BlacKkKlansman is oozing with 70s vibes, from the afros to the costumes to Terence Blanchard’s rich, R&B-based score. And yet director Spike Lee is hyper-aware of the history that preceded the film’s central story as well as the time period in which it is being told. The first character to appear on screen is a right-wing propagandist bumbling through his lines, played by none other than Alec Baldwin, who impersonated President Trump himself on Saturday Night Live. Like the film as a whole, the casting choice is more than a little bit on the nose, but it is also suitable for a 2018 political climate that doesn’t exactly call for subtlety.
In that same vein, an opening title card tells us that “Dis joint is based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit” — the story is so nuts that we probably wouldn’t believe it were true otherwise. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department, attempts to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan by talking to them over the phone with the hopes of eventually becoming a member. There’s only one problem — he’s black — so he enlists his fellow detective, the white, Jewish Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to play him for an in-person meeting with the Klan.
The actors not only have to make their characters believable, but also their false identities, because if we, the audience, don’t buy that the Klan can’t see through their respective facades, then the entire premise falls apart. The film rests on the abilities of its two leads, and they deliver with Oscar-worthy performances.
Washington, son of Denzel, inherited his father’s command of the screen and ability to give emphasis and weight to every one of his lines. His phone conversations with the Klan, including Grand Wizard David Duke, are outright hilarious. Washington’s exaggerated pronunciation of the “h” in “white” rivals that of Frank Underwood in House of Cards for absurdity. Every utterance of “God bless white America” by Washington sent the audience into laughter, albeit a somewhat nervous one, which I imagine was Lee’s intention.
Driver is also terrific at every turn. His character is more conflicted initially about the merits of the investigation versus the risk, and Driver shows his nervousness when maintaining his front in interactions with the Klan. In the movie’s tensest scene, an especially slimey and bigoted Klan member, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), attempts to interrogate Zimmerman in his basement with a lie detector machine. The acting by both Driver, a non-Jew playing a Jew playing an anti-Semite, and Pääkkönen, a Finnish actor playing an American white-supremacist, is impeccable.
BlacKkKlansman is admittedly a bit sloppy, particularly in its pacing. Several scenes drag on far past when they’ve made their point, causing the movie to clock in at a slightly bloated 2 hours and 16 minutes. Additionally, some might find Lee’s in-your-face style to be exhausting, although I found it appropriate for the subject matter. In one dialogue sequence, characters directly discuss the possibility of a racist becoming president and using that power to pass policies that harm disenfranchised Americans. It’s cringeworthy in its straightforwardness, but Lee certainly gets his point across.
Whatever criticisms you may have of Lee, though, you can’t deny his ability to conjure powerful, striking images, and BlacKkKlansman features plenty of them. In many ways, much of the movie is about the way that societal images of different groups of people alter our perceptions of them. During a rally thrown by Civil Rights organizer Kwame Ture, Lee’s camera focuses on the gorgeously lit black faces in the audiences. The fact that these portraits are shown while Ture speaks about going to the movies as a child and seeing people who look like him playing uncivilized caricatures makes them all the more meaningful.
In a memorable climax and the ensuing finale, Lee pulls out his signature double-dolly shot, in which both the camera and the characters are moving with respect to their background. The result is a surreal image of Ron and his girlfriend Patrice, plucked straight from 70s blaxploitation poster, floating down a hallway. Again, an awesome visual moment is directly tied to the script itself — in a previous scene, Ron and Patrice debate the benefits and drawbacks of the blaxploitation genre and its representation of blacks on the screen.
The most impactful images in BlacKkKlansman, however, may not be the ones generated by Lee himself but the existing footage that he cleverly recontextualizes. The film opens with a famous shot from Gone With the Wind in which Scarlett O’Hara walks through a yard of fallen Southern Civil War soldiers as the camera pans upward to reveal a Confederate flag flapping in the wind. When viewed as part of the 1939 classic, the clip is not as overtly problematic as when it’s presented at the beginning of a modern day movie about the Klan. At the outset of a film that takes place entirely in the 1970s, Lee forces the audience to question the ways that popular culture has contributed to a reality in which the Klan is able to carry out its hateful actions.
Later on, he shockingly uses footage from 2017 to pose another question about how far we’ve really come since the true events of the film. Such a bold and direct reference to current events threatens to date the movie in a desperate attempt at being “timely,” but Lee’s synthesis of different eras in our country’s history brilliantly shows that there is nothing particularly “timely” about these themes at all. This country used to be racist. It was racist in 1979. And it is still racist.
BlacKkKlansman, despite its flaws, is a passionate and inspired reminder of those facts, while serving up plenty of comedy along the way. It reminds me of a genius Saturday Night Live sketch the week after the election of Donald Trump, in which a white character declares, “This is the most shameful thing America has ever done!” The two people of color in the skit, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, simply turn to each other and laugh.