The movie was released on Aug. 10, 2018 to coincide with the one year anniversary of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)
As the summer months and subsequently the summer movie season comes to a close, it is without a doubt that “BlacKkKlansmen” should hold the 2018 title of best summer movie.
Based on the true story of Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African American to serve on the Colorado Springs police force, “BlacKkKlansmen” details the joint operation between Stallworth and another detective (Adam Driver), who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan.
“BlacKkKlansmen” rides a fine line between outlandish yet realistic, hilarious yet disturbing and it rides that line superbly.
The notion of an African American infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan by posing as a racist anti-Semite over the phone and sending a white detective in for the face-to-face exchanges is the premise of a comedy movie, yet it happened in real life. As such, director Spike Lee blends the two and creates a perfect mix of dark comedy and realism.
There are scenes in “BlacKkKlansmen” that are downright hilarious, like most of the scenes where Stallworth is on the phone with Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), but these scenes never undermine the disturbing portrayal of racism that Lee is going for. For example, there is a scene where the Klan watches “The Birth of a Nation,” a notoriously racist film that depicted the Klan as heroic and African Americans as villains. In this scene, the Klan watches and cheers with the movie (scenes from “The Birth of a Nation” are shown) in the same manner that one would imagine superhero fans would cheer at a Marvel movie. It seems impossible that a movie would have two scenes that are so drastically different in it, but “BlacKkKlansmen” does, and it works.
There is a lot that sticks out about this movie, but the portrayal of the Klan and racism are the most memorable and potent. The portrayal of the Klan is almost stereotypical in nature in a way that feels like the movie is going in a mildly comedic gesture, “Can you believe that there are actually people like this?” With that now in the audience’s mind, the movie gives them a gut punch with references to current events that say, “There are still people like this.”
With the exception of one on-the-nose scene where a fellow officer tells Stallworth he is being naive to think that someone like Duke could never take power, the rest of these references are handled brilliantly and effectively. The scene where the Klan are viewing “The Birth of a Nation” is inter spliced with a scene of the black student union, lead by Stallworth’s girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier), listening to a civil rights icon. The icon uses the, “Black power!” chant as one of perseverance while the Klan chant of, “White power!” is malevolent, a criticism of both sides’ rhetoric. The movie also ends with actual footage of modern day events. What that footage is should not be spoiled. All that will be said is that it leaves a lasting impression.
When it comes to the craftsmanship and style of the movie, cracks do show. Each act of the movie feels like there is a different style to it, with the first act almost having a Wes Anderson feel to it and the last act of the movie feeling like a race against the clock action thriller. None of these styles are handled poorly, but unlike other conflicting aspects of the movie, they do not mix.
In terms of characters, the movie flails a little bit there, too. Stallworth’s character feels a bit underwritten, and the relationship between him and Patrice feels underdeveloped. Their relationship does serve a purpose in terms of providing well-done social commentary on the relationship between police and the African American community, but the relationship itself does not feel organic. Despite some underwritten elements to the characters, most of the actors do a good job, especially Washington, Driver and Jasper Pääkkönen. The only actor who is just flat out bad is Topher Grace, who feels like he is just playing a racist version of his character Eric Foreman from “That ‘70s Show.”
With its sharp social commentary, well-crafted humor and its fantastic cast, “BlacKkKlansmen” stands out not only as the best film of the summer and one of the best films of the year, but also as one of the most memorable and impactful in recent years.
Final Grade: A-