Cinema Review: BlacKkKlansman | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Tuesday, August 4th, 2020  


Studio: Focus Features
Directed by Spike Lee

Aug 10, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Spike Lee is the guy at the Knicks game. The weird guy in the sneaker commercial. The guy on Twitter who capitalizes The First Letter Of Every Word.

He’s so ingrained in cultural lexicon, it’s easy to forget Spike Lee the filmmaker. The student of cinema. The champion of black America. The man whose characters screamed, “Wake up!” decades before the term “woke” became in vogue.

Few people better understand the power of images and their ability to bridge the gap between an audience and foreign concepts or stories. He also understands their power to do the opposite: to instill an unfounded fear of “the other”, to belittle, or -- as is often the case with Hollywood -- to omit.

His career choices -- focusing on things like race relations (Do the Right Thing), the exploitation of young black athletes (He Got Game), or a summer in the lives of a poor family in Bed Stuy (Crooklyn) -- weren’t anti-mainstream inasmuch as they helped redefine mainstream. His golden years of the 80s and 90s paved the way for persons of color both behind and in front of the camera: from filmmakers like Singleton, DuVerney, and McQueen, to increased recognition from the Academy, all the way to smash hits like Get Out and Black Panther.

But what about Lee? With the exception of his Hurricane Katrina doc When the Levees Broke, the turn of the century ushered in a Lee more adept to audience-pleasers like Inside Man. Did he lose his edge? Did the progress not just in the film industry but in race relations in America simply mean the sort of incisive filmmaking Lee was known for was simply unnecessary? Or was he simply waiting for the right story?

BlacKkKlansman is set in 1979, with Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becoming the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. His first noteworthy task is to infiltrate a meeting hosted by a prominent Black Panther member, whom his (white) superiors believe will stir violence. The speeches are sharp, angry, and incisive, but talk of violence is mostly hyperbole -- a view supported by his partner Detective Zimmerman (Adam Driver).

Pleased with the information he gathered, Stallworth earns carte blanche for his next project and, upon seeing a Ku Klux Klan ad in the local paper, calls them up under the guise of an angry white man. He earns an invite to their next meeting, to the skepticism of his superiors. For one, they don’t consider the Klan to be an actual threat. More importantly, however, is the obvious: Stallworth is black. The solution: Zimmerman will attend as Stallworth.

Lee handles the initial meetings of the Klan with surprising restraint. Zimmerman is greeted by the group’s leader, Walter, who’s incredibly welcoming and self-aware. He constantly reprimands the cliched redneck underlings, especially the militant Felix, who waves around his pistol while discussing a race war and smells something amiss with the newcomer. Walter doesn’t disagree with Felix inasmuch as he wants him to restrain himself so as not to scare off new recruits. His model in this respect is David Duke (Topher Grace), who is handsome, articulate, and charming, who can project an antiseptic view of racism, and who therefore might be on track with a career in politics. While Felix talks about a race war with guns and C4 explosives -- and while Stallworth and Zimmerman’s acute goal is to be his foil -- it’s clear the organization eyes a bigger prize.

BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s vehicle to examine the evolution of racism in America. Today, we don’t see public lynchings or minstrel shows or the n-word tossed around without being shamed. That might be called progress, but Lee sees a recalibration of individuals who still harbor extreme views and learned how to package them in a clean-cut, approachable manner, thus bringing these views into the mainstream and validating fringe elements. Like Felix, like narrow-minded people in positions of power, and like people who drive cars into protestors. Lee generates considerable tension by simply equipping incompetent people with guns, but he’s just as wary of the housewife that you might say hello to in the grocery store, but who refills the Klansmen’s coffee with a smile.

BlacKkKlansman is so fresh and rich with ideas that you can forgive it’s shortcomings -- it runs too long, stumbles into a few cliches, at times is too restrained, at others is too on-the-nose. It’s not a perfectly made film, but it’s a film made perfectly for today. It’s also perhaps Lee’s best effort in blending his own esoteric styles and sensibilities with a mainstream concept -- and that’s kind of the point. As much as Crooklyn might be the quintessential Spike Lee joint, BlacKkKlansman understands the power of appearing mainstream. Images only have power if eyes are on the screen, and with a premise that sounds recycled from an early Dave Chappelle sketch but yields the maestro filmmaker’s strongest and much-needed discussion on racism in decades, why not take a look?

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 9/10


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