Director Spike Lee doesn’t do subtle, so it’s no surprise that his latest film BlacKkKlansman is rowdy at times, obvious and blunt. The movie doesn’t give you the chance to miss the point, but when the issues are race in America and the Ku Klux Klan, there’s sometimes nothing to be subtle about.
The picture comes from a book by Ron Stallworth, the first black policeman in Colorado Springs. Almost without thinking, in 1978, Stallworth answers an ad from the Klan looking for new members. Stallworth, played in the film by John David Washington, gets into an exchange by mail with the Klan, then a series of telephone conversations with the infamous David Duke, who never catches on that Stallworth is black. When Stallworth is invited to join Colorado Springs Klansmen, his fellow undercover cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) goes in his place. And by the way, Zimmerman is Jewish.
BlacKkKlansman dives right into the morass of race in American culture. It opens with the famous sad image from Gone with the Wind, of a huge space filled with wounded and dying Confederate soldiers, then a Confederate flag and a Klan recruiter (Alec Baldwin) whining out his hatred for Blacks and Jews and bewailing integration and miscegenation – marriage between people of different races. At the same time, the film brings in news footage of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock and clips from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, which may be the most racially inflammatory mainstream film ever made.
Spike Lee can be a problematic filmmaker. He’s got tremendous energy and courage, along with a fascinating story that embodies a ton of the problems that afflict America right now. What Lee doesn’t have, is either the patience or the skill for the routine scenes that stitch together a complicated story. So, at times, BlacKkKlansman goes soft and flat, and Lee grabs at clichés. Most of his Klansmen are caricatures – a stupid fat man, a beady eyed zealot, a leering racist cop, a tubby wife in disastrous clothing. The point is to ridicule people stuffed with hatred for others, but the clichés make them weak and clownish – so it’s hard to take their threat seriously.
But blunt and obvious in a movie are not always bad technique. People engorged with hatred aren’t subtle. They abandon grace and humanity in favor of mindless snarling.
The best moments in BlacKkKlansman can be brilliant. In a pillow talk between the zealot and his wife, the pair cuddle up while she coos about how much she wants to kill blacks and Jews – those are not her words, of course. The ironies of this talk with the cozy, sort-of loving scene are rich – and hilarious.
Ron Stallworth has some problems with the boundaries he ought to maintain as an undercover cop. He goes on a date with Patrice (Laura Harrier), the lively leader of the Black Students Union at Colorado College. Lee turns their evening in a club into a dance number in a musical. The dance is beautiful, the dancers long and elegant – and the close-ups of the faces of the young women and men are radiant.
One of the surprises in BlacKkKlansman is that Spike Lee is a thorough integrationist. The defeat of the Klansmen only comes about because Stallworth and the white cops cooperate. In fact, all the good results in the picture come from cooperation between black and white characters. And even the militant Patrice joins with Ron and the white cops to foil what we would all hope is the last standing racist in the city.
BlacKkKlansman does important stuff. It pulls no punches in its picture of race hatred, and Spike Lee nails the paranoia in the language of the Klansmen, and the sound of people who can spew a litany of things about which they really know nothing at all.