Throughout his career, Spike Lee has never been a stranger to controversy. From his spectacular debut Do the Right Thing to the not as well received Bamboozled, the polarizing director has never been afraid to tackle race issues head on. Based on the autobiography of the same name, 2018’s seemingly mistitled BlacKkKlansman sees Lee once again address the topic.
Movies have long been fertile ground when delivering social commentary. Most films will take one of two distinct routes when delivering a message about society. The topical picture in question will either tiptoe around the issue and make the whole exercise irrelevant or it will hammer its point home, numbing the audience to the entire experience. BlacKkKlansman deftly weaves both methods into its narrative. There are in your face moments that are impossible to ignore while other moments will have people asking, “Didn’t I just hear that on the news the other day?” The movie has an clear message to deliver from the opening scene and never alienates anyone while doing it.One could almost not blame Lee for dancing his way around the issue or a viewer from feeling left out. The title lets anyone who goes to see this movie what it is they are getting in to. This is the true story about a black man who joins the Ku Klux Klan and unsurprisingly the film is filled with racial and homophobic slurs. There are some very pointed attacks which will upset some.
The genius in Lee’s writing is despite the hateful messages, BlacKkKlansman is captivating while being revolting. The main characters are well written and given depth while the story is engrossing. We want to see what is going to happen while being disgusted at what we hear.
Much of the credit belongs to the cast. The movie is filled with powerful monologues that will anger, shock, and offend. The opening tirade delivered by Alec Baldwin is a powerful performance that mixes old school race baiting with modern day terror mongering. Along with Baldwin, forceful speeches are delivered by numerous members of the cast. Corey Hawkins, Topher Grace, and Harry Belafonte are all stand outs.BlacKkKlansman is an action packed movie that also finds time to make people laugh. Again, the writing and cast gel together beautifully. Adam Driver plays Detective Flip Zimmerman with quiet confidence while John David Washington is perfectly cast as the titular Klansman. There is the incredulous laughter that would be expected when dealing with these types of characters, but there are also many moments when the audience is able to share a laugh with Flip and Ron Stallworth.
Lee’s direction in the film is as close to perfect as one can get. He uses some of his trademarks like his famous dolly shot and a fun musical number. Lee also does some great work with lighting (especially in the amazing opening scene). The highlight of BlacKkKlansman is during a speech given by alleged former Black Panther Kwame Ture. Lee cuts to shots of the captivated audience but instead of panning to the crowd, Lee shows faces against a black backdrop. The simplicity maximizes the emotion in an already powerful scene.
BlacKkKlansman is set in the 1970s, but the characters are out of a story that seems like it was written this year. A seamlessly topical movie that will have everybody talking, BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s crowning achievement.