A little over a week ago Spike Lee dropped his latest joint Blackkklansman in theaters, and if you haven’t seen it yet, please follow the signs to turn in your “Black,” “Cinephile,” “Nerd,” or “Woke” cards at the door on your way out.
The small budget film with a production budget of about $15 MIL has already made it’s money back according to data from Box Office Mojo. That’s great news for Focus Features, #TeamSpike, and also Get Out’s Jordan Peele, who also served as producer on the project. But what do the rest of us humans receive? We get to celebrate, discuss, and worry over one of the most interesting pieces of art and cinema of the year.
Side Note: Get ready for the endless debate as to whether this movie or Black Panther should be nominated. I’ve already had it. And it’s pandering and ridiculous not to be open to a discussion where BOTH movies might be considered or rejected for award consideration. But I digress.
If you are new to the Spike Lee world, you may only be privy to his latest works to judge his contributions to the film and television mediums. So if you saw Chi-Raq and/or the reboot of She’s Gotta Have It – uh sorry.
Everyone drops some dungbombs when they are putting out work, especially someone who has been doing it as long as Mr. Lee. The always controversial, always conversational, and always fearless director has given us some of the best work cinema has to offer. The ORIGINAL film version of She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, School Daze, Jungle Fever. These are all films that can be laid next to critically lauded opuses like Citizen Kane, The Godfather or The Graduate any day. Hell, Malcolm X, considered Lee’s greatest film by many, might beat them all out, at least in my book.
So where does Blackkklansman fit? Right on that thin almost invisible line between a great movie and a classic. Unfortunately I don’t think this will be ranked amongst his top 5 or even ten best films. But it rests atop a mountain of mediocre and lackluster punch and repeat films over the last several months.
To be brief, as not to spoil anything, Blackkklansman is about a Colorado police officer turned detective who goes undercover to infiltrate the KKK. The crisis and conflict of course is that the officer in question, Ron Stallworth, played by John David Washington, is Black. So how is this going to work? Well he enlisted the help of a white officer, Flip Zimmerman, starring Adam Driver, to play the physical embodiment of Ron Stallworth. While Black Ron as I will call him here, keeps the charades up on the phone.
This is Code Switching wackery set to a Three Stooges like tempo. This is the perfect vehicle for Spike Lee, and could have also been his worst nightmare. Adept at humor, irony and artistic aesthetics on film, the director’s kryptonite has always been preachiness. And there is no greater danger for an onslaught of preach than in a film about the KKK.
Somehow in some great miracle of editing, production, and grace, the film is allowed to just be an enjoyable, and gut wrenching film. The scenes don’t need Lee’s megaphone gaslighting techniques where the barely subliminable current yells “this is racism, and racism is wrong.” Lee does his best work when he lets the characters and scenes tell the story. And what a story.
And while the topic is dead ass serious, the film manages to be fun and breezy all the way up to….(ah, this is a potential spoiler so I will jump off here).
It is no secret that John David Washington is the offspring of Denzel Washington, an actor who collaborated with Lee on several films. Denzel’s swag may not have been created in the Lee canon, but it was certainly developed there. There would be no Washington as we know him without Lee, and vice versa. So to see his son in the same leading man stance, is a weird deja vu moment.
Now, John David Washington, I am sorry to say, is no Denzel, not yet anyway, He does his best work when surrounded by performers who pull the best out of him, like Adam Driver, and Topher Grace. More on that later. What he does bring is a kind of 70’s masculinity that does not feel oppressive to women. His Stallworth is like a blaxploitation character who turns around to Coffee and says, “what is on your mind?”
What the younger Washington also brings to the table is an earnestness that really works with the character. You believe Stallworth is waiting for his opportunity to shine and be a great cop.
Adam Driver, who already proved to Hollywood he could act in HBO’s Girls, and then did it again in the Star Wars umteenth reboot, adds a much appreciated tamped down performance. He is not so much brewing as mulling over the circumstances he finds himself in and how that impacts his larger worldview. But he doesn’t have the “I’m the white guy who needs to be better” mentality. He, and Stallworth also, are cops first, bound by a code that at its high points is bound to protect all of us, and at it’s low points, puts us (us being Blacks, gays, Jews, women, and others) in the line of fire.
Another name I should mention is Topher Grace, who was best known as Eric Forman on FOX’s That 70’s Show. His humor and comic timing always made him stand out as the real performer in the middle of a clutch of beautiful “stars.” I mean really, if you were standing next to Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Wilmer Valderrama, you better know how to act. Here he plays KKK Grand Wizard David Duke with a touch of irony and whimsy that shouldn’t be allowed for such a serious subject, but somehow makes the film more enjoyable.
There are two female stars who are working at opposite purposes in the film, and the result has opposing effect on the film. Laura Harrier’s “Patrice” is the somewhat stiff Angela Davis-like girlfriend stand-in that Ron of course falls for in the film. She is technically the leader of the college’s Black student union and organizes and arranges many of the politically charged speakers that come to the city. She has a scene with a police officer that could have been Thandie Newton “Crash” worthy, but fell flat. The film tries to make her more than just the girlfriend. She has a gun, a bigger afro than Ron, and glasses. But still, some tropes die hard.
On the opposite end is Ashlie Atkinson who plays Connie, a manic character hell bent on punishing Black people for being Black. She is a key conspirator in the film, and in that she is important because it let’s you know racism and hate is not bound by gender. There were a lot of awful white women who did despicable things to Blacks. That erasing of white women’s role in the great institution that is slavery and the greater industry which is racism in America is a huge problem Hollywood will have to address in the future, and is starting to here.
Mr. Lee keeps us on track with a tightly wound script that does not veer off course. It has a strong beginning middle and end, and nary a monologue in sight. Well except for one, but it’s so worth it. You don’t have to be a Lee fan to appreciate this film. You don’t have to be an activist to understand the plot. You just have to go into it with a willingness to be entertained and might come out of it inspired and changed.
Cover photo: The FADER