Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)
In 2006, I wrote the following for a piece on Spike Lee:
Too many of Spike’s choices are political, not aesthetic. In a way Spike isn’t enough like Bleek [Denzel Washington’s character in “Mo’ Betta Blues”). Bleek’s loyalty was always to the music but Spike’s loyalty isn’t always to the story. If he can get in a little speechifying, he will.
“BlacKkKlansman”’s 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, along with various raves on social media, not to mention the six-minute standing ovation and Grand Prix it received at the Cannes Film Festival, made me think that maybe Spike was finally past all that.
Nope. Heavy-handed as ever.
But first, “Gone with the Wind”
The story is true. In the early 1970s, a black Colorado Springs cop, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), infiltrated the Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He contacted them via phone and used a fellow cop (Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver) for in-person appearances. During that first phone conversation, he mistakenly used his real name, which is why he got a KKK card with his real name on it. He still has it.
That’s a story worth telling. But Spike keeps blowing it. Did he blow it with casting? Stallworth is played by John David Washington, son of Denzel, and until 2015 a football player rather than actor, and he’s rather flat in the lead. He’s uneven. He seems respectful when applying to become the first black cop in Colorado Springs, then a bit of an ass when he’s assigned to the records department. I get it—no one wants that gig—but there’s not much there there.
The movie actually begins with a bang. OK, not so much the “Gone with the Wind” pullback shot of dead Southern soldiers, which I guess sets the scene. I guess for Spike, if you’re making a film about a 1970s Colorado cop and the KKK you begin with a 1939 film based on a 1936 novel about the fall of the South in 1865. In case people don’t know.
No, I’m talking Alec Baldwin’s turn as Dr. Kennebrew Beaureguard. Wearing slicked hair and dark-framed glasses, he angrily stumbles through a filmed lecture on the racial superiority of white people. It’s got crackle and fire, and made me think of the jolt Baldwin gave “Glengarry Glen Ross.” “I wonder what else he does in this?” I thought. Turns out? Nothing. That was it. It’s another scene-setting but at least within the vicinity of the story.
After Stallworth becomes an undercover cop, his first assignment is attending a speech by Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), whose rallying cries contain the usual Black Power/Black is Beautiful pronouncements of the day. Stallworth finds himself nodding along—as apparently he did in real life. That’s a good bit: He’s inspired by the man he’s supposed to be spying on. Unfortunately, Spike can’t leave well enough alone: He intersperses this with shots of uplifted black faces mesmerized by the words. If Steven Spielberg tends to underline points, Spike underlines then three times; then he gets out the highlighter.
Stallworth winds up romancing Patrice (Laura Harrier, Liz Allen from “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), the black student organizer with the big, beautiful Angela Davis afro dwarfing her small beautiful face. Problem? They don’t have much chemistry and their conversations are uninteresting. Cops are pigs/No, they’re not. Hey, let’s talk about Blaxploitation films for 30 seconds. That first night, Kwame’s entourage is pulled over and harassed by cops, and she’s felt up by a racist cop named Landers (Frederick Weller), and she relays all this to Stallworth at a bar afterwards. His reaction? Almost a non-reaction. He doesn’t even seem angry. And he doesn’t do anything about it until the 11th hour. And then...
Yeah, let’s talk about that. Landers, we’re told, is also responsible for shooting/killing a black kid, and he only got away with it because cops don’t rat out cops. But he remains a thorn in Stallworth’s side, and at the end of the movie, Stallworth, Patrice and like half the force trick him into confessing on tape, and he loses his badge. So why did the cops entrap one of their own after letting him get away with literal murder? Who knows? It comes out of nowhere and smells of bullshit. In the memoir, there is an unnamed cop who got away with shooting/killing a kid, but the rest of it is made up for the movie. It feels like it.
Then there’s the KKK. Of the four main Colorado members we see, the leader, Walter (Ryan Eggold), is most interesting for being least stereotypical. It feels like he has some wheels turning up there. The others? Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) is simply seething hatred, his wife (Ashlie Atkinson) is dull and mewling, while Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) is so sleepy-eyed and brain-dead it’s a wonder he’s not drooling. The joke is these sad sacks believe in their own racial superiority; the problem is they’re uninteresting. Ivanhoes may exist but are they worth watching? How do you make them worth watching?
Who is interesting? Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman. Just the way he hangs at the police station feels real. It’s in his work as a cop, the way he holds a gun, the way he quietly informs Stallworth he never felt particularly Jewish until this assignment—when he was surrounded by anti-Semites. One of the better undercover scenes is when he shuts down Felix’s Holocaust denials by claiming they’re the weaker racist argument.
But the stuff with Nick Turturro ratting him out? Why is Turturro and his Queens accent hanging in Colorado Springs anyway? I’m sure New York guys live there but mostly it reminded me I’m watching a Spike Lee joint.
It’s like the “Birth of a Nation” scene. Spike intercuts civil rights legend Harry Belafonte telling the Black Student Union about a horrific, early 20th-century lynching with the Klan and David Duke (Topher Grace) watching “Birth of a Nation”—the movie that led to the resurrection of the Klan and that horrific lynching—and I didn’t buy either scene. The lynching I knew was true; I just didn’t buy the students being so respectfully rapt, and so uninformed that any of this came as news. And I didn’t buy the Klan watching a silent film in 1972. But guess what: That part was actually true. Those idiots did that. In a way, Spike’s like the pitcher who keeps missing the strike zone: Even when he gets it close, I don’t give him the call. To me, it felt like more of Spike’s pedanticism. He has to fit in “Birth” like he had to fit in “Gone with the Wind.” Because he has to educate so, so many of us.
The KKK took my country away
What I wouldn’t mind being educated on? What the KKK was like in 1972? According to Wiki, its membership was at historic lows. What made it rise in the late ’70s—when all of this was actually taking place? Did Reagan help? Did his “welfare queen” story help? Why didn’t Spike probe that rather than sticking us back in ’72? Was it just for the afros?
At the end, after the Klan is routed and Landers kicked off the force, we get the most stirring scenes of the movie: footage from the 2017 Charlottesville protests and counterprotests, and the subsequent comment by Trump that you have “some very fine people on both sides.” Jackass. Throughout, the movie has reminded us where we were, where we are, and what a huge step backward it’s been. No disputing that.