“BlacKKKlansmen”

“BlacKKKlansmen”
Directed by Spike Lee

bkkk2Spike’s new joint may be his best since “25th Hour” (excluding his documentaries), maybe even since “Do the Right Thing”, so be prepared, y’all. This is a film as much about this EXACT moment in American culture as it is about its written time period (the late seventies). In certain moments it borders on being a documentary as much as it does a biopic…or comedy. And when it comes to an overall point of view regarding the race wars, it pulls no punches just as much as it demands each audience member to find their own distinct place within it

Now, you might say that all of these are traits we’ve come to expect from Spike’s more personal films. But what makes this one different is “inclusion,” the idea of battling racism from within the system, not solely railing at it from the outside. It’s actually a major theme of the film, highlighting, as it does, the hero’s ability, or at least efforts, to cultivate real, meaningful relationships with people of all shades. DON’T GET ME WRONG…the ultra-racists are contemptible in this film and it is their hatred, ignorance and rage that is the brutal antagonist of the movie. But Ron Stallworth believes that to combat such evil, one must take a leap of faith that not all white folk are the same. Privileged, most certainly – sometimes desperately in need of some teaching. But evil, no, not all. I think this element is what will ultimately be “BlacKKKlansman’s” legacy as a testament to both then and now – moments in our history where the most hideous voices were tacitly given permission to proclaim their delusional shit from the mountain-tops.

And because he seems to have re-connected with the man who created Mookie, “KKKlansman” also happens to be a very entertaining movie while keeping you off guard throughout. Just when you think you can relax in to the humor, he reminds you that this is no joke, and to never forget that this IS about the black experience. And then, minutes later, it’s back to the funny. Some will – and have – called the elements that do the heavy lifting heavy-handed. As I watched, I know I started to feel that way. But, I assure you, they are perfectly placed and act as touchstones to that earlier time. They teach us that the same amount of effort put in to the civil rights movement of the sixties and seventies is going to be needed now. They remind us this is what it looked like, this is what it meant then and that it means no less now. And then we’re giggling again. It’s a helluva balancing act that only a director with Spike’s courage, ego, experience and abilities can pull off so successfully.

It helps that the script is simply incredible. How much of it belongs to Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz’ original script optioned by Focus and how much belongs to Spike and HIS writing partner, Kevin Wilmott, I couldn’t tell you. Regardless, in Spike’s hands it all works. As do almost all the production elements…especially the gorgeous, sepia-tinged cinematography of relative newcomer to features, Chayse Irvin (who shot Spike’s previous film, “Pass Over,” and the brilliant western series for Netflix, “Godless”). As for the score, I’ve never been a huge fan of Terrence Blanchard’s work. Yes, they are a signature of Spike’s films, but they’ve never connected me to the stories in the way I feel a score should. Alas, this score is no different, although it is beautifully written and executed music on its own.

But let’s for a moment give credit to the film artisan I never give enough to…the casting director. Kim Coleman has fashioned a cast that is note perfect from beginning to end. John David Washington, as Ron Stallworth, gives a brilliantly restrained performance. Every time he could push, he hangs back, channeling, no doubt, the actual emotional response of the man he’s recreating. Adam Driver is better than ever. Terrified, angry, exhausted and very human, he has a three-sentence monologue on the nature of being a different kind of “other” that stopped me cold. Then there are the members of the evil cabal, led by Finnish actor (and long time star of “Vikings”), Jasper Pääkkönen. He is not just a goon, not merely a representation. He is to be taken as deathly serious. He is real. He is who we have seen in the news over the last year or so. Terrifying. And “I Tonya” breakout, Paul Walter Hauser is simply amazing. In that film we laughed at him. Here we laugh at his moronic demeanor nervously, knowing full well that this is reality we are staring at. Stunning. Even Alec Baldwin’s two minutes are terrific. Now, if my accolades seem devoid of color, that is because there are very few African-American characters in the film. But the always excellent Corey Hawkins deserves mention as Kwame Ture, as does Damaris Lewis for her work as Odetta, the voice of both the black conscience and black consciousness. And finally, a long shout out to a character actor who I’m sure almost never gets the credit she deserves, Ashlie Atkinson. One of those actors you say, “oh, right! I know who that is!”, I’ve followed her since she owned the small screen in season 2 of “Rescue Me”. Over seventy appearances on film and TV later, she, more than any other, brings home the message that while the evil elements in our country are hidden in not so plain site and rarin’ to come out of their hibernation, they’ll 99.9% get the benefit of the doubt when they do.

This is a film that will keep you laughing, and leave you sitting in abject contemplative silence. It will force you to see how much things have reverted to a time we’re used to looking back on. It will remind you how important Spike Lee’s voice and vision is. If you are not a person of color, it will force you to find your place on the Ally<->Enemy spectrum. If you are a person of color it will force you to decide if you think of white-Americans as enemies on the whole or as individuals to be queried before judged.

And from a truly inconsequential standpoint, in comparison… “BlacKKKlansman” is easily the best American film of 2018 thus far.

 

This gives away more than I would like, but it’s a worthy trailer.

Written on 8/21/2018

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