In 2017, Get Out took the box office by storm with its unique blend of horror and subtle social commentary. Spike Lee takes a turn at bat against racism in 2018 with BlackKklansman. If Get Out attacks racism with a scalpel, then BlackKklansman swings at it with a hammer. In an industry where many, if not most, films stumble over their own social commentary into a chaotic mess; Spike Lee manages to drive his points home, directly on the nose without missing a beat.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Spike Lee
Written By: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee. Based on the book by Ron Stallworth
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jasper Paakkonen, Paul Walkter Hauser, Ryan Eggold, Ashlie Atkinson, Robert John Burke, Ken Garito, Nicholas Turturro, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alec Baldwin, and Harry Belafonte.
In 1972, Ron Stallworth (Washington) becomes the Colorado Springs Police Department’s first African-American officer. Finding himself in the midst or prejudice for being both black and a rookie, Stallworth jumps at the chance to go undercover at a former Black Panther’s rally. His success in this operation bumps him up for a promotion from the records room to the Investigative team.
Upon starting his career path as a detective, Stallworth responds to an ad from the Ku Klux Klan in the local paper. Impressing the Klan’s local leader, Stallworth inadvertently starts an investigation into their sinister agenda. Using Officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as his own face to face double, Stallworth works his way up the ranks, and even befriends National Klan leader, David Duke (Grace).
BlackKklansman is based on the 2014 book by Ron Stallworth, Black Klansman. The book is a retelling of Stallworth’s life story, covering primarily his years with the Colorado Springs Police Department and with the Ku Klux Klan. The real life story follows similarly to that depicted in the movie. In 1972, Stallworth made contact with members of a local division of the Ku Klux Klan. Communicating with the Klan primarily over the phone, Stallworth sent an undercover narcotics officer in his place for face-to-face meetings. Eventually, this contact lead to a phone call with Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke. Duke expedited Stallworth’s membership application, and Stallworth carried his membership card for many years. His investigation into the organization lead to several high-ranking government officials being exposed in their Klan activity.
Once the investigation was finished, Stallworth kept quiet about it for several decades. After retiring in 2005, he exposed details of the investigation in an interview with a Salt Lake City newspaper. He later published the entire details of the investigation in 2014. The book was quickly optioned for a film with Spike Lee attached to produce and direct.
I was personally unfamiliar with the story until hearing about the film. However, after reading about it in brief, I was excited to see the details of Stallworth’s investigation on the silver screen. The film does take some creative adaptations to the story, however the core of what happened remains unchanged.
The Historical Perspective
It’s no secret that race relations has been a hot topic in the United States for the past few years, let alone the past few decades. As such, Hollywood increased its output of films featuring social commentary. Recent hits such as Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, and now BlackKklansman all take different stances on these same issues. Each one has done it in their own way, with the former two choosing to do so via a modern or futuristic setting.
BlackKklansman is different primarily because it tackles these issues from a historical perspective. Via the setting of the early seventies and a series of actual news reel footage, the film takes a much more head on approach to the topics and themes it is dissecting. It also helps ground the film in reality, as films of this nature are typically slightly surreal. The historical setting, combined with the knowledge that Stallworth actually infiltrated the Klan, allows the seemingly far-fetched plot to feel grounded and real.
“You use a scalpel. I prefer a Hammer”
Pictured: The “Using a Hammer” Approach. Honestly, I just wanted an excuse to use this GIF.
Get Out took audiences by storm because of its subtlety in relaying its themes. BlackKklansman throws subtlety out the window. Again, Spike Lee’s film acts more as a hammer than it does a scalpel. While this approach to a theme almost always ends poorly, BlackKklansman manages to instead hit all of its thematic notes. Spike Lee pulls no punches when attacking the idea of direct and outright racism, and those punches land squarely on the audience’s jaw.
It probably will not surprise you that this film is anti-KKK, and it makes no mistakes in relaying that stance. The Klansmen present in the film are played satirically, highlighting the outrageousness of their ideals and tactics. At the same time, the depth of their hatred and their reasons for it are directly portrayed. These are not characters that can be empathized with, however, they are characters that can be understood. Herein, what separates this from most social commentary films.
Hammering Too Far: The Purge
I’m going to tear a few holes in the Purge Franchise as I put this point across. The Purge Franchise is dumb. Simply, they are not “good” movies. In every single Purge movie, the film is written to make a statement. Attempting to tackle broad issues such as racism, institutional issues, class struggles, and war on poverty, each film in the series misses its mark by a mile. The Purge films simply aren’t as smart as they think they are. This is bad social commentary.
Instead of delivering thought out messages via thought out characters, a franchise such as The Purge churns out one-sided characters in droves. There’s the generic psycho, the hero with a past, the corrupt Donald Trump caricature, and countless others. These characters are easy to empathize with moment to moment, but have no real empathy in who they are. At the same time, they are almost never understandable. They are often given no more motivation for anything other than “It’s the Purge, I have to either kill or survive.”. These characters don’t change naturally, but respond to the film predictably. That is why the Purge has become nothing more than a summer slasher flick.
Hammering The Point Home
Much like the above Henry Cavill, Spike Lee pulls no punches. The film takes brutal jabs at Klan members via satire and the narrative of the film. Much like the Purge, the Klansmen in the film are not easy to empathize with. I don’t know many people who will watch the film and say, “Man I really felt bad for those poor Klansmen”. However, these characters are understandable in their actions. Their motivations and beliefs are laid out upon their introduction, and they behave accordingly. This doesn’t mean the audience has to agree with them, but they can at least understand what they believe. The characters toe the line between scary historical horror and generic Purge villain. But, because of the satirical approach taken to the performances, this toeing of the line pays off tremendously.
The characters are predictable in the sense that you can understand their motivations and beliefs. At the same time, the characters are unpredictable because you’re unsure of how they will act on such beliefs in relation to the plot. As the story unfolds, the characters adapt to the changing environment and react as actual humans would. Unlike The Purge, these villains don’t fall into boring patterns of repetition.
Police and Racism
At the same time, the film takes a quieter, but no more subtle, stance on institutionalized racism. Portraying the idea of corrupt cops from the angle of a black man on the inside and a black woman on the outside, the film is able to weigh the two primary schools of thought through dialogue.
This is has always been a hot button issue for me, and it is often one often presented one-sidedly. My father was a police officer for eight years, my brother is currently a police officer. It really bothers me when people take the stance that all police are bad, and therefore indirectly paint my family members as such by association, because I know that it is not an absolute truth. At the same time, I am a white male in a very conservative city, I don’t know what the other side looks like first hand. I’ve never had to worry about being profiled by “the system”.
What strikes me about BlackKklansman is that both sides of the topic have a voice. Yes, there is police brutality and racial generalization. No, not all cops are racist and corrupt, but there are some like that out there. The film expresses both sides of this issue most overtly through its dialogue, specifically in a few scenes between Stallworth and his girlfriend, Patrice.
Topher Grace gives the best performance in this movie. I don’t believe I’ve ever said that before, and I can’t entirely believe I’m saying it now. Grace brings his signature goofy charisma to David Duke, and unlike in Spider-Man 3, he works as the primary “villain”. Playing the role satirically, Grace is able to lampoon the former Klan leader in every scene. Grace plays Duke sincerely in his intentions, sincerely in his convictions, and satirically in his execution of it all.
Grace’s performance is terrific, but it couldn’t stand on its own without John David Washington’s Ron Stallworth. Washington brings a naive, but hungry, rookie to life. He portrays his character as smart, polished, and with a clear mind of his own. Not directly sharing the stage with any of his antagonists for the majority of the film, the actor stands out primarily with his vocal presence. Washington uses his vocal talents to weave the Klansman Ron Stallworth together emphatically, an act which is highlighted by Adam Driver’s performance as the embodiment of Klansman Stallworth.
Adam Driver continues to prove that he’s got depth, and that he’s one of the most talented rising actors on the market. His performance as an undercover cop, turned undercover black man, who is in reality an undercover Klansman is definitely a highlight in his career. Between last year’s Logan Lucky, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and now BlackKklansman, Driver is continually proving his acting chops.
In this film, Driver acts as the audience thinks. Playing a Jewish man, his character has skin in the game. Despite having skin in the game, he at first fails to see the pertinence of their investigation. However, over time he grows to become a team-player when it comes to fighting against injustice. He acts as the lightning rod of the story, drawing people to action and/or telling them to take a definitive stand.
BlackKklansman is not for everyone. Unfortunately the specific groups that the film is speaking out against are not the people who will see the movie. This is opposed to Get Out, where the film acts as a mirror to its intended audience. Instead, Spike Lee’s latest film acts as a means of stirring the pot. I’m not going to classify this as either overtly “good” or overtly “bad”.
However, I will say that it diminishes the societal impact of the film overall. Odds are, this film will affirm what you already believe, which I expect to happen with most of its audience. On the flip side, you may disagree with everything this film has to say, which I feel won’t be as much of an issue. Those who believe in what the movie has to say are the ones watching it, those who disagree are staying home. This isn’t to say that anyone is or isn’t a racist for seeing or not seeing a movie. You don’t have to be a self-proclaimed Social Justice Warrior to want to see this movie. Not wanting to see this movie doesn’t make you a Klansman.
What I’m trying to say is that the film makes valid social statements, and that it makes them very well. From a filmmaking standpoint, this film is near perfect. However, the film fails in one regard. Unlike Get Out, this film does not open conversation across the aisle. Instead, it entrenches people in what they already believe. I am not bringing judgment on where you do or don’t stand on this issue. What this means is that the film fails to retain societal impact, where it succeeds in making social commentary.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on BlackKklansman? Comment down below!
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