BlacKkKlansman (Rated C)
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Jasper Paakkonen, Topher Grace
Genre: Crime, Comedy-Drama
Good things can indeed come to those who wait.
Local moviegoers finally are able to feast their eyes on the highly anticipated new Spike Lee “joint”, “BlacKkKlansman”, after the disappointment of its unexplained no-show in theaters two weeks ago, despite being advertised as “now playing”.
Well, we can now all delve into what’s behind that unfathomable title – seemingly ridiculous to anyone familiar with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Equally shocking, though, is how often such a concept has apparently been explored.
This new film is not to be confused with “The Black Klansman”, the 1966 picture about a (very) light-skinned black man (played by a white actor, no less) who disguises himself as a white man (i.e. gets a perm) to infiltrate the KKK, after Klansmen in America’s Deep South during the height of the Civil Rights Movement fire bomb a church, killing his daughter. By the way, this was all during the funeral of another black man, also killed by the Klan. Also known as “I Crossed the Color Line”, this cheesy, low-budget, black-and-white drama goes as bonkers as its hero as he gets his revenge on the KKK.
So, no – not that mess! (But check it out on YouTube if you like simultaneously cringing and laughing.)
This title comes instead from the 2014 book “Black Klansman” by Ron Stallworth, the real-life first-ever black officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department, who actually infiltrated the Klan’s local chapter in the late 1970s.
Based largely on the accounts in the book (more on that in a moment), the film follows Stallworth (played by John David Washington) as a determined-to-make-a-name-for-himself officer, setting out on the dangerous mission of exposing the KKK. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into the undercover investigation of a lifetime. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organization aims to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream.
The big news is of course Spike Lee, back with another incredibly timely examination of racism in America. Released on the one-year anniversary of the deadly riots in Charlottesville, race seems to be as hot and contentious an issue today as at any time since the Civil Rights movement.
With time and age, Lee has greatly matured, and crafts increasingly slick and refined tales, largely bereft of the sometimes off-putting zaniness that often characterized some of his earlier work.
The other big story is that “BlacKkKlansman” features a number of the same producers as the much-acclaimed “Get Out”, including that film’s Best Oscar Screenplay winner Jordan Peele.
Promoted as a comedy for the absurdity of the concept, “BlacKkKlansman” is indeed genuinely amusing. But like the aforementioned “Get Out” – which blurred classification amongst almost all existing cinematic genres, qualifying as not only a comedy, but also intense drama with its horror and thriller themes as it tackled race and stereotypes – so, too, is “BlacKkKlansman” hard to classify.
Those weird, headache and vertigo-inducing camera angles and extreme close-ups that would have been seemingly endless in a Spike Lee joint from the 1990s are replaced here by some especially uncomfortable moments, with blisteringly strong language.
You may also be made uncomfortable when you see that while things have changed, things really haven’t changed. It’s so bizarre when these 1970s era characters discuss how unlikely it is that America would ever elect someone like Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, whom they suspected at the time had political aspirations.
Of course, we all know that Duke did eventually indeed run for office, winning a state representative seat for Louisiana, and running for the United States House and Senate, and even for president, twice – once as a Democrat and once as a Republican. And many Americans today are questioning the beliefs of many current elected officials, even all the way up to the top.
Duke is played by Topher Grace (TV’s “That ‘70s Show”), part of a stellar cast headed by Washington (HBO’s “Ballers”). Yes, Washington is related to that other famous Washington actor; the former football player is Denzel’s eldest son. (Close your eyes and John David sounds quite a bit like his father.) Washington’s inherited the Oscar-winner’s intensity as well, in what is sure to be a career-making performance.
Also, doing fine work is the always-stellar Driver, who’s proving that following up on his success in HBO’s “Girls” and in the newest “Star Wars” trilogy, he is an actor we should all keep our eyes on, and is likely just one role away from superstardom.
There are other noteworthy performances. Finnish actor Jasper Paakkonen threatens to steal the whole picture with the creepiest, most skin-crawling portrayal of a most-demented Klansman in recent times. His psychotic wife, played by Ashlie Atkinson, is almost as insane. They are quite an entertaining duo.
Look out for cameos from Ryan Eggold (TV’s “The Blacklist”), Corey Hawkins (“Straight Outta Compton”) and even the legendary Harry Belafonte.
Now, this is a movie, and there are apparently some notable story embellishments here. To be fair, they do say “based on a true story”, not exactly “the full true story”. However, these added characters and situations don’t stray too far from what happened in reality, and they successfully add to the intensity of the drama.
Undoubtedly though, “BlacKkKlansman” is one of those rare films that can entertain and make you feel good, but can, at the same time, make you very sad, and really take note of how far we have yet to go in terms of tolerance, race relations and respect for each other’s differences.
This is fine storytelling and great filmmaking, and as it is thankfully finally here, it should not be missed.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email email@example.com and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.