File Under 2018 #99: BlacKkKlansman


What it's about: Ron Stallworth was the first black police officer to serve the community of Colorado Springs. He quickly rose from working in the records room to become an undercover detective, first assigned to monitor a Black Panther affiliated speech on the local college campus. On a whim while reading an article about the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, Stallworth called up the organization and asked to join. Being a black man would obviously make infiltration impossible, so his partner Flip Zimmerman was brought in to be Stallworth for in-person meetings. The two cops worked together to monitor the actions of the Colorado Springs Klan, which lead to a bomb threat and a brush-up with Grand Wizard David Duke.

Unorganized thoughts [New Father Edition]:

  • Not surprisingly, BlacKkKlansman is a film that has a lot to say. Made by Spike Lee, it says it loudly and unpretentiously. It is a film that should be dissected for its philosophy on race, violence, cinema ... and, unfortunately, I just don't have the strength or mental capacity to tackle that challenge in my new status. There certainly are many things that struck me while watching BlacKkKlansman, though.

  • Start with the opening: Alec Baldwin, credited as Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard [who doesn't appear to be a real figure in this otherwise true-life story] stands in front of projected footage of The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and equally problematic images and delivers your typical white nationalist sermon about the superior and inferior races. It is a bold way to start the film, though certainly anyone seeming BlacKkKlansman knows what they are getting into. It just doesn't have the power these kinds of set-ups in Spike Lee films typically have. It might be the unmistakable presence of Baldwin or the performative aspect of the character's speech [he often breaks, is prompted lines from an unseen woman], it just doesn't work.

  • As the film's core story kicks in, however, it really moves. As a period cop drama BlacKkKlansman is incredibly entertaining, funny and original, full of vibrant characters and a thrilling plot.

  • The KKK crew are pretty clearly drawn with derision, a few of them are incredibly clownish. But as Flip mentions after his first dive into their world, they aren't exactly the backyard yokels he expected. Their ideologies are plastered throughout the movie and they are made to sound as ridiculous as they should -- but the group is also taken seriously as a real threat to society.

  • Like the best of Spike Lee's films, this works pretty well between the worlds of broad entertainment and a film with radical messages. Even as it zooms through a pretty broad undercover detective genre film, Lee never lets it go too far before reminding that this is his film. A lot of the Spike Lee joint markers are here: the use of documentary footage, direct address to the camera, the double dolly shot.

  • One of the most incredible sequences in the film cross-cuts between two speeches: one from David Duke and the other from an old black man [played by Harry Belafonte] speaking to a crowd, remembering friends who were beaten and killed for being black. Because they are both shown together in the same space and context, it creates a strange emotional push-and-pull.

  • Further proof that Adam Driver has quickly become one of the best character actors working today. He plays second fiddle to John David Washington [who is also excellent] but he brings so much depth to Flip Zimmerman and a great inner struggle that is completely unnecessary for the greater points of the film to work -- though it certainly works into the larger themes.

  • Greatly and obviously influenced by the blaxploitation films that were popular in the era, from the mainstream black hero to the 1970s fashions [the afro is a major part to the look of this film] and the grainy camera work. The characters even speak about the artform with Stallworth debating with an activist about the role and merits of films like Shaft and SuperFly -- though she doesn't believe a black cop can have any meaningful effect on the racist institution, she even gets wrapped up in cheering for Richard Roundtree's most iconic character.

  • BlacKkKlansman ends with a montage centered on the white supremacist marches at Charlottesville in 2017 and the response from Trump [and if you see the film you won't miss another particular dig at the current President]. It certainly isn't seamless and some may find it too didactic a way to bring this story together, but I couldn't help by see the power in the message. It is most reminiscent to the opening of Lee's Malcolm X [which we covered extensively in the previous form of this site], which used the footage of Rodney King to set up the story. Technically, there is more of a direct connection in BlacKkKlansman to the doc footage.