Spike Lee’s “BlackKklansman” purports itself in being a satirical comedy about racism that ties in modern parallels with the current Trump administration and the script comes off potent, yet too ham handed and forced to be a masterpiece. The film is very outraged, but it’s also indeed very funny. “BlackKklansman” is solid, but not great Spike Lee. It doesn’t have the same visual flourish or energy that you would find from the renaissance period for Spike Lee that began in 1986 with “She’s Gotta Have It” and that lasted until his 2002 masterpiece and greatly overlooked gripping drama “25th Hour. During that era we received an array of many exceptional titles like “Jungle Fever”, “Malcolm X”, “Clockers”, “Get on the Bus”, his HBO documentary “4 Little Girls”, “He Hot Game”, “Summer of Sam”, and of course “Do the Right Thing” and “25th Hour”.
Lee’s latest film, that just gathered him a long overdue Best Director nomination that should have happened 3 decades ago with his 1989 masterpiece “Do the Right Thing”, as well as for his 1992 masterpiece “Malcolm X”, is an adaption of retired African-American police office Ron Stallworth’s 2014 book Black Klansman, which examines on how Stallworth infiltrated himself into a member of the Ku Klux Klan. While the film plays loose with real facts, where Spike Lee has generated controversy from many that Stallworth also helped bring down black separatist groups, and David Duke, the grand wizard of the KKK never carried out a terrorist attack has brought up issues of how much creative liberty and responsibility an artist has with blurring the lines between fact and fiction.
The films strengths lie in how it examines the racial divisions of present-day America. Lee goes back and traces the past of the Black Power movements and the white supremacist hate groups of the 1970’s that still hold current counterparts today in culture with such movements as Black Lives Matter and the alt-right. Lee uses the same humor and satirical approach that dates back to “Bamboozled”, yet this time it holds rhythms of a modern sitcom.
The film is about about a black rookie cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who teams up with a white Jewish officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in which they go undercover to infiltrate a black power rally. It’s there where he meets activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), who hates cops; in which he invents white lies about what he really does. The love story here certainly feels tacked on and frankly unwarranted. It’s clear though Patrice does represent someone like Angela Davis, a Communist and radical leftist that did speak out on feminism, black power, and our current unjust prison and judicial system where even some Republicans today like Rand Paul and Justin Amash are speaking out on as well.
Meanwhile, Ron ends up finding a newspaper ad for the Ku Klux Klan in the local paper. He ends up disguising himself with his “white voice” in which he pretends to be a white supremacist on the phone, where he inquires some information, but the Klan member on the other end of the line wants to meet him in person. Ron ends up persuading Flip to be his undercover stand-in. The ruse continues as Ron/Flip go through the ranks, in hopes of meeting David Duke (Topher Grace), who could have plans of some domestic terrorism on the black student activists that Patrice happens to be part of.
Lee is very pre-occupied in showing the power of cinema and how it has been grossly weaponized in the past to spread racism, in which he now uses it to his advantage to show how he can alter realities and create factually inaccuracies to combat racism. There is a scene in the film where the KKK members are enjoying a private screening of “The Birth of a Nation” in which they are hooting and hollering the lynchings in the film, meanwhile Lee crosscuts of a civil rights activist, Jermone Turner (Harry Belafonte) is reminiscing the student activists about the bleak tales of white-on-black violence. It’s the most effective scene in the film, even though it goes on a tad too long.
Lee’s film brings awareness to race relations today, even though the film gets distracted in showing the Klansmen as comic and cartoonish buffoons, which is a fault to the movie. A stronger film would have made the characters more sophisticated and layered, the end result would have made them more threatening because separatism is indeed sinister.
Spike Lee has never been the subtlest director, however most of his greater films have always been complex. The complexity is missing here in “BlackKklansman”, and we still get bizarre tonal shifts in the movie that don’t always work. For years I have been a huge advocate for Spike Lee’s films. In 2002 “25 Hour” made my top ten list, and to this date that film is still greatly underrated. Yet in many of the great Spike Lee films, he always had something to say. Lee major goal here is to link Stallworth’s story to Trump by using David Duke. Even after all the forced lines uttered by the Klansmen that hold “America First”, “Let’s Make America Great” throughout the film, the finale is very tacked-on and forced.
All around “BlackKklansman” is Lee’s most preachy and didactic movie to date. It lacks the gray areas and complexities that can be found in Lee’s previous endeavors. That being said “BlackKklansman” is still a funny and highly entertaining film if anything will hopefully bring younger audiences to his earlier masterworks.