"BlacKkKlansman"—The Nixon-Era Version of “Trolling”
I always try my best to avoid spoilers, but this review does hint at a few things that happen throughout the course of the movie. You’re on notice, readers, so don’t be angrily messaging me if you think this review revealed the whole movie (because SPOILER WARNINGS HAVE BEEN MADE, YO).
Actually, you know what? If you’re so worried about having the movie spoiled for you, I’ll go ahead and start off with the “too long, didn’t read” synopsis along with the score I gave it.
Tl;DR Score and Synopsis:
60/100 – A slightly above-average film that misses the mark on its messaging.
Now onto the actual review.
The more things change, the more things stay the same; Director Spike Lee covertly sprinkles this theme throughout the course of his unapologetically political Oscar bid, “BlaKkKlansman.” By juxtaposing the rhetoric and activity the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) engaged in during the 1960s, to similar behavior seen today, Lee tries shedding light on how little American race culture has changed. Through the story of a black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department and his work to uncover the KKK, along with the undercover acts of his Jewish counterpart on the force, “BlacKkKlansman” keeps viewers on the edge of their seat. However, Lee’s attempt to portray a much needed, eye-opening political message falls flat.
As a film, “BlacKkKlansman” thrives on building tension. From the interactions between the black and white communities, to the undercover cops’ close calls while trying to ascend the ranks of the KKK, you sense a strong, uncomfortable division between both the black and white populations (but what else would you expect from a movie about the KKK). Not only that, but you also see the divide between police officers and the black community (eerily similar to attitudes seen today). All of these tense moments never let up throughout the course of the film, either. One character in particular—a KKK member named Felix (Jasper Paakkonnen)—scares the bejesus out of me every time he appears on screen. If you’re an average moviegoer looking for some good entertainment, “BlacKkKlansman” delivers in a big way.
The cringe-worthy rhetoric used by the KKK members showcases the uglier side of their already-ugly movement. Their actions and words were shocking (which, given how low anyone’s expectations are for KKK members already, shows the attention Lee and the writers gave to the portrayal of the KKK members). It leaves you wondering: “Are there people who are still this backward in our country today?” It is necessarily sobering. The actors brought life to their characters—even if many of them maintained fairly static personalities throughout the film.
One problem with the message in “BlacKkKlansman” is that we know about the awful, overt racists out there, even if we do not know about all the horrifying things they say and do. Most racism we see in our society today is subtle, and the film never addresses that in any meaningful way.
There was one theme Lee tried to develop regarding the ways that people ought to go about combating racism. Two black characters, Officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and college activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier) clash on the role the police force can play in the “black power” movement. This could have been a worthwhile discussion that would have provided much-needed commentary on contentious, contemporary race issues. However, the film only discusses the issue in a shallow, superficial way. The needle slightly moves on Patrice’s part with respect to her views of police officers, though the film never makes it clear whether that stems from her love of Ron Stallworth, or if she genuinely changes her mind. The movie tiptoed around this issue, and I wish they would have taken it head-on.
“BlacKkKlansman” also fell victim to one of my biggest movie pet-peeves: plot points driven primarily by stupidity. When the cops were attempting to infiltrate the KKK, I found myself thinking, “How in the name of Zeus do these people not know that this is an obvious troll?”
I have participated in many organizations: churches, political parties—you name it. I have found one thing in common with all of them: they all spend less time discussing their own cause than you would assume. When a person, like the cop, comes out, guns-a-blazing, laying out all of his or her beliefs, members of the organization tend to write them off as “weird” and never let them move through the ranks quickly— mostly because they seem reckless or irresponsible.
While I, obviously, have never—not in a million years—considered joining the KKK, I found it absurd that someone would call into the KKK, go “I hate [insert 50 racial/ethnic slurs], I want to join your cause. God bless white America”, then have the leader of the group immediately welcome them with open arms. Only Felix, the character I mentioned earlier, was skeptical of the situation, but the rest seemed to just go along with it. Most leaders in that situation would be throwing up red flags everywhere. (Then again—we are talking about the KKK—not a particularly intelligent bunch).
I mean don’t get me wrong, the scene I just mentioned is super funny; especially since officer Ron Stallworth very obviously does not believe a single word he utters. However, as far as I know, police infiltration is more nuanced than what “BlacKkKlansman” depicts.
To use another, better example—one that does not make me seem like I am some low-key white supremacist who participates in cross-burning rituals—let’s look at drug busts. Undercover cops do not just call up drug kingpins or dealers and be like “I LOVE me some crack-cocaine and meth,” rant about how much they love drugs for three minutes then go, “can I buy some from you?” These cops start off quietly and then strike when the time is right. This does not happen in “BlacKkKlansman.” Instead, during the sting operation, they make all kinds of crazy blunders along the way that would normally torpedo just about any other undercover operation.
To be fair, since this is all based on, according to the movie, some “fo’ real sh**”, it could very well be that these people in the KKK were actually that stupid. I can’t rule that out. Plus, this issue isn’t even the number one problem I take with the overarching plot and execution of Lee’s theme.
A while back, Bill Maher made a commentary (skip to the 2:33 point, the beginning has nothing to do with what I am about to discuss) that perfectly describes an issue liberally-minded people (such as Spike Lee) tend to possess. He mentioned that they celebrate too many hollow victories. One of the examples he mentioned was a celebratory headline from a media outlet saying “Ice Cube just destroyed Donald Trump with one Tweet.” Maher retorts with, “really? Because last I checked, he’s still there.”
This film played into the exact point Maher makes in his commentary. I found myself asking at the end of this movie, “what exactly did their entire undercover operation actually accomplish?” They successfully trolled KKK leader David Duke (Topher Grace)? After the events of this movie, David Duke ran for multiple public office positions, and still remained a fairly prominent figure in US politics. But hey, at least we got to watch a black police officer out in Colorado get him with a “sick burn”, right?
What makes movies like Spotlight so great is that they uncover and expose an entire system of fraud and abuse. In “BlacKkKlansman” the story seems more like a case of lighthearted, fun trolling with little substantive payoff. Stylistically speaking the campy, retro vibes, along with juxtapositions between today and back then were all well done, but they lacked purpose. It does virtually nothing to move the needle on how to combat racial divisions in American society.
While IndieWire currently lists BlacKkKlansman as a “Front Runner” for best picture, it is still very early and I would be surprised if it stayed that way. I will not completely rule out the possibility it gets nominated for best picture, but moreso as appreciation from the Academy for examining race relations as opposed to being because it is a serious contender.
From my perspective, if a lot of the anticipated movies coming out fall flat, I could see this film getting some recognition in the following two (possibly three) categories, but really not a whole lot else:
Best Adapted Screenplay—Even though I didn’t care for the overall direction of this film, objectively speaking it was well-written. The dialogue builds tension while showcasing the utter brutality of racism.
Best Supporting Actor—Adam Driver as Officer Flip Zimmerman: His character arc as the undercover Jewish cop was compelling. He began the movie thinking that he was merely going through the motions and risking his life for “a job” but as the movie progressed, it was clear that he had devoted himself to a cause bigger than himself. It helped show the dynamism of lower-level police force—one of the more positive elements of the film.
Best Supporting Actress —(albeit a long shot) Laura Harrier as Patrice - I found her character sympathetic. The issue is that she gets little opportunity to flex her acting chops. With no real chance to showcase her skills through a wide range of emotions, it seems unlikely she would be nominated. Not all of this is her fault, as her character wasn’t really a focal point in the movie. However, she could sneak in a nomination if there is a significant dearth of female supporting actresses this year.