Combustible Celluloid
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With: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkkönen, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Michael Joseph Buscemi, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Robert John Burke, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte
Written by: Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, based on a book by Ron Stallworth
Directed by: Spike Lee
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references
Running Time: 135
Date: 08/09/2018

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Getting Under the Hood

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though Spike Lee has continued to do highly personal, passionate work throughout his 32-year career, some of the films have been, admittedly, rather hit-and-miss.

There is, however, no question about his latest film, BlacKkKlansman. It's one of his best, easily ranking among Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 4 Little Girls, 25th Hour, and When the Levees Broke.

Both entertaining and incendiary, BlacKkKlansman tells an incredible true story.

It's the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, the son of Denzel) joins the Colorado Springs Police Department and quickly works his way up to detective.

During his first assignment, he "infiltrates" a black power rally and meets activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), who hates cops; so he invents little white lies about his job.

Meanwhile, back in the office, almost on a whim, calls the number in a newspaper ad for the Ku Klux Klan.

Pretending to be a white supremacist on the phone (with his "white voice," shades of Sorry to Bother You), he asks for more information, but the man on the other end of the line wants to meet.

So Ron must go to the sergeant and get permission to pursue this further, using a white officer, "Flip" Zimmerman (Adam Driver), as his undercover stand-in.

The ruse continues as Ron/Flip rise through the KKK ranks, eventually hoping to meet the group's "grand wizard," David Duke (played squirm-inducingly well by Topher Grace), and, at the same time, prevent a possible bombing.

Lee boldly opens BlacKkKlansman with an image from Gone with the Wind, but he is far more preoccupied with D.W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation and the way its extraordinary popularity 100 years ago unexpectedly breathed new life into the old racist organization.

Images from Griffith's film permeate BlacKkKlansman, but never more so than in the powerful, cross-cut sequence wherein Ron/Flip attends a solemn, terrifying confirmation ceremony, donning the malevolent hoods for the first time.

Afterward, the KKK members enjoy a screening of The Birth of a Nation, whooping and hollering and cheering on the white characters, while elsewhere, at a gathering of black civil rights activists, Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) tells a group of black civil rights activists harrowing tales of white-on-black violence.

Further enthralled by the power of film, Lee also includes a kind of 1960s-era industrial film, in the process of being shot — complete with outtakes and flubbed lines — featuring one Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) preaching fear and hate toward blacks.

Images and references to BlacKkKlansman movies like Shaft, Superfly, and Coffy also pop up; characters discuss them for what they are: a mix of black power and black exploitation.

Aside from the many themes intellectually discussed, Lee also uses his own camera to emphasize and highlight the beauty of black humans, including close-ups of facial features and big hair during the rally, and a dancing sequence immediately following.

However, Lee also allows the white characters to be nuanced; they exist in a wide cross-section, and are not all evil. Some of Ron's fellow police officers are happy to call him a colleague, even if others are nasty to him.

Flip, in particular, is quite fascinating. In a great scene, he explains that, though he was born Jewish, he was not raised as such and has never really thought much about it — until being surrounded by the KKK's racial and cultural hatred.

BlacKkKlansman wraps up with startling news footage from recent years, examples of blatant racism, unchanged, in everyday life. It closes with one of the most defiant images of Lee's career, an upside-down American flag that fades to black-and-white.

Indeed, though Lee is now in his sixties, he has lost none of his fire and fury, nor his vibrant signature style, but his ferocious energy is also coupled with a penchant for thoughtfulness, taking a step back to see how all this fits together, rather than simply raging.

Moments that might seem innocuous, such as Ron suddenly hugging David Duke as a photo is being snapped, become suddenly loaded with deeper meanings. Virtually every scene has a duality that demands rational thought, and rational discussion.

Even though it sings with the funky energy of the 1970s, BlacKkKlansman is still absolutely current. Among all the movies that have become supercharged by the terror of our modern times, it's arguably the most essential yet.

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