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Lee gives audience much to consider in ‘BlacKkKlansman’

August 25, 2018

The early films of Spike Lee were my gateway drug into my film addiction. I first caught “She’s Gotta Have It,” Lee’s debut, on VHS while attending college. From his opening Zora Neale Hurston quote, plucky jazz score, and dramatic Big Apple photos, to his in-your-face approach to his characters, his films were unlike any I’d seen before. And finding out it was shot in a mere two weeks with relatively no budget demanded my respect.

“School Daze,” Lee’s follow-up, while flawed, still exploded with manic energy that was, at the time, infectious. Then, like many other film nerds, I was blown away by “Do the Right Thing,” Lee’s sweltering, striking feature that was the final hit I needed to be hooked. While his output since has run the gamut from classics such as “Malcolm X” and “25th Hour,” down to the justifiably maligned “Oldboy” and “She Hate Me,” they all have a characteristically unique mixture of biting humor, volatility and urgency of their own; they can seldom be labeled uninteresting.

Lee’s latest, “BlacKkKlansman,” captures that cocktail in the title alone (most will recall the famous Dave Chappelle skit from back in the day). But the film itself has all the hallmarks that have led to Lee’s longevity. And despite covering events that took place almost four decades ago, it is depressingly resonant today.

From its opening shot of a faux propaganda clip meant to warn of the dangers of integration (and narrated by a purposefully fumbling Alec Baldwin), Lee demonstrates he is at his most accessible, but not at the expense of his message.

We then meet Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, Denzel’s son), a young man applying for a job with the Colorado Springs Police Department in hopes of becoming the first black officer on the force. Still wary of such a hiring, his chief sticks him in the monotony of the records room.

Ron is given a chance for field work when he’s assigned to work undercover to infiltrate a black student union hosting a speech by civil rights leader Kwame Ture. In short, he is being used to test his allegiance to the force by snooping on politicized members of his own race. Emboldened by his new role, Ron picks up the phone in an attempt to contact the local chapter of the KKK, posing as a racist white nationalist. When invited to a meeting, there is an obvious obstacle for Ron to meet them face to face, so he enlists fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver) as his redneck stand-in.

Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jew, is dubious, but game. The further the two get into the investigation, the higher the stakes become. Ron’s skilled phone speeches lead him directly to the ear of one David Duke (played by Topher Grace), the local grand wizard.

With this film’s straightforward undercover-cop-case approach, Lee is operating at his most accessible, but that does not mean he’s playing it safe. While it is marked by some of Lee’s trademark elements (the double dolly shot, the wake-up calls), he’s stylistically and dramatically innovative here.

For example, we see the gradual toll taken on Ron by never being able to be himself, essentially always working undercover. We also see the effect it has on Flip, who wore a star of David, but never fully realized the klan’s hatred, as it was overtly directed at him. There are countless other characters in the mix, and Lee gives each one time to allow us to peek at what is operating under the hood (literally and metaphorically).

The screenplay by Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott skillfully (and easily) connects the dots between its ‘70s setting and today, and if that somehow is not a strong enough connection, the final minutes of the film certainly will be. I was unprepared for the gut-punch finale and had to give sufficient time to gather composure before exiting the theater. In “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee gives the audience much to consider as we look back at our past, and lets us pause to consider just how little progress we have made.

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society and is lead entertainment writer for Influx Magazine. Email him at filmrob@gmail.com.