Sunday, August 19, 2018

SKIN IN THE GAME: a review of "BlacKKKlansman"

Based upon Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth
Screenplay Written by David Rabinowitz & Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Directed by Spike Lee
**** (four stars)


I do not care how many people I would have to debate or battle, but without question, Spike Lee is unquestionably one of our greatest American filmmakers working today. Over the course of 32 years and nearly 30 films, which includes traditional narrative features, blistering satires and documentaries, Lee has produced an ouvre of an uncommonly high quality as he has masterfully fused provocative subject matter with enormous entertainment value producing a fearless body of work that has more than stood the test of time and relevance.

With the arrival of "BlacKKKlansman," his docudrama/crime thriller/political-social satire, Lee has emerged with one of 2018's tallest achievements but also with one of the finest films of his entire career as I am not entirely certain that I have seen a film which is essentially a period piece speak to the precise minute of 2018 as audaciously and as brilliantly as what he has accomplished here.

And even deeper, for a filmmaker who has confronted the powder keg issues of race and racism in America as consistently and (again) as fearlessly as he has in the past, Spike Lee explores this subject matter in a fashion that skeptics and his fiercest detractors would never allow him the credit: an uncompromising fair-mindedness. Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman" is extraordinary, exhilarating and most importantly, downright essential filmmaking and storytelling and it demands to be fully experienced, exceedingly so at this tremendously frightening point in our cultural history.

Based upon the absolutely improbable but defiantly true story and memoir of Ron Stallworth, Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman" stars John David Washington (yes Denzel Washington's son) as Stallworth, who is hired as the first African-American police officer of the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1972. Initially ignored, devalued and in the case of one belligerent officer in particular, the odious Master Patrolman Andy Landers (played by Frederick Weller), openly harassed, Stallworth endures his role as the one and only Black officer on staff --albeit in the filing department--with a combined sense of resentment, repressed anger and utter boredom.

Soon, Stallworth requests to take on an undercover assignment, and is surprisingly given to him: to go and investigate the goings-on at a local rally organized by the Colorado College Black Student Union and featuring none other than Stokely Carmichael, now self-renamed Kwame Ture (an extraordinary Corey Hawkins), as guest speaker. After the rally, Stallworth is re-assigned to the intelligence division and begins the investigation that will alter the course of his life demonstrably.

Beginning with reading an advertisement in a local newspaper, Stallworth, utilizing his "White voice," phones the local chapter of the KKK and speaks with the group's president, Walter Beachway (Ryan Eggold) asking for information to join.  While the initial contact proves successful, there is one notable problem: Stallworth has used his real name.

Enter Detective Flip Zimmerman (beautifully portrayed by Adam Driver), who is Jewish, and is quickly recruited to act as Ron Stallworth for in-person meetings with the KKK members, including the fully radicalized Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen) and his increasingly unhinged wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). This proves to be a sticky situation to say the least as Stallworth and Zimmerman have to work in seamless tandem to keep stories straight, as well as the sound of their own voices to match the phone and in-person communications with Klan members. And then, there is the increased tension surrounding Felix's suspicions that Zimmerman, acting as Stallworth, is actually Jewish.

Once Ron Stallworth eventually begins telephone conversations with David Duke, the Grand Wizard of the KKK (Topher Grace), complications mount and a plot of domestic terrorism rises, thus endangering the lives of Stallworth, Zimmerman and Black Student Union president Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), whom Stallworth has begun covertly dating.

Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman" provocative, confrontational, controversial and it is also ingenious, dynamic, soulful, profoundly disturbing, electrifying, and enraging. Working beautifully with his key collaborators including Co-Screenwriter Kevin Willmott, Editor Barry Alexander Brown and Composer Terrence Blanchard, Lee delivers his film via his more classical, traditional mode as seen within films like "Malcolm X" (1992), "25th  Hour" (2002) and "Inside Man" (2006), and in doing so, and it is also one of his most accessible features to date and completely without softening the implicit and explicit messages contained throughout even one iota. "BlacKKKlansman" is a slow burn of a film but indeed one where the intensity accelerates furiously, just like an ignited flame hurtling towards the explosives at the end of the rope.

One long standing criticism held against Spike Lee is how his films tend to be over-stuffed with ideas, a criticism I have long dismissed as I believe his films to be richly multi-layered. "BlacKKKlansman" is no exception as even within his accessible style this time around, he makes ample room for social satire concerning the means in which Ron Stallworth was even able to first infiltrate the KKK at the outset--the utilization of the "White voice."

Essentially, this film could easily be viewed as a perfect double feature with Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You," itself a nightmarishly hallucinogenic satire about racial code switching and the irrevocable dangers of remaining complicit and refusing to get some skin in the game--and also a film that truly owes its existence to experiences like Lee's rabid cinematic fever dream satires of "Bamboozled" (2000), "She Hate Me" (2004) and "Chi-Raq" (2015).

Yet, this time around Lee tames his flights of fantastical elements and remains firmly grounded, slyly and richly illustrating that the plain, hard truth of the matter is indeed sometimes further down the rabbit hole than anything that could have been prefabricated. Because, honestly, who in their right  mind would have or could have even believed that a plan like Stallworth's could have ever proven itself to being successful, let alone ever having happened at all. But, incredulously, it did, thus allowing the characters that populated this experience, and now for us in the audience and even Lee himself to not solely confront, but to take a deep dive into the maelstrom of race and racism itself, most notably the differences and similarities between the respective movements of Civil Rights and Black Power compared and contrasted with the KKK and White nationalism.

For instance, let's take the stunning BSU Civil Rights rally sequence, featuring Kwame Ture, set early in the film. If there was a sequence created to showcase self-love for the Black community, it is indeed this one during which Ture passionately instructs Black people to not allow the dominant White society dictate to us our own inherent value as human beings plus our own skills, levels of intelligence and even beauty standards. As Ture speaks of the beauty contained within our natural hair, the thickness of our lips, the regal wideness of our noses, Lee lovingly injects close up images of the students in attendance spotlighting the very physical features of which Ture celebrates. By doing so, it is that self-love, that love we should share for ourselves as Black people--with ourselves as well as with each other--and it is a celebration that should occur entirely despite what White society dictates and bombards us with once we leave that rally and the movie theater, for that matter.

As Lee takes us deeper inside the workings of this Colorado chapter of the KKK via the lens of Flip Zimmerman, I have to make notation that the film could have easily made these figures easy, cartoonish targets for we already know where Spike Lee stands within the social-political stratosphere, but trust me, he does not. Again, we are presented a crucial quality about Lee's work that never receives enough notice (because it goes directly against the White media approved perception that  Spike Lee is that "angry Black man" who hates all White people): Lee's fair-mindedness. With "BlacKKKlansman," Spike Lee gives us a window into the world of White supremacists, from the homegrown true believers to David Duke himself and allows us to view their own sense of self-love, albeit the love housed inside the hatred and a perception of the world and their place within it that does fall into utter fantasy.

David Duke provides an impassioned speech during the film in which he describes the history of America through the White lens and in language that is remarkably reflective of everything we are hearing in 2018 through the so=-called alt-Right to even the President himself. Duke speaks of Whites discovery of America with the base of the Christian faith as its bedrock and influence, all the while also proclaiming about times that used to be that desperately need to become again. Sound familiar?

In this current 21st century age where we witness consistent push back against the Black Lives Matter movement, often being confronted with the firecracker question of "Well..what about White lives?" In this film, Spike Lee addresses this concern so explicitly as we get to know members of each side of this debate and frankly, to me, the answers are obvious. But let's read t hat a gain: "to me." What feels obvious to me and to some of you reading this posting is not obvious to others. If it was, we would not be having this debate whatsoever. So, to paraphrase what Spike Lee has been extolling throughout the entirety of his film career, and so plainly with "BlacKKKlansman" is the following: Pro-Black does not mean Anti-White!

To be Black and to celebrate oneself despite the values placed upon us by the dominant society, is a necessity essential to our own sense of survival: both physical and undeniably psychological. We need to love ourselves, to know about ourselves, our triumphs and tragedies in order to ensure that the history of us remains intact as we continue to push ourselves into the future.

To illustrate, Lee provides a harrowing, sobering sequence starring the iconic Harry Belafonte as an elderly activist who describes in excruciating detail a lynching he witnessed in 1916 to a group of Black students and activists.  It is a scene that presents precisely the primary difference between Black Civil Rights and White nationalism. For Black Civil Rights, it is about the preservation of a race within a dominant society. For White nationalists, it is the self-preservation of a race, within a fear based movement, at the expense of every other race not like themselves. In short, the lynching Belafonte describes to inform young Black people of the severity of the struggle is an act that would be delivered unto them by figures like David Duke and the Colorado Klansmen.

To delve even deeper, Spike Lee, a film historian as well as filmmaker, also presents how cinematic image do their part in shaping self-perceptions as well as those of others. One of the first images within "BlacKKKlansman" is a moment from Victor Fleming's "Gone With The Wind" (1939), during which we see a Confederate flag flying proudly in the wind overshadowing the legions of wounded and dead soldiers laying on the ground.

Later, we regard the Colorado KKK members adjoined, with the increasingly disgusting cackling laughter of Klansmember wife Connie Kendrickson, watching a print of D.W. Griffith's "The Birth Of A Nation" (1915)--a film I even had to study in film classes during the late 1980's--the film which is over-run with all manner of racist depictions of Black people and more disturbingly, the presentation of the KKK as  heroes, a m ove t hat helped considerably to re-ignite their presence in American society.

And even deeper than that, we even witness how images of Black people in films play within Black audiences, as Lee gives us a spirited debate between Ron Stallworth and Patrice Dumas regarding the virtues and fallacies within the Blaxploitation genre from Gordon Parks' Shaft" (1971), Gordon Parks Jr's "Super Fly" (1972) and Jack Hill's "Coffy" (1973).

And even then, Spike Lee goes deeper...

The performances of  John David Washington and Adam Driver are superlative in their chemistry and complexity. For Washington (who at times, eerily sounds like his own Father), his portrayal of Ron Stallworth is a study in a certain Black complacency that slowly finds itself pushed and challenged. For a man who wears a natural Afro so glorious that even Questlove woud be envious, and clearly understanding to how the world works regarding race, he seems to be fine with just riding the middle, not delving terribly far into any sense of activism, partially because he has always housed dreams of becoming a police officer, albeit a "Shaft" styled officer (regardless, an element about him that slides in conflict with the Black activists in the film). Furthermore, and even as he understands code switching by using his "White voice," Stallworth is also naive to the larger racial disparities and levels of racial hatred as he is called out by his own White police chief as such when he remarks his disbelief that anyone like a David Duke could ever become President of the United States. If he only knew...

To that end, by having Zimmerman, a Jewish man, venture into the KKK "lion's den" undercover, it feels as if Stallworth is equally naive in what this piece of the experience may mean to his partner. Adam Driver is sensational as he, as Zimmerman, is required to deliver a performance inside of another performance, tapping into a level of racism he abhors but may have to acknowledge possibly rests within himself due to the relative ease he is able to fall into the Klan members' racist rhetoric, language and epithets, all the way to speaking the very unspeakable about the Holocaust so as not to be discovered as being Jewish.

Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman" indeed forces Stallworth and Zimmerman to undergo some serious self-examination but also Lee directly forces us in the audience to perform the same feats as he wants for us to fully recognize that these 1970's era events as presented in this film did not evaporate into the ghosts of the past. For what is past is prologue and in the case of this film, what is past is as present as just looking outside of our windows or better yet, directly into our own mirrors.

The entire experience of "BlacKKlansman" is designed and executed to tell a 1970's story that runs concurrently with the events of the present leading up to the minute in 2018. Yes, there are key lines of dialogue meant to mirror the words of the Trump Administration but it is not designed to cause nervous humor. It exists to draw the clearest lines possible from past to present, demonstrating how racist attitudes reverberate through time and in actuality, do not change a bit.

And you know, I just had a thought while writing this piece and I hope this is not seen as a wild reach. I have just had a thought that perhaps "BlacKKKlansman" is Spike Lee's allegory for the entirety of the Obama Presidency, its duration and its aftermath in becoming the Trump Presidency, the complete inverse of the eight years prior to the 2016 election.

Just think about it. Just as Barack Obama became the first Black President, signaling a certain progressive optimism and celebration, Lee gives us Ron Stallworth, the first Black police officer in Colorado Springs, itself a progressive move. For both Obama and Stallworth, they each were forced to endure the weight of what happens when one is the very first non-White to break a previously all-White glass ceiling (in fact, Stallworth is referred to as being the "Jackie Robinson" of this specific police force).

With Obama's 8 years, we have seen the quiet, under the surface racism and the building tension and resentment with this one Black male figure existing in a place that was once Whites only....just as what we see with Stallworth on the police force and therefore, leading this investigation into the KKK.  And soon, that once submerged tension begins to build, to boil and to overflow and explode into fully revealed and emboldened racism that encourages fear, division and violence, from either a ring of Klansmen burning a massive cross to the sight of neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, leading to riots and the murder of Heather Heyer, a peaceful counter-protester of the "Unite The Right" rally, who was killed by a neo-Nazi who crashed his car into a crowd, an act of domestic terrorism unfathomably not denounced by President Trump.

For some, I could imagine that Spike Lee's inclusion of that very footage from Charlottesville might feel to be a bit ghoulish but for me, it was exactly the body slam needed to hammer with finality Lee's point that the events depicted in "BlacKKlansman" cannot be shoveled into some historical closet and to sit on the sidelines during these terrifying, perilous times could prove themselves to devastating in ways we have only imagined. Spike Lee, as always, wants us all to WAKE UP and get ourselves engaged by putting our collective skin in the game for everything we have imagined as not possibly happening IS indeed happening.

Entertaining, invigorating, infuriating and galvanizing, Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman" is a towering accomplishment for the cinematic year of 2018.


  1. EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT excellent awesome review
    could not agree more
    left the theater sobbing

    thank you!

  2. THANK YOU so much for taking the time to read my review. It truly means the world to me that it was worth your time.

  3. I’ve been waiting for your review! I was off the grid for a few days and I was excited to dive in upon our return. I also thought it was a fantastic and devastating film. I also loved the music! I’ll never hear Too Late to Turn Back Now the same way again. And Lucky Man by ELP? I laughed out loud. The ending: “body slam” is right. Some critics thought that was too excessive, that the connection is obvious, but I thought it was so necessary. Both times I saw it, the silence at the end was deafening. Everyone should see this film, and I am contemplating taking Ruby, who is entering 8th grade. Too much for? Idk. It’s reality I want my kids to be aware of.