Back in August, I reviewed BlacKkKlansman on my Patreon. Since it’s been nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Film Score, and Best Film Editing, I present that review now on the blog. For regular movie reviews (at least one a month, sometimes more) for only $1/month, support my Patreon. (For more, you get more stuff, like cat photos, TV reviews, excerpts from my work in progress, and monthly vignettes featuring my original characters.) Other movies reviewed include fellow Best Picture nominee Black Panther, as well as Animal Kingdom, Ant-Man & The Wasp, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, First Man, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Incredibles 2, Proud Mary, Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Spy Who Dumped Me, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, with lots more to come, including M*A*S*H: Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Bad Times at the El Royale, Sing, and Kong: Skull Island, as well as all the Mission: Impossible movies.
The summer of 1989 was a hell of a time for movies. Tim Burton’s Batman came out to great anticipation and huge acclaim—seriously, everyone went bat-crazy that summer, as I saw more T-shirts with bat-logos on them that summer than at any other time in my life. That summer also saw the release of several highly anticipated sequels: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (which paired Sean Connery with Harrison Ford), Lethal Weapon 2 (which was, in my opinion, superior to the original), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Ghostbusters II, and Back to the Future Part 2. On top of that, you had several less blockbustery hits, from Dead Poets Society to Crimes and Misdemeanors to Do the Right Thing.
The latter two were especially fascinating, because they were both two quintessential New York stories by the two most quintessential New York directors—Woody Allen and Spike Lee—and they couldn’t have been more different.
At some point, I’m going to do a retro-review of those two movies, but I mention them now because I’ve always thought Do the Right Thing was the peak of Spike Lee’s career (though I’d be willing to listen to an argument for Malcolm X). It was just a brilliant piece of work.
BlacKkKlansman is not as great as DTRT, but it’s the first movie of Lee’s in a long time that I’ve enjoyed as much as I enjoyed DTRT. For all that its climax was vicious, DTRT was, at its heart, a very enjoyable movie about a neighborhood. It had a sense of fun that was increasingly missing from Lee’s work as he got older.
You wouldn’t think the true story of a Colorado Springs cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s would make for such an enjoyable flick, but it totally is. For starters, Lee leans into the fact that it’s a cop story. Our main character, Detective Ron Stallworth, is ambitious, and on a whim, calls the local Klan chapter, which advertises in the newspaper. He convinces the locals over the phone that he’s a white guy who hates black people, and winds up leading an undercover operation that puts a serious crimp in the Klan’s activities in Colorado Springs.
Part of the fun here is in the fact that the racists are a spectacularly stupid bunch. Lee revels in their buffoonery without ever making it sound unrealistic. In fact, one of the advantages of the setting is that he’s freed from the coded language that racists have been forced into the past twenty years because they actually get called on it when they’re overtly racist. (Don’t believe me? Watch television shows from the 1970s some time. It’s pretty damned appalling.)
People who only know Adam Driver from the recent Star Wars films will likely be blown away by his performance as Detective “Flip” Zimmerman, who has to be the public “Stallworth” who actually goes to Klan meetings and such. I particularly like the way Zimmerman focuses on his job, refusing to make it a crusade the way Stallworth is, until even he has to get a certain anger at the Klan’s attitudes toward Jews like himself.
What I especially admire about both Driver’s performance as well as that of John David Washington as Stallworth is that they maintain their professionalism. Stallworth is controlled and smart and good at his job, which is how he manages to pretty much bully himself into running an undercover operation as a rookie. But neither falls into the movie-character trap of letting that anger get in the way of the job. Even when there’s a crisis, like the guy some Klansmen buy explosives from recognizing Zimmerman, the cops handle it with aplomb and brains, not by going batshit.
But what’s best about this movie is its pointed commentary on modern politics, using racism in the 1970s to comment on the racism of the 2010s, with Stallworth’s sergeant drawing a line from David Duke having a political career to President Donald Trump (though obviously not by name)—and Stallworth dismissing the notion as absurd, not believing that the American people would ever elect a racist president. (Sigh.)
Early on, there’s a speech by Kwame Ture (whom the white cops insist on referring to as Stokley Carmichael, the same way white boxing fans kept refusing to refer to Cassius Clay as Muhammad Ali when he changed his name) that is supposed to be a call to arms, and it’s one that actually raises some fantastic points. (Corey Hawkins delivers the speech magnificently.) Stallworth finds himself caught up in it.
People who watch a lot of shows filmed in New York City will recognize most of the actors here, as Lee mined from the local scene quite a bit: Isaiah Whtilock Jr. (complete with a riff on his State Senator Clay Davis character from The Wire), Robert John Burke, Ryan Eggold, Frederick Weller, Laura Harrier, Ashlie Atkinson, and Nicholas Turturro, among others.
The movie isn’t particularly subtle, but it also takes joy in simple interactions, whether it’s Stallworth’s interactions with Harrier’s Patrice (their discussion of blaxploitation films is a delightful high point), the friendliness of some of the Klansmen belying their horrific attitudes (I particularly like the use of Eggold as the voice of friendliness, and he actually seems like a reasonable person, but he’s regularly shouted down by the crazier elements in the chapter).
Just as the movie starts with Hawkins delivering Ture’s rousing speech, the climax intercuts a swearing-in ceremony for new Klansmen (including Zimmerman-as-Stallworth) with Harry Belafonte playing an older gentleman who tells stories of growing up black in the South.
Then, finally, at the end, after Duke has been made a fool of, and the cops have gotten a good laugh out of getting one over on the dumbshit racists (which apparently is based on what actually happened, as Stallworth’s sergeant really did need to leave the squadroom because he was laughing so hard during Stallworth’s phone calls to Duke), we get footage of Charlottesville and President Trump’s “some of them [Nazis] are very good people” speech, one of the most despicable things ever said by a sitting president.
This is a great movie by a great filmmaker. Every performance is real, from Alec Baldwin’s hilarious rough cut of a racist propaganda film, showing every outtake and fuckup, to the cops to the racists to the black-power students, all of whom are allowed to be people, not just archetypes. I particularly love the canoodling scene as the Fredricksons, played by Atkinson and Jasper Pääkkönen, snuggle and talk about how much they’re going to enjoy killing all those black people! I strongly recommend this, especially now.