BlacKkKlansman exposes a history of ugly realities

Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s movie, based on the true story of a black policeman who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, is more concerned with the cultural history of racism

BlacKkKlansman

3.5/5

Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier

Directed by: Spike Lee

Running time: 2 hrs 15 minutes

Rating: Restricted

By Jay Stone

Spike Lee may be the ideal movie director for these troubled times: angry, polemical, unabashedly obvious in his emotions, but with a sly ear for nuance. If he was only orange and ignorant, he could have been President.

Lee’s latest movie, BlacKkKlansman — the middle “k” forming a kind of racial ampersand that is both playful and frightening — is based on a true and unlikely story. In the 1970s, the city of Colorado Springs hired its first black policeman, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington.) He was soon assigned to undercover work and one of his first moves was to answer a newspaper ad from the Ku Klux Klan looking for new members. Ron used his “white” voice on the phone (in an echo of another disturbing and rambling racial satire, Excuse Me for Bothering You), but for the actual infiltration of the local chapter, he sent another policeman, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to impersonate him. The fact that Zimmerman was Jewish is just one of those stranger-than-fiction twists that makes social satire such a challenging occupation for those trying to invent outrage.

Spike Lee may be the ideal movie director for these troubled times: angry, polemical, unabashedly obvious in his emotions, but with a sly ear for nuance. If he was only orange and ignorant, he could have been President.

The movie is thus a thriller in which the police risk violent retribution if they’re exposed by the collection of knuckleheads and gun-happy losers who make up the local Klan. These include Walter (Ryan Eggold), a bracingly naïve racist who heads the local chapter, his henchman Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), who suspects “Ron” is a cop or a Jew or something equally unpalatable, and Ivanhoe (Michael Joseph Buscemi), a drunken fool. They’re stupid, but not so stupid as to be safe.

There is also a romantic angle, although it’s infused with the politics of racial struggle. Ron — the real Ron, this time impersonating a black activist — attends a speech by the fiery black power advocate Stokley Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), now living under the Afrocentric name of Kwame Ture. There he meets comely Patrice (Laura Harrier), a “sister” who is a passionate advocate for black causes and doesn’t suspect Ron is really a policeman. Ture’s unexpected speech, about the truth of black beauty in a white world that would deny it, is one of the subtleties with which Lee leavens his anger.

However, this plot is only the scaffolding for what he is up to here. As a writer and director, he has always been obsessively attuned to the cultural history of American racism — Bamboozled (2000) was an anarchic and darkly hilarious catalogue of stereotyping — and BlacKkKlansman is built around several powerful scenes of context, many of them involving movies. The film starts with a scene from Gone With The Wind, that much-beloved Civil War history that has at its heart a sentimental longing for the glorious old South of slavery. It then presents a mock “public service” announcement in which Alec Baldwin portrays a middle-American racist who rants about miscegeny and the Jewish influence on the Supreme Court. The casting of Baldwin — with his late-career identification as a Donald Trump impersonator — seems more than coincidental.

As a writer and director, Lee has always been obsessively attuned to the cultural history of American racism — Bamboozled (2000) was an anarchic and darkly hilarious catalogue of stereotyping — and BlacKkKlansman is built around several powerful scenes of context, many of them involving movies.

Later, David Duke (a sly portrait of political conniving by Topher Grace), the national leader of the KKK, comes to Colorado Springs and Lee contrasts the Klan celebration of his visit with a speech by another black activist (played with quiet elegance by Harry Belafonte) who tells, in excruciating detail, the true story of the lynching of a teenager named Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas in 1916. The reality of this barbaric practice is only now becoming clear in America — a National Lynching Memorial just opened in April in Alabama — and the terrible things done to the victims is exceeded only by the callous reaction of white crowds that took pictures to turn into souvenir postcards, and bought portions of the murdered man as curios.

Lee crosscuts this horror with scenes of Duke and his supporters hooting through a screening of the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, the D.W. Griffith classic in which the abolition of slavery is portrayed as a prelude to a nightmare in which emboldened blacks flood the South to rape white women. Only the heroic Klan can stop them, and the movie is credited with reinvigorating its membership. Griffith was a cinematic genius and a political idiot, but for the record, Birth of a Nation was the first movie ever screened at the White House, for President Woodrow Wilson.

The framing story of the undercover police work — which is lightened with a lot of easy laughs in which the clever black policeman outwits the dull racists — is thus tucked inside a larger narrative that explodes, in a typical Lee touch, with an ending that brings the entire matter back to the uncomfortable present. In the same way, the cast is tucked inside dual roles both complicate and underline the message. Washington must pretend to be both black and white, a character who represents both honest police work and a victim of police brutality and racism. Driver is both an assimilated Jew (the anti-Semitism of the Klan is given as much attention as its anti-black prejudice) and a cop clever enough to improvise his way out of many tough situations by pretending to be more racist than the racists.

The framing story of the undercover police work — which is lightened with a lot of easy laughs in which the clever black policeman outwits the dull racists — is thus tucked inside a larger narrative that explodes, in a typical Lee touch, with an ending that brings the entire matter back to the uncomfortable present.

It’s a long film, at 2 1/4 hours, and a very uncomfortable experience, both for its ugly language — necessary to expose the ugly realities — and its message about where America has been and where it may be going. It feels heavy-handed at times, but there’s no denying its power. Spike Lee is telling us something we need to hear.

THE EX-PRESS, August 12, 2018
Read The Ex-Press movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Review: BlacKkKlansman exposes a history of ugly realities

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Summary

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BlacKkKlansman: Spike Lee's newest joint is based on the true story of a Colorado Springs policeman who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. The policeman (John David Washington) was black; he impersonated a Klan member on the phone while another cop (Adam Driver) was the public face in the iscam. But the real story comes in Lee's use of old movies, plus a frightening narrative about a lynching told by a black activist (Harry Belafonte), to expose a long history of oppression and outrage. 3 1/2 stars out of 5 _ Jay Stone

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