04 November 2018

First Impressions: BlacKkKlansman

Hey folks! I watched BlacKkKlansman (2018) about two months ago - right before my life went totally crazy and I moved like three states away and started a ridiculous new job. But ever since 2009 every single film I've seen in theaters has received an impression. Eventually. This definitely takes the cake for longest drought. I wonder what happened in that movie...Adam Driver seemed good.

Wide nose breathin all the white man's air
BlacKkKlansman comes from Spike Lee, and aligns well with the common critique that this is his best, most timely film in years, a return to vintage Spike and the cunning political attitude that he made his career on. This is very much true, although that kind of attitude tends to ignore the fact that Chi-Raq (2015) exists and he's been back on the map since at least that film. For sure it seemed like he was sliding into mainstream fare for a while there, but he's always a competent filmmaker and storyteller. There will def be SPOILERS for the film from here on out, so go watch it.

This film joins a slew of 2018 Black Film efforts trying to find their way in a world with shifting racism. Black Panther (2018) called out black hypocrisy in a world designed against them. Sorry to Bother You (2018) found this intersection between selling out to capitalism and the exploitation of the Black American Dream. BlacKkKlansman builds on this idea of the acceptance of white voices over black ones and creates what amounts to a moment of moral victory amidst a sea of unchanging racial attitudes.

The film tracks a fledgling black detective in Colorado in the 1970s, played by John David Washington. He's the son of Denzel, but you'd never really know it by watching the film and even though Denzel and Spike have a history that probably got John on Spike's radar, he earns his spot here with a terrific performance. He's always walking a line between his responsibility to his people and the Black Power movement and his role as a police officer, often at odds with his fellow brothers and sisters. It's a difficult position to be in, especially as along the way there's plenty of vile cop behavior, misguided black protest, system and institution failure regarding both, and of course, the constant undercurrent of violent racism disguised as throwing back to core American values.

The movie concerns Ron Stallworth (Washington) posing as a white man trying to apply for membership in the Ku Klux Klan. A white surrogate (Adam Driver) contacts the Organization in-person and hijinks ensue. There are moments of supreme tension as either police officer is on the verge of being discovered and you get the sense that every white character involved doesn't see this investigation as a big deal. They're more concerned with investigating Kwame Ture and young black power movements. As Stallworth finds actual seeds of a nefarious bombing plot against said Black Youth, shit gets real.

This all leads to one of the more perfect movie endings in recent memory. The idiot white nationalists blow themselves up, which is both satisfying and prevents Stallworth from becoming a vengeful black murdercop. We also get a taste of perfection when he finally reveals himself to Grand Wizard David Duke in a brilliant vocal tic that exposes Duke's complete bullshit claim to phrenology-style black voice analysis. Then of course, there's the simple fact that after the bomb plot is revealed, the case just sort of... ends. I can't think of a better metaphor for our current racial strife. We're on to the next controversy without really solving anything.

Like many period pieces, or at least the best ones, this takes place in the 70s as a placeholder for our current day, and the fact that you can see a lot of the same things happening today is exactly the message Spike wants to deliver. He's never all that subtle, and says as much by throwing in footage from the Charlottesville, VA murders of a year ago. Stallworth's final moment of triumph is bastardized by none of the white folk really caring. He wants to keep investigating because, obviously the KKK is still bad news, but in White Society, it's time to move on to the next thing. It's tragic and awful, but feels pretty real. It's a film filled with coded racism bookended by more overt messages from people in White Power. When that veil is unlifted, it's powerful.

Along the way there are a handful of indulgent Spike Lee moments. There's an extended soul music dance scene that feels a bit too long and a few scenes drag on. The cast mostly has it together, and smaller moments from relative no-names like Jasper Pääkkönen and Ryan Eggold as Klansman sell the danger of the film. It's also one of Spike's best looking films. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin doesn't have too many credits to his name (Beyonce's "Lemonade" video may be his biggest), but he does great work with the colors here, making everything both pop and muted at the same time, fitting the film's slightly comic sensibility.

When they first announced this film, I immediately thought it ridiculous that they were making the greatest Chappelle Show sketch into a feature film. This turned into a lot more than Clayton Bigsby: The Movie, though, and it accomplishes a lot of themes at once and remains a movie that's stuck with me these past two months.
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