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“All power to ALL the people.” This motto is repeated throughout the latest “Spike Lee Joint.” BlacKkKlansman is the newest film by the director of acclaimed films like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Inside Man. The film is set in the early 70s, and follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African American detective hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department, as he infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan with the help of his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver).
Undoubtedly, BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s best film since Do The Right Thing. Not because he is back in the political terrain, as he never left it, but because the film flows, it is a true, human story, and it is a thoughtfully made work that takes you from one moment to the next in unexpected ways. It is a hypnotic film that draws you in with its humor and —not so subtly— slowly puts a dramatic pressure on to leave you with that same self-reflective feeling Do The Right Thing managed back in 1989. Racial tension has often been the essence of Spike Lee’s best work, and in a sense, Lee is continuing the discussion he started in Do The Right Thing with BlacKkKlansman.
In the two films, Lee continuously presents the question in both of how black people should confront racial intolerance: through nonviolent objection within the system or through an external, violent rebellion? One of the most notable aspects of BlacKkKlansman is how this conflict is internalized by Ron, who is the first and only black police officer in the department. Ron believes that he can make an actual difference from within law enforcement, despite the spirited objection of a Black Power advocate (Laura Harrier), who argues that Ron is simply a fool who sold out his fellow African Americans.
Meanwhile, Ron’s partner, Flip, is a man with identity issues of his own as a Jew infiltrating the Klan impersonating Ron. As Flip digs himself deeper within the ranks of the Klan, his loyalty is continuously questioned, forcing him to stay in character as an antisemitic racist. Driver is excellent at portraying the cool and collected detective, although periodically hinting at the character’s inner anxiety. Lee manages to find personal stories in the racially charged chaos ensuing in Colorado Springs and tells them open and honestly, bringing home the point of his film. In fact, he explicitly addresses the similarities of the film’s tense atmosphere to our present day.
However, his lectures are all within the strictures of the story he is telling, becoming mocking, sarcastic humor rather than some soapbox standing, chest-beating exposition. Speaking of humor, perhaps the most telling Spike Lee calling card is the way he handles comedy, and Lee’s trademark dramatic comedy is all over BlacKkKlansman. This film is absolutely hilarious. My friends and I, along with our theater, were howling at some of the jokes and zany situations Ron and Flip got themselves into. Of course, a lot of the credit must go to the actors, especially when it comes to comedy, but I admire directors that can change tone on a dime, and Lee does that beautifully here. He can have you laughing until your sides hurt, but then he can take you into dark, grim scene where you feel uncomfortable even watching the screen, all in a matter of minutes.
He strikes this balance continually, which I think brings BlacKkKlansman to a higher level. This dynamic keeps the film both from becoming too overpowering or too depressing when Lee deals with such an important subject matter like racism. If I were to pick out a flaw, I would say that I felt like the film had just a little trouble ending. I thought Lee was beginning to wrap things up a couple of times, but there would be one more scene, and then another. Many of the scenes at the end of the film just seemed unnecessary. The ending is saturated with clips and scenes and the last twenty minutes actually cut together a little too fast for my taste.
The resolution feels like quick bullet points, while the rest of the film was a detailed power point. I would have been happy if Lee added ten more minutes to the resolution just so the story did not feel like it was being rushed to its conclusion. There is undoubtedly the Spike Lee presence with the shocking juxtaposition of the Klan watching Birth of a Nation and Harry Belafonte’s speech about Jesse Washington’s lynching, but this scene also takes away from the movie’s previous tone up until that point.
As powerful as this scene might be, it is also unnecessary as we already understand the gravity of what Stallworth has achieved. The movie has its flaws, but not many. Spike Lee does a phenomenal job all around, bringing us one of his best films ever and one of my personal favorites. BlacKkKlansman is an excellent mixture of comedy and drama, as well as a social commentary that simply screams “open your eyes!”. Though, not quite on the same unprecedented level as Do the Right Thing, BlacKkKlansman is a breath of fresh air in a summer filled with CGI Josh Brolin and prehistoric sharks fighting Jason Statham.
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