BlacKkKlansman: Spike Lee’s Retro Modern Double Feature

This review contains spoilers about BlacKkKlansman (2018)

BlacKkKlansman is based on an incredible feat. African-American police officer Ron Stallworth became a Ku Klux Klan member in 1979 to gain intelligence on the organization. The film details these events, but also goes a step further. Director Spike Lee used Stallworth’s story to squeeze two different movies into one feature. BlacKkKlansman is both a fictionalized account of Stallworth’s infiltration and a retro modern examination of race in America.

When I first heard BlacKkKlansman’s premise, I thought that Spike Lee used a scene from Blazing Saddles as his inspiration. I was surprised to find that the movie was constructed around true events. Stallworth was the first African-American police office in Colorado Springs. He did become an improbable KKK member, although the events in the film are exaggerated.

The movie stars John David Washington and Adam Driver. Washington plays Stallworth. Driver portrays his partner, Flip Zimmerman. Throughout the investigation, Washington works the phones and Zimmerman acts as Stallworth to meet with the Klan.

Both actors are excellent. Washington’s portrayal of a police officer caught between different worlds was played with consistent delicacy. His performance revealed the complexity of Stallworth’s situation. Not only does Stallworth contact the Klan, but he investigates an African-American community meeting and is wary of fellow officers. Driver was also outstanding as Zimmerman, a Jewish officer whose interactions with the KKK cause him to become more aware of his identity.

(L-R) Driver and Washington in BlacKkKlansman
(L-R) Driver and Washington in BlacKkKlansman

Despite their performances, BlacKkKlansman is just an okay movie. Most of the film is more about 2018 than the Seventies. The fashion, hairstyles, and blaxploitation references are era-appropriate, but there are so many references to contemporary events that it is difficult to settle into the story.

During a KKK luncheon one of the members drops a “Make America Great Again.” They also enjoy cheering “America First.” Stallworth and another officer discuss David Duke’s intent on installing a politician sympathetic to the Klan’s views in the White House. Stallworth’s denial that Duke would be successful is so frequent that I expected John David Washington to break the Fourth Wall.

Most of these scenes effectively relay Lee’s point. One impactful moment comes during the Klan’s screening of D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation. The 1915 film is notorious for its positive depiction of the KKK. It is often cited as the source of the Klan’s 20th Century revival.

I was well aware of Birth Of A Nation, but had never seen the movie. In BlacKkKlansman the KKK members enjoy Birth Of A Nation so much that it is difficult to watch. It is one of the most potent things that I have seen in a movie theater.

It is also the prevailing scene in BlacKkKlansman. Despite the passage of time, the racism of 1915 and the Seventies exists in 2018. If there were any doubts, Lee ends the film with footage of the 2017 Charlottesville protests.

The contemporary references overshadow Stallworth’s story. The parallel narratives are revealed in such a heavy dosage that they do not blend cleanly. Having both stories in place to create an overlapping narrative could have been successful, but the film was  a chaotic and muddied piece of cinema.

BlacKkKlansman’s message calls attention to contemporary events with so much authority that it was easy to forget the setting. BlacKkKlansman may go down as the most interesting movie that I watch in 2018. Unfortunately, the lack of a tight narrative negatively effected a concept with great potential.


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