Spike Lee Taps Both Humor and Tragedy in "BlacKkKlansman" (Review)
Historical accuracy be damned. When it comes to creating a movie "based on true events," writers and directors usually try to be faithful to real life events to a point, but end up taking some liberties in order to craft a more interesting story. So when Spike Lee opens BlacKkKlansman with the words "based on some fo' real fo' real shit," its only fitting that the story that follows would not accurately reflect reality. Yet somehow, even with Lee fabricating almost all of the events in the third act, BlacKkKlansman feels not only real, but urgent. By trusting the talented cast to carry the humor through their characters' personalities and quirks, and drawing connections between the investigation at the center of the film and current events, Spike Lee has created a film that manages to be entertaining, tragic, and rousing.
BlacKkKlansman focuses on the exploits of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a rookie cop on the Colorado Springs Police Department in the 1970s, and the department's first black recruit. Tasked with keeping an eye on potential black radicals identified by the police department, Stallworth instead ends up establishing contact with the Ku Klux Klan when he spontaneously decides to respond to a recruitment ad in a local newspaper. With the reluctant go-ahead of his police chief, Stallworth launches an operation to infiltrate the Klan with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish cop who plays the part of Stallworth when meeting the Klan in person, and a motley crew of other plucky cops. The investigation is a surprising success, though its not long before all parties involved find themselves in more danger than they anticipated.
What is probably the most impressive feat achieved by Spike Lee is the balance he creates between tension and humor. Inherently, the Ku Klux Klan is not exactly hilarious, especially considering there are real, literal Nazis making a sort of comeback around the globe. But instead of falling into the trap of making the Klan into a bunch of hillbilly buffoons like in Django Unchained (a film Lee was highly critical of) and mining that for humor, Lee instead allows the story's heroes to carry the comedy through their own interactions. Washington and Driver have excellent chemistry, and their awkward efforts to understand each other create some of the most amusing moments in the film's first half. By consolidating the humor into these interactions, and keeping the Klan a very real and separate threat, Lee allows the menace of the Klan to remain consistent while providing breaks in the tension to watch Stallworth do karate chops behind annoying co-workers backs or try to teach the cadence of his mock-white voice to Zimmerman.
The success of this relies heavily on the cast, who are more than up to the job. John David Washington plays Stallworth with a geeky confidence, selling him not only as a man out to do good, but also one naive enough to miss some of the greater implications of the fight he is embroiled with. This contrasts nicely with Driver's Zimmerman, who may understand these same implications, but is willing to ignore them for his own comfort and ability to pass as a non-Jewish white. I'm as surprised as anyone to also report that Topher Grace steals whatever scene he is in as Klan leader David Duke. Grace convincingly portrays Duke as a wolf in sheep's clothing, a racist trying to sell racism to the masses as something respectable and actually quite normal. Instead of going into a tirade, Grace allows flashes of anger and entitlement to peak out in Duke's speeches to his comrades, making him a quietly terrifying character that creepily reflects some of the tactics used by ultra right-wing pundits today. This is much more effective than the actual main antagonist, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), a hyperbolically angry white supremacist who challenges Zimmerman throughout his infiltration and pushes for more violence against minorities within the Colorado Springs KKK chapter. Laura Harrier's black activist Patrice Dumas similarly suffers in the role of Stallworth's girlfriend. While passionate about her activism, the film fixates mostly on her stubbornness, and she seems to exist only to create conflict within the plot. Notably, Felix and Patrice drive the most historically inaccurate parts of the film as well, with Felix's actions being contrived for the movie and Patrice not existing in reality at all.
Stylistically, BlacKkKlansman alternates between more showy, creative sections and scenes more focused on realism. A scene in which Stallworth and Patrice talk about blaxploitation films cuts the posters for those films over the screen, for example, while most of the Klan meetings are mostly portrayed without any unusual editing or visual tricks. Twice, Lee also nearly halts the film to a stop to focus on speeches by characters not central to the plot. These two scenes, one following a speech by activist Kwame Ture and the other honing in on the story of a brutal lynching of a mentally challenged black youth, are particularly potent in grounding the story, bringing the viewers back to reality from the movie's fictionalized events. Not committing to one visual or storytelling style keeps every scene feeling fresh, and prevents boredom from setting in despite the considerable runtime.
BlacKkKlansman really has two endings, both necessary to the film's effectiveness. The first is cheesy, tying up the story in a neat bow and allowing the heroes to revel in their triumphs and what they have learned. The second is a gut-punch, a true reminder by Spike Lee and crew that this story, the story of civil rights in America, has not yet achieved the happy ending that it should have. I left the theatre a little out of breath, not sure what to do next. Stallworth's story is an inspiring one, but Spike Lee makes it clear that there is still a lot of work to be done.