Film Review: “BlacKkKlansman” — Incendiary Entertainment

BlacKkKlansman is a fiery polemic on America’s long history of bigotry and racism, establishing a through-line that leads to the intolerance of the current president.

BlacKkKlansman directed by Spike Lee. Opens tomorrow at Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and AMC Loews Boston Common 19.

John David Washington and Laura Harrier in a scene from “BlacKkKlansman.”

By Tim Jackson

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, who, using white officer Flip Zimmerman as his stand-in, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in 1979. The film tells this unlikely tale via a  blend of comedy, romance, and drama, along with ‘real’ news footage. Lee brings a heavy stylistic hand to the proceedings, drawing on bold juxtapositions, split screens, ’70s party music, and his signature ‘floating’ dolly shots. The result is entertaining, even thrilling, though self-consciously preachy as it goes about giving white supremacists enough vocal rope to hang themselves many times over.

BlacKkKlansman begins with an iconic shot from 1939’s Gone With the Wind: the wide shot of Scarlett O’Hara standing in a field of broken and defeated Southern soldiers. The wound of the Civil War hasn’t healed in the South, Lee implies. Cut forward about 50 years: we watch a montage made of racist depictions of black in film to the present day; there’s also a faux documentary clip featuring a nearly unrecognizable Alec Baldwin. He is lit by the light of a projector, standing before an unseen crowd spewing white supremacist doctrine. The vitriol is tough to listen to. In the same way as the “Racial Slur Montage” in Do the Right Thing, in which characters spew racial epithets directly to the camera, Lee wants us to hear, directly, the sick rhetoric of white racism. When a rowdy group of Klansman cheer at a screening of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, with its depictions of Klansman-to-the rescue and predatory black men, we see how film has proved to be a potent form of indoctrination, assisting in reinforcing intolerance and bigotry.

Lee’s provocative stylistic flourishes are matched by the efforts of an excellent cast. John David Washington plays Stallworth, a black rookie cop who seeks advancement in an all-white department. Washington, sporting a startling Afro, gives a laid-back performance as an intelligent and dedicated officer who is serving at a time when cops were routinely referred to as ‘pigs’ by radicals and black ‘revolutionaries.’.His first assignment is to infiltrate a rally where Stokley Carmichael, now called Kwame Ture, is speaking to a group of student radicals. Carmichael was one of the leading voices of the Black Power Movement; an honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party. The rabble rousing speech is a sobering call for black liberation and Stallworth is divided in his loyalties. He finds infiltrating the black power movement distasteful. He dates the president of the student group while remaining mum that he is an undercover officer.

Soon, he begins look into a much more serious threat – the Klan. He makes a phone call using his “white voice” and ingratiates himself with the leader of the local chapter of the KKK, and soon to be the Grand Wizard, David Duke. Adam Driver’s earnestness — pushed here to the point of comedy — makes him perfectly suited for the role of Flip Zimmerman, Stallworth’s white stand-in. Because he is a Jew, the assignment puts him in double jeopardy. Topher Grace provides an appropriately oily and charming David Duke; his portrait reminds us that the man remains a dangerous voice on the political scene today. Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen (Vikings) oozes a kind of venal nastiness that evokes the demented viciousness of the White Power movement. Paul Walter Hauser’s Ivanhoe adds comic relief via a broad caricature of a drunken lout who holds idiotic notions of white supremacy. (It is an exaggerated variation on Hauser’s excellent performance as Shawn Eckardt in I, Tonya.)

As the film becomes increasingly contentious, Lee tosses in humorous flourishes and bits of romance. It is hard not to note a similarity to the rhythm of Do the Right Thing; sexy, didactic, and often comic plot elements are gradually overcome by an atmosphere of threat — until the final explosion of violence. Lee’s controversial film Bamboozled was almost a farce — until the conclusion approached, when the saturated primary color pallet became increasingly somber and the story turned violent.

It is not a spoiler to mention that BlacKkKlansman‘s ending does not offer comfort. Lee has more to say beyond the narrative’s immediate lessons. One striking example of the film’s complication is the surprise appearance of Harry Belafonte (as a character named Jerome Turner) who delivers an eyewitness account — to a group of young black people — of the horrific castration, burning, and lynching of Jesse Washington a century ago in Waco, Texas. This ghastly story is juxtaposed with scenes of the KKK preparing a rally.

BlacKkKlansman is a fiery polemic on America’s long history of bigotry and racism, establishing a through-line of intolerance that leads to the current president. This is the kind of bold film that Lee does best: one that will sadden, anger, and enlighten its audiences. The film received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival — where the film took the Grand Prize.

It’s about time.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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