Review: How BlacKkKlansman confronts cinema’s and America’s racist past

BLACKKKLANSMAN directed by Spike Lee, by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from the book by Ron Stallworth,.

BLACKKKLANSMAN directed by Spike Lee, by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from the book by Ron Stallworth, with John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace and Alec Baldwin. A Universal release. 135 minutes. Opens Friday (August 10). For times and venues, see listings. Rating: NNNN

Ron Stallworth is Black and a cop, two identities that are at odds with each other for apparent reasons in 1970s Colorado the setting of BlacKkKlansman and today. Stallworth is also a card-carrying member of the KKK, which is the running punchline in Spike Lees fitfully funny and furious new joint.

Lee, a host of co-writers and producer Jordan Peele have adapted Stallworths memoirs, recounting how the detective (John David Washington), the first Black officer in his precinct, infiltrated the KKK by code-switching over the phone and sending a white officer (played by Adam Driver) to pose as him for in-person meets.

The outrageous premise is played for lots of laughs, but it hits harder whenever we take a sombre moment to consider the self-hate that goes with the job. BlacKkKlansman expands out to consider how that sort of identity crisis is forced upon African-Americans, in life and at the movies.

The tension is there even before Ron goes KKK. Hes sent undercover to spy on a Black Students Union event hosting Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael, is the activist who coined the Black Power rallying call. Hes also deemed a threat by police.

Ture begins his rousing lecture with an anecdote about watching Tarzan as a child and what consuming images from the silver screen where Black means savage does for an African-American audiences sense of identity. Rons feeling the message. Hes also reporting back on it to his white superiors who arent as empathetic.

Ron flips his role by initiating the investigation into the Klan. Spouting off racial epithets for the benefit of his KKK audience, Stallworth can look ashamed but also determined and proud that hes using their language against them.

Tures speech about Tarzan isnt the only screen representation dealt with. The film opens with a famous moment from Gone With The Wind, before Lee begins mimicking blaxploitation. At one point his characters debate whether Ron ONeals Youngblood Priest in Super Fly is sticking it to the man or feeding into Black stereotypes.

And a key sequence has Stallworth spying discreetly on the Klan. Hes a spectator behind glass in a Sunken Place moment, watching the Klan watch a film. Theyre celebrating an initiation ceremony by screening D.W. Griffiths The Birth Of A Nation, the vile epic that valorized the KKK and inspired its second coming.

The Birth Of A Nation is taught in film schools today because with it Griffith developed moviemaking as we know it. Filmmakings foundations are as racist as Americas, and Lee has been struggling against its hold on Black representation throughout his career, but most bluntly with Bamboozled, another outrageous satire not unlike BlacKkKlansman where Black actors wear blackface.

Perhaps its more than coincidence that BlacKkKlansmans timeline, and its retrospective on film history, ends right around the point where Spike Lee began making films.

The most satisfying bit in BlacKkKlansman feels like a genuine Spike Lee gesture, when Ron comes face to face with the unsuspecting Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (played effectively by Topher Grace). Ron suckers a Polaroid of that meeting, directing a moment that has him in total control of the image. At that point, I couldnt help but feel that Stallworth and Spike Lee were the same person.

The film looks for other moments to satisfy: movie-grade heroic bits that veer away from fact and dont quite sit right within this story because theyre not at all convincing.

BlackKklansmen is messy and conflicted in that way, working through its own identity crisis, not necessarily on purpose, but the result is fitting. The film wavers in its attempts to entertain and provoke to make light or go hard.

Sure, those unconvincing victories come along, but Lee takes them all back in the end with tragic and current newsreel footage. The last in the movies many easy but potent reminders that the current U.S. president and the Klans David Duke share a lot in common. | @JustSayRad

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