BlacKkKlansman (****1/2) greatness mixed with prejudice

BlacKkKlansman – 2018

Director Spike Lee
Screenplay Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Michael Buscemi, Ryan Eggold

There’s a scene in the start of last act of BlacKkKlansman when there are duelling gatherings happening. One of the gatherings has an old man describing the trial and town approved lynching of a mentally challenged black man in his hometown when he was a child. These actions, he says, were inspired by the film Birth of a Nation. Across the town of Colorado Springs, a Klan rally is anxiously and happily watching that very film. This is the greatness of Spike Lee. We can see right and wrong, and it doesn’t matter the color.

As soon as the film is over and the meal is about to start, we hear on of the Klan members say “America First,” while a bunch of people hoot in agreement. This is where Spike Lee is setting up a cheap shot for later, as the credits roll.

I am not a black man in America. If I were, perhaps I might understand Spike Lee more as a person or as a filmmaker. He is often brilliant, and occasionally frustrating for me. I want to identify with the experience he is working to convey. I understand Mookie at the end of Do The Right Thing. He doesn’t even really know what’s right and what is wrong. He just knows that he is mad as hell. I understand the multitude of voices of the men in Get On The Bus.

When I see Spike talk in person, it’s almost like he’s a different person. His descriptions of Trump in the media surrounding the film’s release gave the impression that nothing had changed in the world since the time portrayed in the film. I have been alive in the world in all of this time. I have seen many changes. Most of them good. This is all relative to perspective, perhaps. Can I actually believe that Spike can see the same things I do and have such a different take on them?

Lee continued his diatribe against the perceived injustice right up into and through the Oscars, in which he was denied the award for director. It seemed more like he was mad he personally hadn’t won it and he wanted to paint himself a victim. When his co-producer Jordan Peele or another black man or woman wins that award, will he still call it racism?

I have lost people who I thought were friends because I don’t hold hatred in my heart for Trump. I didn’t vote for him. I just didn’t hate him. That is what the promotional tour for this film felt like, and that’s too bad. It’s why I didn’t watch it until now. Maybe people like to think we can overcome racism and also try to eradicate the hate that feeds it.

So when we see the carefully selected carnage in the protests at the end of BlacKkKlansman, we see even more carefully edited comments of Trump saying that “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” This has been picked apart politically. Those who take the comments in full context were going on with their lives. Those who, like Lee, are interested in showing the worst, grabbed only what they wanted to out of the text and went on shouting down the road how Trump is just another racist. This is politics, alright. It also ruins the effectiveness of the rest of Spike Lee’s movie.

Back to “America First,” the fact is, it is a statement that has international resonance, dating back to the Monroe doctrine. People didn’t want to be involved in WWI, then they didn’t want to be involved in WWII. That is the way I understood it. Lee and his co-writers twist this to be a rallying cry of the Klan. I am not saying that any part of racism didn’t involve thinking anyone of color is not American. I am just saying that “America First” is how they phrased it.

It feels like bending the truth to fit the narrative. This takes us out of the film and puts us right there with Spike Lee complaining about not being able to use the special elevator only staff used at MSG for Knicks games. I get it. You’re a season ticket holder forever. You deserve everything because you’re Spike Lee. If you don’t get it, we’re all racist.

The shame of it is, the rest of BlacKkKlansman is a great film. It’s a story well told, with nuance, compassion and different perspectives. First we have Washington’s Ron Stallworth (the real one). His desire to be a Colorado Springs police officer is endearingly stubborn. I love the way he takes initiative from being in the evidence room to becoming intelligence and then a detective. He walks the line with his Black Power girlfriend Patricia (Harrier), his work with the force and the Klan marvelously. Then his initial call to and the immediate call back from the KKK is just one of many incredibly funny moments in the film. The humor is in his actions and in how others react to him.

Enter white Ron Stallworth, aka Flip Zimmerman (Driver). He is a lapsed Jew who is just a detective until he’s brought into the investigation by Stallworth using his own name. We feel the anxiety as Zimmerman is forced to to learn the King’s English the way Stallworth speaks it. There is a very distinct dialogue and Driver, despite his heavy nasal tone, pulls it off. We see how Stallworth’s passion turns his job into their crusade.

Both Washington and Driver deserved nominations for their work. They are incredible and rewatchable (I have seen the film 3 times so far). I would love to see them work with the effortlessly real Buscemi again. From the point where they accept their own, for better (mostly) or worse, to where they root out the real bad weeds within, the whole police force feels real.

The portrayal of the Klan members is something I will have to take on faith. My experience is limited to film portrayals and talk shows of the ’80’s like Phil Donahue, Morton Downey, Jr. and Geraldo Rivera. Apparently, those resources should be enough. They range from ineffective white loser Walter (Eggold), drunk fat guy (Hauser), clueless politician (Grace) to all out psycho (Pääkkönen).

This film is almost everything it could have been. If edited for the above mentioned b.s., it may have won more than adapted screenplay. It’s this viewer’s wish that Spike Lee corralled his passion into the perfect movie he is capable of making, instead of throwing in inflammatory, obvious, divisive and provably false things as a spanner in his own work.

Images like this go a long way to proving the points he (and most Americans) believes about our country’s past. This film goes a long way to showing how things can improve. Throwing fuel on the fire of hatred on the way out the door shatters the illusion we’ve just watched onscreen for the previous 2 hours. And for what?

You’d have to ask Spike that question, even though I am sure the answer involves his treatment as a Knicks V.I.P. and special secret elevators.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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