BlacKkKlansman — Review
BlacKkKlansman, from director/co-writer Spike Lee and writers Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, is fucking stellar — a story that manages to be both timeless and of the moment. One of the best films of the year and among other things Spike Lee’s self-deprecating and reflective reconciliation with Judaism.
It is so masterful through the depth of its characters, its balance of humor and drama. This is key since it captures the utter silliness of not just the Klan, but racism in general, without negating it’s horrifying consequences. It reflects a tonal balance that the great Mel Brooks aspired to, but never crossed within his prism of satire.
Additionally the film wisely examines the sense of stakes for different victims of prejudice. While Ron Stallworth (played with star-making charisma by John David Washington) embraces his blackness, Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver) — the Jewish cop that helps him — denies his identity every chance he gets. When a cop points out the “Jewish star” around his neck, Flip derisively says “It’s a Star of David”.
The inescapable prejudice that comes with being black in America led to Ron expressing himself via “fuck it” bravado that allows him to take risks where others would not. Thus naturally the escapable prejudice that comes with being a Jew in America led to Flip pushing it inward and hiding from it. For all his rough and tumble attitude, at his core is a deeply insecure man who tries to use professionalism to distance himself from the genuine terror he feels as a Jew.
The fact that Spike Lee, a filmmaker who once reportedly said (in defense of Shylock-ian characters in Mo’s Better Blues), “Jews run Hollywood” can beautifully articulate such a nuanced investigation into American anti-Semitism and its effects is nothing short of profound. Lee, reflecting his characters’ fierce courage, shines a light on his previous discourse — it’s no coincidence that a KKK member boasts how the Holocaust is a Jewish conspiracy made by a Jewish controlled Hollywood.
On that note, the film is a great example of showcasing characters’ ideology as an extension of themselves instead of the base definition (with the slight exception of Laura Harrier’s, in spite of her wonderful acting). It’s a quality most filmmakers of inherently political films should strive for. Stokey Carmichael (Kwame Ture) — as played by Corey Hawkins — gives a rapturous speech early in the film to the young black students in Colorado Springs. Yet when he talks about Tarzan, and how he rooted for the white man to hurt the natives, we see a person often enshrined in legend investigating himself. Making himself vulnerable to the world. When he embraces the beauty of being black shortly after, it rings with more poignancy than it would if he didn’t question his own feelings of insecurity from racism.
This is part of the genius of this film — one that not just talks the good talk but one that deconstructs ourselves and how we can’t truly escape the trauma of our past. If anything we need to examine it head-on if we’re to do anything about it in the future. Spike advocates this in a powerful final montage, with Charlottesville footage, to remind us that this historical film is not a past journal entry but a reflection of our present. We can’t ignore the connections between the violent Klan of the 70’s and the violent racists that seized that Virginia city. We can’t ignore David Duke (played with chilling banality by Topher Grace), the plainspoken bigot that leads the Klan in this film that came to Charlottesville 4 decades later to enshrine his legacy. We can’t ignore the “status quo” that protects the Klan in this film (ex. the FBI, even the Colorado Springs PD) and in the present (“many sides”). We can’t ignore the truth that being Jewish in the prism of American bigotry comes with protective privilege if we’re willing to play along. We can’t ignore the complexity of fighting a system that enables both white supremacy and allows black cops to chip away at racist institutions such as the Klan (even when the system rewards their important work with a cold shoulder). We can’t ignore the inevitable constrictions of fighting a racist system from the outside and within.
But we also can’t ignore the still remarkably racist legacy of American film. We can’t ignore how the Klan celebrates Ron’s induction into the Klan with watching Birth of a Nation (popcorn included) — the key to the KKK’s cultural resurgence in the 1920’s. Or Gone With The Wind, where David Duke chats about Hattie McDaniel’s character (the first African-American to win an Oscar — albeit for a character often recognized as a racist caricature) with Ron as a way to slyly justify his beliefs. Or Tarzan, which Kwame evokes in his speech. Spike holds a microscope to not just America but the very medium that he himself is using to express our truth. The way Ron inundates himself with America’s racism to fight the Klan, Spike inundates himself with America’s racist film legacy to not correct its legacy but to develop it beyond. He knows we can’t escape it but that doesn’t mean our definition is limited to our worst selves.
The film is buoyed by amazing work from John David Washington and Adam Driver who proves how much you can do with so little. Driver’s performance is also a great example of Spike’s most underrated asset of 3 decades amidst his more recognizable boisterousness: his restraint. Spike’s regulars, Terence Blanchard (composer) and Barry Alexander Brown (editor), do solid work and Spike brings on-board a wonderful new cinematographer Chayse Irvin (shot Beyoncé: Lemonade) who preserves intimacy within grandiosity. It’s one of the best films of the year.