Earlier this week I participated in Indiewire’s Critic Survey, where I was asked, “what is Spike Lee’s best film?” Of course, I picked Chi-Raq so I could bring awareness to the gun violence tearing Chicago apart. Well, folks, I am now writing to you again about a recent Lee film deserving of your attention. BlacKkKlansman marks a great return for the director, and it is easy for me to see why this film received a ten-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Festival.
For those who don’t know, BlacKkKlansman is based on the autobiographical book Black Klansman. The film takes place in 1979 Colorado Springs and follows a black cop who manages to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan.
BlacKkKlansman is the type of film where Lee veterans will be happy all the things they enjoy about his films are present. The humor and style we associate with his films are back in full force, but people who dislike Lee’s recent work will adore this as well due to the great pacing, setting, and how Lee portrays Jewish Americans.
Films like this are always needed because racism will always exist, and blind hate will always take over the minds of the weak. It is no secret that America elected a racist bigot in the White House, and the only thing he delivers to the people is division, instead of unification under one flag. BlacKkKlansman isn’t subtle with its message, and honestly, it shouldn’t be. How many films have released lately that deliver a great subtle message, only to be twisted by its audience or misinterpreted? BlacKkKlansman remedies that problem by being blunt. You will not walk out of this film with a mixed message, I assure you!
BlacKkKlansman features an all-star cast starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, and Alec Baldwin, to name a few. Washington has his first big role as Detective Ron Stallworth, and man does he play his part. It was easy to relate to his character’s viewpoint. After all, being the first black cop in a racist town is tough as it is, but imagine working with the people who often times do more harm than good for your community. I loved Washington in this film, and he definitely has a bright future, but the supporting cast is what made this a stand out for me. As you know, Washington pretends to be Ron Stallworth (yes, he used his real name for an investigation), a white radical who is eager to join the Klan on the phone, but because he is black he needed a white detective to actually go to the meetings and gain their trust.
This is where Driver’s character, Detective Flip Zimmerman, comes into play. You see, Zimmerman is Jewish but grew up never taking part in Jewish activities and was raised, as he likes to say, “White American”. Lee uses this to hammer in the blind hate the Klan has for anyone who doesn’t fit their agenda. The way Zimmerman has to pretend to be a full racist—and hate who he actually is—is quite powerful. He realizes there are people who hate him for something he can’t change, and that realization is something I think Lee wants the audience to understand as well. You might be able to hide that you are Jewish, but you can’t hide your skin color.
The comedy is another part of the film that doesn’t feel forced and is believable even in today’s time. There are people in the world who expect you to behave and act in a certain way. Often times if a black person talks proper they are labeled as geeky, nerdy, or if they’re famous are considered “not actually black.” Lee plays on this fact through all the interactions Stallworth has on the phone or the meeting he has face to face with non-black characters. They expect Stallworth to speak with a certain type of jive or tone. A black man speaking properly is not something they expect. David Duke (Grace) is the perfect example of how some people view us blacks, and how there is humor in ignorance.
Furthermore, Lee manages to bring it all home in the last act of the film and hammers in the division between blacks and whites and why this problem will always exist. The main reason for this is simple: people in power who can help ease tensions actually do more harm than good. Their words only divide us. That is what makes the ending so powerful and why it received that ten-minute standing ovation. It is depressing because black people and other minorities have realized this problem for decades; it doesn’t feel good to say I told you because that is not what we want. We want change and peace, not a “who was right” and “only if you had listened earlier.”
BlacKkKlansman is like a perfect cup of coffee: it is smooth and satisfying while still waking your ass up in the morning so you can do what needs to be done for the day.