BlacKkKlansman Movie Review
In Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, the main character Ron Stallworth prefers to “be cool” than radical, an odd decision given that the director just can’t help himself. Lee has never been known for his subtlety, and once again it’s his lack of restraint—too put things gently—that keeps his “joint” from being much more than a white sheet in the wind.
BlacKkKlansman is an incredible true story about a rookie black police officer who infiltrated the KKK and even spoke with Grand Master David Duke (the actual case, if you read about it, is less incredible). It’s also such an outrageous story that it’s a shame that Lee, who hasn’t made a great film in well over a decade, was the one to bring it too life. His obsession with bludgeoning his audience with obnoxiously overt racial commentary ultimately dooms a film that could have just told its story and accomplished the same damn thing.
Even though the film is a lesser experience because of them, Lee delivers a couple of memorable “racial commentary” sequences nonetheless. A scene involving black advocacy leader Stokely Carmichael is riveting, both visually and viscerally, and another segment featuring Harry Belafonte is powerful—even though its juxtaposition against another scene that actually is related to police officer Ron Stallworth’s store makes little sense.
Strip out the blatant race badgering and you still have a pretty strong story about a strong-willed black man taking on one of the most sadly pathetic organizations in American history—couldn’t his story have worked just fine without Lee messing it up?
A better director would have tackled the material in a more determined light, with full willingness to take a sardonic approach to the story and the frankly silly circumstances that occurred. BlacKkKlansman is sort of funny at times, but Lee is so blinded by his message that he doesn’t see the opportunity right in front of him—to have fun with what he has in front of him and make a mockery of the KKK in the process.
John David Washington appears to be having a lot of fun in his role—he’s terrific—but the screenplay, co-written by Lee and three other dudes, doesn’t allow him to let loose. But he fares better than the other actors—Adam Driver is fine isn’t given a whole lot to do, and Laura Harrier, in the film’s most notably fictional role, is pretty one-dimensional.
Despite its faults, BlacKkKlansman is moderately entertaining from start to finish. Lee is able to emote some humor throughout the production (Paul Walter Hauser, who played the fat “secret operative” in I, Tonya, is amusing as the filmmakers apparently just told him to act as stupid and deranged as possible), and again, the story itself is just so off kilter it provides its own juice.
The climax, which is made up because in the real world the case resulted in no arrests and that’s just way too dull for Hollywood, is unfortunately a disaster, a sequence that is neither thrilling nor all that comprehensible.
Lee just wanted to get to his real ending, which is powerful in that he makes the almost inevitable transition to the modern day Charlottesville white supremacist rally and Donald Trump’s much-criticized non-condemnation of said rally. He leaves you with haunting thoughts (and an upside down, black American flag just because Lee can’t help himself), but it’s also yet another reminder that Lee cares so much about the message that he has little interest in the actual story at hand.
And that’s a shame, because in the right hands BlacKkKlansman could have been so much more.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.