BlacKkKlansman (2018, Spike Lee)

I’m late on BlacKkKlansman. It plays a little differently in 2021 versus 2018 (or even 2019), because now there’s no difference in the rhetoric of the seventies racist garbage and today’s Republicans. The film opens with Alec Baldwin playing the host of a KKK newsreel and doing multiple takes as to take the racism up a notch. The prologue does a couple things. First, it establishes the language of the film. It’s set in the early 1970s in Colorado. White people resent not being able to say the N word so they have all sorts of euphemisms. Baldwin’s opening draws attention to the word replacements and how intent changes content. Second, director Lee does a bunch with historical pop culture imagery—Gone with the Wind, Birth of a Nation—throughout the film and the prologue sets it up. It’s a jarring, grotesque, transfixing opening.

The film proper kicks off with lead John David Washington interviewing for a job at the Colorado Springs police department. They’re trying to get with the times and the times say they need at least one Black police officer. Washington interviews with unidentified Black man Isiah Whitlock Jr. (somehow the film gets away with a meta-“Wire” reference for Whitlock) and very white police chief Robert John Burke before getting sent off to the records room for a bit.

Washington’s ambitious but Burke doesn’t care, not until Kwame Ture comes to town for a speaking gig and Burke wants someone to see how much the local Black people is getting riled up and ready for armed revolt.

The film’s got a very methodical first act, with Lee taking the time to establish Washington so when Ture’s speech hits him, the result is visible. Washington’s there undercover, spying on Black college students—and flirting with Black Student Union president Laura Harrier—and when he hears Corey Hawkins (as Ture) speak, something changes. It’s not even clear what changes because Washington is affably inscrutable. Based on his interactions with his fellow cops—Burke in particular—he conveys there being a definite limit to how much nonsense about Black people he’ll tolerate without comment, but he’s very intentionally deceiving Harrier.

So BlacKkKlansman is about some bad guys and some problematic guys. The only heroes are the students, which kind of spoils the ending but I won’t go any further into it. Lee makes a very big swing with the ending—eschewing an epilogue—and instead offers a capstone about the danger of trying to capstone “history.”

Anyway.

On a whim, Washington calls the KKK (they advertise in the Colorado Springs newspaper; maybe don’t Google to see if they still do, why upset yourself) and pretends to be a white guy. But not a stupid, overly violent racist white guy, just a regular calm reasonable white guy. So he’s a hot prospect. Only problem is Washington can’t go in person. Oh, and he uses his own name.

The former is more immediately important and so they get Adam Driver to play Washington in person with the Klan guys.

The movie’s then a fairly straightforward procedural about cops Washington, Driver, and Michael Buscemi investigating the local Klan, led by Ryan Eggold, who’s got a loose cannon sidekick, Jasper Pääkkönen, and a drunk and dumb enough to be dangerous Paul Walter Hauser. Eggold’s the pseudo-intellectual white supremacist, so Washington and Driver are able to play to his vanity. Washington will also be really good at manipulating Klan national leader David Duke (Topher Grace) when they become phone buddies. Because racist white men just want other racist white men to validate them. Ashlie Atkinson, as Pääkkönen’s true believer wife, also plays a big part in the Klan stuff. The action mostly sticks close to events Washington and Driver participate in or witness, but then all of a sudden Pääkkönen becomes a second tier protagonist and the film becomes a whole lot more dangerous. Because more than anything else BlacKkKlansman is about taking racist white people seriously (and what happens when you don’t).

It’s great. Washington is a fantastic lead, likable even when he shouldn’t be, and his gentle romance with Harrier is an outstanding subplot. Also good but less important is his relationship with Driver, who’s doing his best to hide his Jewish heritage around his racist fellow cops. BlacKkKlansman isn’t a buddy cop movie or a juxtaposition piece, it’s the story of this case, with Washington’s experience as a Black man being a cop in Colorado Springs in 1972 riding the momentum. Only Lee’s going to make it about the way they’re telling that story, working a fantastic narrative distance and perspective sort of over Washington’s shoulder but also much broader, maybe even documentarian (BlacKkKlansman observes its way too real villains almost entirely without comment, cut it differently and Driver, Pääkkönen, Eggold, even Atkinson, could easily be the protagonist). And there’s a big finish to the procedural, there’s a big crowd pleaser for the more comedic elements (Washington does get to be buddies with fellow cops Driver, Buscemi, and Ken Garito, who know other cops are racist murderers but blue lives matter more or whatever), but then it’s time to look at what we’ve learned and what the characters have learned and what it all means. And it’s a great ending. It’s nauseating. But it’s great. Lee never lets up on the pressure either. He gives the film one release and then he sits down to get serious. He even rightfully retracts the second, bigger release.

The best performance is probably Pääkkönen, who’s never not terrifying, never not real. Everyone’s great though. Harrier, Eggold, Driver, Grace, Hauser, Atkinson, Burke, Garito, Buscemi. Plus a fantastic character actor background cast. And then Hawkins. He’s phenomenal. Harry Belafonte has an excellent cameo, so does Nicholas Turturro, on completely different ends of multiple spectrums.

It’s a phenomenal film; always haunting, sometimes hilarious, it’s particularly outstanding streamlined (read: mainstream) work from Lee. And then so much good acting. Great soundtrack, music by Terence Blanchard, photography by Chayse Irvin, edited by Barry Alexander Brown—Curt Beech’s production design and Marci Rodgers’s costumes are great too—BlacKkKlansman is superlative filmmaking start to finish.

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