BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Directed by Spike Lee

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Okay, so I last wrote about Operation Finale, which is an ordinary movie about an important true story.  Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is similarly about a true story, but it’s much more than an ordinary movie, if only because it very much has something to say.

You might’ve already seen the movie or read about the ending, which takes a step back from the text and makes a potentially very on-the-nose point about race relations in America, but nuance be damned the passion and anger behind the message triumphs over the particulars of how he gets that across.  It’s hard not feel the energy Spike Lee has about this story and about our President and about racism as a whole in America, both past and present.

In interviews Spike Lee has discussed the abhorrent hatred behind D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), saying “At NYU they showed the film, talked about the great innovations that D.W. Griffith came up with…well, they never talked about how this film was used as a recruiting tool for the Klan and was responsible for black people getting lynched.”

That film is considered a pioneer in filmmaking, and from what I gather it is well-received by critics who put filmmaking technique first and content second.  It’s somewhat shocking to hear a director say such negative things about a classic film, but it’s shocking that it’s shocking.

In BlacKkKlansman Lee takes aim at that movie, making it clear that no one gets a pass here.  His depictions of white racists is a little simplistic in the movie, focusing on the idea of backwards redneck types rather than the more systematic, button-down racism in the government, but I think it’s more than okay that the message is so blunt because it’s so passionate.

I might have a hard time organizing my thoughts, but I think you can either get caught up in how Lee does what he’s trying to do, or you are just right there under his spell.  It’s the same for any magic trick, joke construction, movie structure, etc.  Sometimes you can see the seams a little too clearly, and other times you feel so strongly what you’re meant to feel that the construction doesn’t matter.

With this movie I was in the latter camp, and so were at least a few people in the theater too.  When the movie finally, quietly came to an end there were more than a few sniffles in the crowd, and one person was outright bawling.

Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who loved this movie and felt sick coming out of the theater.

I don’t mind how direct the message is because it’s quite important.  It doesn’t matter to me how Lee made his point, just that he was uncompromising when making it.  He might as well be saying f*ck the movie, this is what really matters, at least when the movie ends but the story doesn’t.

Ignoring the broader points of the movie, BlacKkKlansman is entertaining as hell.  It’s funny, tense and full of rousing moments.  John David Washington is great as Ron Stalworth, and so is Adam Driver and a handful of other performers.  There is a lot to like, in other words.

This story doesn’t deal much in nuance, instead boiling the conflict down to good and bad.  The racists depicted in the film are more or less all of a certain poorly-educated variety.  They are meant to be mocked, one character in particular, and this depiction may ignore other facets of racism (particularly in modern day), but I think this movie is set up in a way to give us a battle it feels like the audience can win.

I say that because the plot is wrapped up in a neat manner, so neat in fact that you’re waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under you, and I think it effectively is in the end.

This is an important movie, though the text is more of a fun revenge flick than anything else.  I think the real significance of the film’s message comes in that huge gap between the ease of victory in the movie and the acknowledgment that these problems are very much still out there in real life, as the epilogue shows.

So to get to the story… Ron Stallworth (Washington) works for the Colorado Springs police department and soon infiltrates the Klu Klux Klan.  Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) then plays Stallworth in the flesh to get in deep with the “organization” as they gather intel on the group’s violent plans going forward.

As this is going on, Ron still deals with racism within the police department (he is the only officer of color) and develops a romance with Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of a local black student union.  These storylines will collide in a pretty exhilarating, albeit  neat climactic scene.

The story has a lot to do with wish fulfillment, as strange as that is to say.  BlacKkKlansman offers up a bunch of characters that can be beaten.  They are full of hate, quite uneducated (one guy refers to a penis being “circumstanced”) and we are excited to see them get what’s coming, which they do.

It’s pretty much just a delight to watch Ron and Flip work, and there’s never any point at which we’re not on their side, understandably.  The story does address certain issues without bringing them back up again in order to maintain a pretty streamlined simplicity in its storytelling.  One scene in particular mentions how the KKK wants to push “National Director” David Duke into public office (which he later was), and Ron mentions how that could never happen, America would never go for it.  The ‘joke,’ if you can call it that, is clear, and the person to my right muttered, “this is too real.”

So the film addresses the ways in which racist organizations might seek to push an agenda of bigotry, but then it returns to a local focus on redneck racists.  But still, I think this is just an elevated B movie that has so much importance because of today’s political climate.  It’s a very well made B movie, and again I think it’s important that the story is so simple, in some ways so obvious, because we as an audience might just shake our heads and move on, as if this is a thing of the past, and then Lee A Clockwork Orange‘s us to make sure we know there is a lot of work left to be done.

Up Next: Fletch (1985), Support the Girls (2018), Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

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