Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Really Deep Cover

Film: BlacKkKlansman
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Spike Lee’s films are up and down sometimes. Some of his films rank as innovative stories almost flawlessly told (Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing). Others (the Oldboy remake, Miracle at St. Anna)…not so much. But when Lee is on and has something to say, I’d be hard-pressed to think of someone better. It’s hard for me to believe that BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s first movie nominated as Best Picture and his first nomination for Best Director.

In this case, BlacKkKlansman has a title that more or less sells itself and serves as the elevator speech for the plot. In this case, it has the added benefit of being based on a true story. In the middle of the Civil Rights movement, a black police officer in Colorado Springs, with the assistance of several other officers, infiltrated the Klan. This is the point where I typically go on a multi-paragraph explanation of the finer details of the plot. I’m not going to do that here.

BlacKkKlansman is a film that deserves to be seen more or less cold. This is a film that could have very quickly devolved into a sort of painful seriousness despite what seems like a ridiculous premise. Lee is smart enough to infuse a great deal of humor into the works, but still manage to incorporate a great deal of tension, especially in the third act. Because of this, there are plenty of moments that start serious and become comic and others that do the opposite. A too-close reading of the plot would spoil some of these moments, and they deserve to be seen without that risk.

But I will give it a quick run-through. Rookie cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black police officer on the Colorado Springs police department. He eventually convinces his boss to allow him to work undercover, and, almost on a whim, contacts the local Klan. And suddenly, the Colorado Springs PD has a sting operation. Now, Ron certainly won’t pass for Klan material, so that job goes to Philip “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who becomes the public face of Ron Stallworth, white supremacist.

A substantial part of the film concerns Ron’s personal life. Specifically, his first undercover job (before the Klan) is investigating a speech by former Black Panther Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), since the police suspect that he will attempt to agitate the crowd. It is here that he meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), president of the local college’s Black Student Union. They begin a relationship based only in part on the truth—she suspects something about him, specifically that he is a cop, something that he continually denies.

BlacKkKlansman is smart enough to give us an enemy that is more than just comedic. Oh, there are comedic elements to them. They are a combination of ridiculous incompetence and serious, blinding malice. The local chapter of “The Organization” is run by Walter (Ryan Eggold), while the more militant wing is controlled by Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen). Our comic relief here is Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Houser), who is sort of the fat, stupid version of Felix. He’s sort of the Ethan Suplee in American History X of the film. We also get a visit from Grand Wizard-at-the-time David Duke (Topher Grace), who is an oily presence of attempted respectability for the group.

Lee, of course, can’t get far without making political statements, and they are pointed here. There is no guess and no question about Lee’s ultimate target. Digs at the current presidential administration are dropped into the conversation. We’re told that the goal is to get someone who supports Klan policies and rhetoric into the White House and we have members of the Klan chanting “America First.” Lee is far too smart to paint the target too large, but is also smart enough to make sure that anyone in the audience knows his target. He’s also smart enough to know that most of the people he’s targeting won’t be watching one of his films.

I should mention that, as often happens with Lee’s films, he puts in more current news footage at the end. In this case, it’s the Charlottesville riots, and it includes the footage of Heather Heyer’s death. I say this because I imagine that it’s triggering for some people.

So all of this is well and good. Lee is making a strong political statement here, and is telling a story that has the benefit of being both based on the truth and completely insane. But is it any good?

Yeah, it is. It’s damn good. The cast is solid all the way down, and it’s played pitch-perfectly. It has just enough comedy to keep it from being too bleak, but it never loses site of the fact that it’s about something serious and terrible, and that that problem still exists. This ranks with Lee’s best work, and the performances—especially those of Washington and Driver—are in the top tier of performances in Lee’s films.

Truth be told, I think the Academy doesn’t like Spike Lee that much, as is evidenced by just how little respect he seems to have gotten over the years. I don’t think he has a huge chance of winning, but I’d love to see him walk away with a statue or two. I mean, I can’t honestly say where I put this on the list of movies from 2018 at this point, having seen so few, but Spike Lee walking across the stage and giving the Black Power salute would be worth any bullshit from the Oscars telecast.

Why to watch BlacKkKlansman: It’s scary how relevant this still is.
Why not to watch: No good reason. It ranks with Lee’s best.


  1. Sounds like another one for my ever-growing to-view queue. I was a bit worried, though, that the preview trailer gave away most of the film's story.

    1. Honestly, it conflates a couple of scenes to make some of the conversations look like something they aren't. But it doesn't spoil the film at all.

  2. Good review, and yes, it's among the absolute best of the year. I've caught up with all the award nominees, and BlacKkKlansman probably ranks second (only behind Roma) among the 2018 movies I've seen and reviewed.

    1. I've still got six more nominees to see and about a dozen more I think could contend for me, so it's far too early for me to say.