I n real life, I tend to get overwhelmed when asked about a movie that I love and end up gushing incoherently about it. To remedy this, I will often make a point to state my opinion using as few words as possible, and instead of trying to wax intellectual about the themes and technical achievements, I’ll mention a small detail that I enjoyed. Despite not talking about BlacKkKlansman in person and having the mind-channeling power of the written word at my disposal, I find that I’m running into this very problem. That’s how good it was. So in lieu of a meaningful introduction, I will have to fall back on my prepared social script. I loved BlacKkKlansman. The title is fun to type.
Aside from being one of Spike Lee’s most lauded films in years, the cast provides the film with a major selling point. John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth; the wryly suave detective who dons a turtleneck and a scrumptious afro, becomes the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, and infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan over the phone. A former running back, Washington briefly served on the St. Louis Rams practice team. He’s also the son of Denzel Washington, star of Spike Lee’s historical masterpiece, Malcolm X. His humorously controlled and idiosyncratic performance hits all kinds of wonderful notes. Most striking of all is how informed it is by blaxploitation action heroes, only elevated by a sort of self-aware hybridity where Washington plays Stallworth as both wanting to be Shaft and somehow being Shaft at the same time. Other standouts include the quietly intense Adam Driver as Stallworth’s Jewish partner and stand-in, Flip, and Laura Harrier as his ambivalent activist girlfriend, Patrice. Topher Grace utilizes his naturally dry humor and lamezoid persona to portray the vile Klan President David Duke to great comic effect while also accurately emulating the real-life Duke’s disturbingly relaxed and unassuming demeanor.
Relatively new cinematographer Chayse Irvin deserves a special mention for doing great justice to Lee’s vivid and lyrical sense of composition and movement. Several shots stand out in my memory long after having seen the film, such as disembodied black faces fading in and out of a spotlight in darkness as they listen to Stokely Carmichael’s powerful call to arms. One of the most haunting is a closeup of a Klansman’s eye reflecting the image of a burning cross. Terence Blanchard, Lee’s regular composer, contributes an amazing score that switches between dark orchestral soundscapes and riffs of moody jazz guitar, invoking the feel of a late 70s crime film. Lee also brings on his regular editor, Barry Alexander Brown, cutting the film with a deliberate but fast pace that captures true poetry in the assembly of images. Some scenes play out with such emotional juxtapositions and rhythms to the point of being downright symphonic.
While full of humor and genre-savvy excitement, BlacKkKlansman is also a markedly ominous film with a distressingly urgent message, using Stallworth’s remarkable story to remind us of the racial unrest going on today. The film opens with the famous scene from Gone With the Wind which features Scarlett O’Hara among the dead and injured rebels and a sweeping camera that ends on the image of a battered confederate flag. Some of the more vile scenes in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation pop up, as well. Lee also includes footage from last year’s Charleston riots, recalling similar docu-fiction techniques he used in Malcolm X. As a result, the hatred which provides the basis of this story never eludes us, complimenting the film thematically while undercutting it tonally, especially in regards to its ostensibly lighthearted segments. The effect is jarring and devastating, conjuring up the ugliness of the past in order to mirror the ugliness of the present, and holding all culpable, especially cinema itself. | Nic Champion