But it’s a mix of dark comedy with heavy subject matter involving racism and anti-Semitism. Not exactly what you’d call a romantic mood-setter. Maybe thought-provoking cinema is your type of movie. If you aren’t easily offended by foul language and racial slurs used in historical context of early 1970s, this is a great film. Otherwise, you should look elsewhere.
There are few filmmakers in America more associated with tackling racial issues than Spike Lee. He’s the African-American writer-director who exploded onto the national consciousness nearly 30 years ago with 1989 incendiary classic “Do the Right Thing.” The film told the tale of a riot breaking out in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. It presented a truly daring cinematic vision that grew over the next couple of decades to include the biopic “Malcolm X,” interracial romance in “Jungle Fever,” the Million Man March in “Get on the Bus” and the rampant violence in inner-city Chicago with “Chi-Raq.”
Yet aside from the blockbuster heist thriller “Inside Man” in 2006, Lee had nearly lost his relevance with bomb after bomb throughout the 2000s. But he’s come roaring back in a big way with his latest film, “BlacKkKlansman.” The movie won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It arrives this weekend with a great deal of buzz for its audacious trailers mixing outrageous comedy, cop-thriller elements and powerful emotional moments.
“BlacKkKlansman” is easily Lee’s best film of the 2000s. It has the uncanny timing of being released on the one-year anniversary of the devastating white-supremacist march and riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. Without a doubt, it couldn’t be more timely. Yet this powder-keg of a movie might be unsettling to some viewers.
An idealistic black cop risks everything for justice
The film follows the incredible true-life story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington). He’s an African-American who became the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Stallworth got the job because of the city’s effort to finally welcome a black officer. But the ambitious rookie quickly grew tired of his initial assignment working the overnight shift in the criminal records room.
Ron wants to make a real impact on his city, and believes he has the skills to bring down its particularly dangerous chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He teams up with a Jewish cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Stallworth activates a crazy plan in which he will infiltrate the local KKK. The idea is for Ron to handle all the conversations possible by phone, while sending in Flip to pretend to be him whenever an in-person meeting is required.
Things come to a boil as the national Klan leader David Duke (Topher Grace) comes to town at the same time the Black Student Union is hosting a legendary black activist. Ron and Flip have to figure out how to uncover a dangerous bombing plot at the same time they’re trying to keep their cover and maintain their own private sanity and sense of identity.
A history lesson that feels torn from today’s headlines
“BlacKkKlansman” is 135 minutes long, yet stuffed to the limit with audacious plot points, stunning dialogue and vivid performances. Washington – the son of Denzel – knocks his first lead role out of the park. He combines a swaggering attitude with hilarious comic chops and occasionally searing emotion to create an indelibly memorable character out of Stallworth. Just like the film itself, he has to be considered an instant front-runner for an Oscar nomination.
He’s matched note for note by Driver as Zimmerman. He plays a man who finds himself in greater danger than Stallworth even though this is Stallworth’s crusade. Driver walks an electrifying tightrope with his performance. He alternates contempt for the ignorant bigots around him with a need to spew even more venom than they do to maintain his cover and very survival.
Somehow, Lee and his team of three other screenwriters manage to make the most outrageously offensive slurs imaginable work in both dramatic and darkly comedic fashion. They connected the ugliness of 1970s American attitudes to the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia just a year ago. The one potential weak spot is still riveting. The film shows an extended sequence inter-cutting Duke leading a KKK initiation ceremony and screening of the landmark racist film “Birth of a Nation”. An elderly black activist recounts the horrific tale of a racist murder for nearly 15 minutes. The segment doesn’t directly fit into the story, but it’s a riveting nonetheless.
This film shines a light on some really dark elements
While this is a superb film, viewers should be warned it is also one that features a lot of racial and anti-Semitic slurs along the way. They absolutely fit the context of the film’s atmosphere and time frame. But it is jarring to hear that kind of language used with such frequency and force. It’s also a daring tightrope walk. Lee and his co-writers manage to make these lines work as hilarious stingers when Ron is pretending to be a white racist joining in the “fun” on the phone with the Klan members. However, they did a great job maintaining their ugliness in every other situation.
Aside from the ugly racial and anti-Semitic comments, there is also frequent swearing. But none of it feels lazy or over-the-top. There is no sex or nudity in the film. Minimal violence is shown, although the tension of what might unfold is near-constant.
Layered over it all is Terence Blanchard’s lush score. The music provides both propulsion and beauty to the proceedings onscreen and bringing it all to greater life. While working with an unusually potent screenplay, Lee also reins in his frequently self-indulgent visual techniques to keep the film focused and moving forward like a freight train through its often surreal events.
The film uses a couple of stunning techniques to link to actual footage of the shocking white supremacist march and the murderous driving rampage that killed Heather Heyer at Charlottesville. This leaves viewers with a devastating reminder that the danger of racism is still directly under the surface of modern life. A film that engages the mind and enrages the spirit while often provoking gales of laughter, “BlacKkKlansman” is can’t-miss viewing for adults looking for both fun and substance in the dog days of summer.
Laughs: 10 (but these are dark laughs, though)
Thought-provoking moments: 10
Overall: 8 out of 10
Carl Kozlowski is a Catholic comedian, film reviewer, and journalist who is also the founder and co-owner of the podcast station www.radiotitans.com in Los Angeles. He reviews movies for the Catholic News Agency as well as the Christian site Movieguide.org, but has also worked with secular outlets including the Pasadena Weekly, Chicago Tribune and Esquire. He has also produced and hosted comedy shows for the LA Catholic Archdiocese's charities and performed at some of the nation's top clubs and with top comics including Dane Cook and Dave Chappelle. He strives to find the way to work with both Christian and secular audiences in all his career paths.