Sabataso on film: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ tense and entertaining Spike Lee

Adam Driver, left, and John David Washington in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKLansman." (David Lee / Focus Features)

Throughout his career Spike Lee has made films that explore issues of race and identity with unflinching honesty and biting irony. Films like “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” “Jungle Fever” and “Bamboozled” have grappled with and unpacked the African-American experience through Lee’s stylish auteur’s lens. “BlacKkKlansman” is no different. Based on the astounding true story of a black Colorado Springs detective who successfully infiltrated a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in 1979, the film is a tense and entertaining fictionalized account of that operation. Coming on the one-year anniversary of the violent and fatal Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the film is an all too relevant reminder that white nationalism is alive and well in 2018 America. While the film is far removed from Lee’s familiar ground of Brooklyn, his auteur flourishes manifest throughout. We get a trademark Lee dolly shot at a crucial moment that effectively adds a touch of surreal to what the characters are about to see. The opening of the film also features a title card informing us the film is based on “some fo’ real sh*t,” setting the stage for Lee’s puckish irony that adds a nice dose of levity to the story. John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the real-life detective who, after seeing an ad for the Klan in a local newspaper, cold calls the number posing as a white man. When his racist rhetoric earns him a face-to-face meeting with the chapter president, Stallworth recruits white detective Flip Zimmerman(Adam Driver) to go in his place. Soon, the two work their way into the group, gathering intelligence that is ultimately used to uncover Klansmen working in the upper levels of government, including NORAD. Washington gives a great performance as Stallworth, a black man caught between two worlds. Lee confronts the tension of being an African-American police officer head on, and doesn’t provide easy answers. He’s proud to be a cop, but has experienced institutional racism firsthand. Those complicated feelings spill over into his budding romance with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a Black Student Union activist who sees police as the enemy. Driver also delivers as Zimmerman, a secular Jew whose ability to pass as white was taken for granted until he met the Klan. In order to maintain his cover, he must not only embrace but also sell their rabid anti-Semitism. Driver, a master of angry brooding, reveals that inner conflict with moving subtly. Lee depicts the Klansmen with an eye toward parody. Most are the stereotypical bumbling, mumbling hicks you’d expect to see. Ryan Eggold’s Walter, however, is a more grounded, articulate breed of racist. He’s down with the rhetoric, but doesn’t seem to have the stomach for violence the way some of his peers do. One such peer is Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), a true believer who’s a willing soldier in the race war he hopes to incite. At his side is his wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), for whom racial genocide counts as acceptable pillow talk. Though not based on a real-life character — none of the Klan characters seem to be — Connie stands as a helpful example of the complicity of women in the white nationalist movement. Topher Grace shows up as then-Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. Duke, who would eventually run for president, is presented as a frightening harbinger of the KKK’s plans to take their brand into mainstream. The phrases “make America great again” and “America first,” two slogans embraced by President Trump and his supporters, are shown here in their earlier context on the lips of Duke and company as they pine for white supremacy. “BlacKkKlansman” ends with a stirring montage of news footage from Charlottesville, including President Trump’s disgraceful “both sides” comments. The segment is an unapologetic middle finger to the President and his white nationalist-enabling rhetoric. It’s also a stark, unsettling reminder that the Klan’s hateful message of racism still resonates with many of our fellow Americans today.

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