BLACKkKLANSMAN – movie review


Focus Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Spike Lee
Screenwriter:  Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
based on Ron Stallworth’s book “Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime”
Cast:  Topher Grace, Alec Baldwin, Adam Driver, Ryan Eggold, Laura Harrier, John David Washington, Paul Walter Hauser, Robert John Burke, Corey Hawkins, Jasper Pääkkönen, Michael Buscemi, Harry Belafonte
Screened at: Bryant Park Hotel, NYC, 8/6/18
Opens: August 10, 2018

Violence is as American as apple pie, as Spike Lee is not shy about dramatizing.  Why should he be?  The director of “BLACKkKLANSMAN” my have jump-started his career with his successful opener, “She’s Gotta Have It,” then proceeded to hone in on what is truly important if we are to hope for a country more rational in its politics.  “Malcolm X,” “Doing the Right Thing,” “Driving Miss Daisy” can be appreciated for entertainment value as well as their political importance, and now with “BLACKkKLANSMAN” he carves a drama that could serve as a background for today’s news headlines in an entertaining, persuasive, provocative and downright exciting film.  That he makes a few inevitable cracks about our president is practically a given.  Yet that he is restrained when reminding us of the stupidity of Trump’s comments about neo-Nazis and their Antifa counter-protesters “there are good people on both sides.”  That restraint serves him well, allowing us to watch his story unfold without the taint of yellow journalism.  Some of the scenes are so pumped up you might find it difficult to believe that the movie is based on the true story of a black police officer in Colorado Springs, the first African-American hired by the local force and used to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan.

The violent opening is a scene from the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind,” a battlefield of the Civil War with hundreds dead trumping the romance between a manipulative woman and a roguish man.  Toward the conclusion he affords us a look at D.W. Griffith’s 1915, a pro-Klan, 3-hour project with unflattering looks at black men (played by whites in blackface) acting sexually aggressive toward white women. Ultimately he pays attention to the Charlottesville, Virginia white nationalist rally in a formerly quiet college town.  Given an obligatory explosion near the finale and a little gunplay now and then, “BLACKkKLANSMAN” eschews outright killing in favor of presenting a damning look at the racism of the Klan during the 1970s, portraying  David Duke as a leader who favors substituting a businesslike organization for the more radical and thuggish cross-burners—all the more influential if the Klan hope to influence American government. Or should we say “influence the government further?”

John David Washington turns in an extraordinary performance as Detective Ron Stallworth, a neat, handsome African-American who becomes the first of his race to be hired by the Colorado Springs police department.  Initially assigned to the stock room which bored him no end (and where he has to put up with the one outwardly racist cop), he is transferred at his request to narcotics, then suddenly re-assigned once again—to infiltrate the Klan.  What? A black man being accepted by the Klan?  Not exactly.  His phone voice—the king’s English in which he claims to be as fluent as he is in jive—is his, but Ron Stallworth’s identity will be taken by Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish cop who must convince the KKK that he is Aryan white.  Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen) is wary, insisting that he take a lie detector test and show him his “dick,” but he is accepted by the others.  When the real Ron Stallworth is not on the phone, he is romancing Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), an Angela Davis lookalike who is president of the black students’ union, which had been the audience of a fiery speech by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins).  Ultimately we have to suspend disbelief when Stallworth is ordered to guard the life of David Duke (Topher Grace) when the Klan leader visits Colorado Springs.

If you insist that a movie stay consistent in tone, you may find difficulty marrying the sometime uproarious comedy with the darkness that surrounds it, but this is a work of fiction, however based on a true account, and director Lee knows exactly how to entertain at the same time as warning us—as he does in a final scene that America is in dire straits.  Have you kept up with current politics via CNN, the Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, the New York Times, and all the other progressive media that cut through the sickness at the heart of our current political situation?  Without explicitly saying so, Lee encourages us to go to the polls this November to try to take back our country—certainly not in the way that our “leadership” today would like, but as rational people who fear the push into authoritarianism by a president who disses the Prime Minister of Canada while at the same time glorifying Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim.

The supporting actors are terrific, making good use of a witty, yet grandiloquent script, the movie shot by Chayse Irvin in Ossining, NY among other locations and given a huge emotional boost by Terence Blanchard’s 1970s rhythm-and-blues soundtrack.

Rated R.  135 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-

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