All power…to all people. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has wanted to be in law enforcement ever since being a youngster. In 1979, he answers the call of the Colorado Springs Police Department and becomes the new rookie donning the blues. He becomes a Jackie Robinson figure of sorts; the only black detective in the entire unit, which brings the unfortunate racial doses of reality.
Yet this doesn’t deter Stallworth, who wants to make a difference and not be confined to working the record room where he’s subjected to malicious insults. His first assignment is to monitor a local college civil rights rally to make sure his people are kept in line, meeting Patrice (Laura Harrier), president of the black student union, in the process. Invigorated after hearing, he decides to answer the call of the Ku Klux Clan’s local chapter advertisement, in hopes of bringing them down from the inside. Only one problem: Stallworth’s skin color. He’ll never get in, but his Caucasian squad mate Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) can. And so begins the investigation. One Ron Stallworth, two different individuals. Fail, and they’re both dead along with countless others the “organization” is looking to target in a hate fueled act of terrorism.
If individuals such as Matthew McConoaughey and M. Night Shyamalan can have their “McConossaince” and “Shyamalanissance,” respectively, why can’t Spike Lee have his “Spikassaince?” It’s not as if the director has released only commercial and critical duds in recent years (minus Oldboy which satisfies both qualifications), but so many of his recent films lack a steady direction. Not so with BlacKkKlansman, the best Lee joint in ages combining introspection, humor, and drama rolled together.
Never one to shy away from controversial issues, Lee deals with truly powder-keg material in BlacKkKlansman. This isn’t Dave Chappelle’s legendary comedic skit about a blind African-American believing he’s a white man supremacist for the entire existence of his life. However, the director’s latest feature doesn’t linger on a completely grim tone or presentation. It’s often been said that the truest and unfathomable stories make for the funniest ones. There’s effective comedy—some of it uncomfortable—throughout this film adapted from the autobiography of its lead character, placed at just the right times for maximum levity.
Thankfully, the comedy never undercuts the serious edge of the story. The stakes are real—as is the loaded language—and Lee never lets the audience forget that fact. Shot on celluloid (a sound choice for this setting), his kinetic style is on display, often used to juxtapose two sides of the proverbial themed coin of black vs. white, individual vs. collective, etc. It’s impossible to not see the relevancy and allusion to today’s state of affairs in America, but Lee’s greatest strength here is handling all of this powder-keg material of a script with a velvety subtle touch. BlacKkKlansman rarely—if ever—comes off as an overly preachy lesson, rather, it unfolds as an intense drama with those dialogue moments that give a viewer pause and reflection. The actual ending feels a tad tacked on to drive home a real world message in the event anyone missed it being told subtly; still, seeing these real world videos and images reinforces the fact that this real world story might have a Hollywood ending, but most stories in life rarely do.
There’s no weak writing in Lee’s script, and all characters featured are written as real characters, not flimsy ones or unbelievable caricatures. It allows a talented cast to truly shine, starting with Denzel Washington’s son. For anyone who has seen Dwayne Johnson’s Ballers, “JD” Washington has long stolen scenes from that show’s megastar as troubled wide receiver Ricky Jarrett. Similar to his famed father, Washington has an infectious charisma that powers many scenes. Without a doubt, this is a breakout performance. Even better, he’s cognizant enough to never let that charisma overshadow his co-stars in Driver and Harrier, and the chemistry he builds with both is paramount to the success of the film. Supporting character-wise, everyone from Michael Buscemi and Topher Grace to people who only appear in one scene like Corey Hawkins and Alec Baldwin make a long lasting impression on the viewer.
One spectacular film after disappointing ones doesn’t necessarily mean a renaissance is on the way. But, if we’re on the cusp of a good-to-great Lee career third act, we’ll look back at BlacKkKlansman as the start of it.
Photo credits go to hollywoodreporter.com, express.co.uk, and flickeringmyth.com.
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