(2018) True Life Drama (Focus) John David Washington Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alec Baldwin, Frederick Weller, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Nicholas Turturro, Harry Belafonte, Gina Belafonte, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ashlie Atkinson, Ato Blankson-Wood, Robert John Burke, Arthur Nascarella, Ken Garito, Damaris Lewis. Directed by Spike Lee
Spike Lee is the kind of director who tends to be ahead of his time; he has the uncanny ability to read the writing on the wall, particularly when it comes to race relations in America. His treatise on American racism in 2018 is cleverly couched in a based-on-actual-events dramedy set in the early 70s (although the actual events occurred in 1978).
Spike Lee is also the kind of director who doesn’t really care much about subtlety. Consequently, his films tend to make their points with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Here, Ron Stallworth (Washington), the first black cop in the history of Colorado Springs, has been chafing at a desk job. He longs to get out into the field and make a difference. He is assigned to go undercover at a black student rally at nearby Colorado College. There, he falls for the fiery, passionate president of the chapter, Patrice (Harrier).
His assignment goes well so he joins the Intelligence Division of the CSPD. He decides to call the Ku Klux Klan and see if he can get a membership card – which to his bemusement, he does. But after repeated phone conversations with KKK head David Duke (Grace), he is given the opportunity to infiltrate the local KKK chapter. Knowing that his physical presence is impossible, he gets a surrogate; Jewish cop Flip Zimmerman (Driver).
Lee doesn’t miss an opportunity to draw parallels between the 1970s and now, as in having the KKK members shouting in unison “America First!” or a racist cop opining that a racist President will get into office by masking his racism in policies about immigration and taxation. And if you still don’t get the connection, Lee appended a coda showing the tragic events of Charlottesville that took place almost a year to the day of the film’s release but after the film was completed.
This is one of Lee’s best films ever. While I’m not so sure that making white extremists out to be ignorant buffoons is a wise choice – that’s how we ended up with our current President – there is plenty of humor to balance out the seriousness of the message. Lee also does an excellent job of capturing the era, from the outstanding score and soundtrack to the wonderfully awful fashions and massive Afros.
Lee also benefits from outstanding performances from Washington and Driver, as well as to a lesser extent Topher Grace as the clueless David Duke. The message is certainly one that bears repeating – that in nearly half a century we still haven’t made much headway. I don’t know that the people who need to get that message will necessarily be flocking to see BlacKKKlansman but even if the movie ends up preaching to the converted it is still well worth the effort to check it out.
REASONS TO SEE: Captures the era to near-perfection, thanks largely to a terrific score. Great performances by Washington and Driver.
REASONS TO AVOID: Heavy handed and lacks finesse.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including racial epithets, a fair amount of violence (including sexual violence) and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film received six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mississippi Burning
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Uncut Gems