Running Time: 135 minutes
Written by: Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Directed by: Spike Lee
Featuring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, and Topher Grace
Flip Zimmerman: “What kind of stuff do you guys do?”
Klansman: “Cross burnings, marches, this is fixing to be a big year for us.”
There is no doubt at all in my mind that Spike Lee is the greatest living American director working today, he has amassed an oeuvre that is second to none, with him turning his talents to not only fictional movies, but period films, thrillers, comedies as well as documentaries, music videos, sports movies and almost every genre that exists today. Not only that but all of the films he has produced are impeccable, some being the best examples of their given genre. Unlike his contemporaries he has never felt the need to turn to the popular ‘thing’ of the day or try to align himself with popular actors or producers he has done what he wants, when he wants, even if some of his personal dream projects have suffered or fallen by the wayside. Lee’s progression as a filmmaker has always been linked to his own ideas of political and social change, looking at his one of his seminal film’s in “Do the right thing” (1989) in comparison to his new film “BlacKkKlansman” (2018) is witnessing two very different films in tone, direction, narrative as well the comment they make on both a social and political level. This new film takes a true story moulding it into not only a film that fits well into his oeuvre but is also a combination of genres, making it not only a compelling film but something extremely entertaining as well as containing a very serious social message about violence, the state of race relations in the US and a myriad of other themes that are woven throughout the narrative in a seamless effective way like few movies before it.
To say that Spike Lee has a style is an understatement, he spends as much time on the narrative feel of a film as much as the story itself which is a blessing as his films look like no other that have ever come before. He uses narrations (the spoken kind) as well as including segments from others movies as well as real life, the most well known is video of the Rodney King beating at the start of his masterpiece “Malcolm X” (1992), he does the same thing with “BlacKkKlansman” except the footage used is at the end of the movie for very different reasons which should be clear to anyone that views the film. Uniquely as well as somewhat jarring (although not to me) Lee is not afraid to incorporate others work to make a point or to flesh out the plot or even to just illustrate what he loves, such as the ‘Blaxploitation’ posters in this movie which look vibrant onscreen while making a point about race, gender as well as the movies that were made in the time period this film is set.
“BlacKkKlansman” has not only been directed and produced by Lee but he also receives a screenplay credit along with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott who have all crafted a movie that meets different objectives, their own, I would argue expertly. Originally supposed to be a directing vehicle for Jordan Peele, he left, suggesting Lee as an obvious replacement, this I assume would have been when Kevin Willmott and Lee himself punched up the script making it a more comfortable fit for Lee, making changes that spoke to not only him, but also making references to the chaotic present we now find ourselves in. It is not difficult to pick up on the references to the present day in terms of the current racial climate, the election of openly racist politicians, the President himself and many other elements that I found welcome. This is in my mind not enough has been made of the current US President or his openly racist leaning in film since his election. In my own personal views there has not been the reaction within film to the current state of the US in its politics, economy or the radical shift that the society is going through for my taste. Looking back at some of the more uncertain times in history the one thing Hollywood as well as independent films could be relied upon was to point out the problems in society, the last few years this has been noticeably absent, I applaud Lee and his compatriots for this film accomplishing this here.
“BlacKkKlansman” is set in 1972, Ron Stallworth is hired as the first black detective in the Colorado Springs, Colorado police department. Stallworth is initially assigned to work in the records room, where he faces mistreatment from his coworkers. Stallworth requests to transfer to go undercover, and is assigned to a local rally by national civil rights leader, Kwame Ture, who has taken the name of African leaders.
After the rally, Stallworth is reassigned to the intelligence division. While reading the paper, he finds an advertisement to join the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth calls and pretends to be a white man, and speaks with Walter Breachway, the president of the Colorado Springs chapter. Stallworth recruits his Jewish coworker, Flip Zimmerman, to act as him in order to meet the Ku Klux Klan members in person.
I am not going to reveal too much about the plot or the narrative as it will give far too much away not only about the story but also some of the flourishes Lee brings to this story, safe to say that this should be seen in cinemas on a big screen to be enjoyed, there are plenty of surprises to be had as well as enjoyed as this is a very special film especially released among some of the more brainless blockbusters out inn general release currently.
The film is built around the performances of the two leading men John David Washington and Adam Driver who are both wonderful in their dual roles of essentially the same character (sort of). Washington gives a fantastic performance of a character that could have devolved any time but walks a fine line between a real character showing that he will be someone to watch in the future, he moves through the story like a pro (I wonder if he got pointers from Dad, Denzel) never once winking at the camera always playing the part straight just as he should. Adam Driver has a long list of great credits already but this must be his best performance to date, it is at once humorous, poignant as well as action oriented with him acting opposite some great talent yet holding his poise throughout. The rest of the cast is made of some great modern character actors as well as some newcomers that are all outstanding it must be said led by Laura Harrier a young but incredibly on message actress who like Washington lights up the screen with a performance both feminie but forceful.
There are many highlights to this film; one I would like to pick out is Terence Blanchard who has composed some of the greatest scores for Spike Lees movies, one of his more memorable being the one for “Malcolm X”. Here in “BlacKkKlansman” there are echoes of that soundtrack which fit this film down to the ground as there are callbacks in theme to that film as well as dealing with similar themes, segregation, racism, the rising of people to meet injustice as well as so much more. This score is absolutely excellent rising to meet each scene that it is under or at times over. If you want a prime example of how a score should reflect what is going in a film this is it, expertly done but not manipulating an audience just guiding them, reflecting emotion but not supplying it.
If you believe that Spike Lee just directs films that deal with the black experience then you are missing some great works of art that are broad in their appeal as well as more than just about one thing, like all great movies. Lee has directed some of the most vital, important and relevant movies of the past four decades. While his contemporaries stuck to formulas or what they were good at Lee has honed his art working often with low or under budgeted movies, with hostile studios and audiences, armed with some of the great talent of those same decades, he has taken them under his wing letting them go solo when they wanted to, often shining because of their experience with him. In all honesty this is not Lees best film, that will probably be the timeless “Do the right thing”, but it comes close as it shows the growth of the man dealing with similar subject matter but in very different ways, a more mature understanding way that I loved, it is original as well as serving as a warning to those that think people will be herded like sheep, they will not as is proved everyday when free thinkers gather to show their disdain for their government, not only in the US but worldwide.
If you are wanting to see what must be at least for now the film of the year then do yourself a favor and go watch it, this will leave you with a sense of how little things have changed, how bigoted the world can be for no other reason than the color of a persons skin, but it will leave you with hope for those that fight as well as fight on others behalf, this is a special film for uncertain times.
“BlacKkKlansman” is out now only in cinemas.