R Dir: Spike Lee | Universal | 2h 15min
Plot: What’s it about?
“You have reached the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Please leave a message, and God bless White America.”
I have always enjoyed watching Spike Lee’s films. At his best he is capable of masterpieces (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) and at his worst he is still pretty entertaining. His most recent project was of particular interest to me. It tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer of Colorado Springs, Colorado that led an undercover operation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. This was such a fascinating story I decided to read the book by officer Stallworth. It was an excellent read. When I received a copy of the film, I eagerly watched it to see how they compared to one another.
Ron Stallsworth (John David Washington) becomes the first African American member of the Colorado Springs police force. He is tasked with being “the Jackie Robinson of the police force.” He is asked if he is willing to turn the other cheek, even in the face of racism. He begins in the records room where he is constantly asked to look up “toads.” At every chance, Ron asks to join the undercover narcotics division. His chief eventually agrees to let him do some undercover work. His first undercover assignment is to attend a Stokely Carmichael speech. Stokely was a black panther and considered a threat to national security by J. Edgar Hoover. He had renamed himself Kwame Ture after visiting Africa. Stokely uses violent rhetoric to discuss his views. Ron meets the leader of the black student union named Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and they go for a drink later that night. She explains how she was pulled over by racist cops that profiled her and then patted her down in a sexually aggressive manner. Unfortunately, she does not know the officer’s name. At work, Ron finds an article in the classified section offering information on the Ku Klux Klan. Without much thought, he calls under his own name and asks for information. When they call him back he tells them how much he hates all non-Aryan races. His contact Walter likes what he hears. Ron approaches his sergeant and proposes that he will be the voice over the phone and another operative, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) will be Ron Stallworth in person. Working together they will infiltrate the Klan. This facade is much more effective than any of them could have expected. It will eventually lead them to cult-of-personality David Duke (Topher Grace) himself. At the same time, Ron finds himself falling for Patrice while simultaneously investigating her group.
Spike Lee starts his new film with a scene from the finale of Gone with the Wind followed by Alec Baldwin flubbing lines while attempting to spew hate. It starts the film off right. It lets the audience know that this film is going to earn its laughs with uncomfortable moments. In order to enjoy the film, you will need to be able to laugh at something that is also deadly serious. Racism is a sickness. The only cure is to laugh it out of the room. Satire is a healthy way to help people see the fallacies of hatred.
One of the best scenes in the film has Ron’s sergeant discuss David Duke with Ron. He points out how Duke was intentionally distancing himself from wearing the robes in public, had renamed himself national director instead of grand wizard, and was not using the word “nigger” in public. This meant only one thing: he was grooming himself to run for office. Ron finds it laughable that somebody like Duke could ever hold office, whereas the sergeant sees a future where a man like Duke could be president. It is not a subtle swipe at Trump, but it is a well-written jab.
Another scene features civil rights legend Harry Belafonte discusses a horrific lynching incident of Jesse Washington he witnessed as a child that was partially caused by the reaction people had to viewing the film The Birth of a Nation. This story is juxtaposed by Klansmen watching the film and rejoicing. This is another scene that reaches for a lofty goal and achieves it handily.
This film finds Spike Lee working very closely with the material without much additional style thrown in. This is a film where Lee seemed to want to focus on the material and not have the audience focus on the director. In doing so, Le has crafted one of his best films in years. This is not to say that the film does not have style (such as a scene where Ron and discuss blaxploitation films and the posters of the films appear onscreen briefly.)
The film’s script plays closely to the story minus a few differing factors. I would list those factors here, but I would recommend that if you watch the film and enjoy it, check out the book to see what was true and what has been slightly altered. Some of these alterations lead to some beautiful scenes, especially a particularly well-done monologue by Adam Driver regarding heritage and rituals. While there are some changes and composite characters, the film starts very true to the nature of the story. Many of the best scenes of the book are verbatim brought to the screen. That said, there is some sensationalizing of what Stallworth experienced, especially towards the end which is almost entirely fabricated, that is good for the film but should not be taken as truth.
The acting in the film is excellent across the board. John David Washington is fantastic in the lead role. Having seen Ron Stallworth speak on television recently, he must have been proud of his portrayal. Adam Driver gives another good performance in the film. He is one of those actors that seems to have the ability to seamlessly slip into roles and maintain believability regardless of the role. Topher Grace does excellent work in the role of David Duke.
Overall, BlacKkKlansman is one of Lee’s best films in years. It’s as funny as it is harrowing. It is a good reminder that fact is stranger than fiction. The finale that pays tribute to Heather Heyer who was killed in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017, adds another layer to a politically adept film.
Video: How’s it look?
Lee’s films are usually very vibrant, charged with colors and action that fills the entire width of the screen (regardless of aspect ratio). BlacKkKlansman, is no different. The film takes place in the 70’s and does have a bit of vintage look and feel to it, but at the heart of it all is one glorious-looking image. The 2.39:1 HEVC 4K picture exudes warmth and color from its more earthy-toned color palette. Detail is tack sharp, contrast strong and bold and the extra color depth via HDR really gives the image a bit more “presence” – if you will. Contrasted with the included Blu-ray, which still looks good, there’s a noticeable difference between the two. Are we at a point where 4K movies are actually starting to differentiate themselves from their predecessors? Some might argue it’s always been that way and, to an extend, they’re right. I’ve always found a bit of difference between Blu-ray’s and 4K discs, but not enough of a jaw-dropping experience to say “Oh my God!”. And this isn’t that either, but given the choice – opt for the 4K.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Coupled with the stunning video quality is an equally robust Dolby Atmos track. Lee’s films employ music in different ways and when watching something jazzy like Mo’ Better Blues, dramatic like Malcolm X or the movie in question, it’s amazing how much emphasis and impact an audio track can have. Terence Blanchard’s amazing soundtrack simply rocks and gives the movie a vibe, presence and feel that’s uniquely its own. As we might expect, vocals are sharp and well-defined, atmospheric sounds resonate through your home theater and directional effects only heighten the action. It’s a kick ass audio experience and most certainly heightens the mood.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- A Spike Lee Joint – Producer Jordan Peele, cast and film subject Ron Stallworth discuss the unique experience of working with iconic director Spike Lee.
- Extended Trailer – BlacKkKlansman Extended Trailer Featuring Prince’s “Mary Don’t You Weep”
The Bottom Line
BlacKkKlansman is one of Spike Lee’s best films. It’s a politically charged explosive film that is as tragic as it is comic. The film pays close attention to the details and follows the book closely, but also makes some changes for impact (especially in the latter half which strays much further.) Parts of the film cut like a knife and parts of the film are uproariously funny. This is one of the best films of the year and a great effort from Spike Lee. Highly recommended.