Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is showing at the State Theatre through early September.
By Andrew Warrick
“BlacKkKlansman,” the new feature from director Spike Lee, is a thriller that draws from the 1970s Blaxploitation genre, yet has an intense, current political edge. Inspired by true events, it tells the story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s. He’s played superbly by John David Washington, and is filled with enough wit and determination to cover the rest of the cast, though they too bring their A-game.
While still being an intense, tightly wound thriller, the movie is imbued with soulful delight. A moving club scene set to “Too Late to Turn Back Now” by the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose is a highlight. However entertaining the movie is, though, the story circles an ocean of political unease, and plunges in entirely in the denouement. “BlacKkKlansman” is a call to arms.
It shows us an America that, despite the almost half-century gap, practically mirrors the troubles of contemporary times. It’s a scathing portrait of racial injustice in the United States, which Lee paints with an insightful and unflinching hand. It never becomes exploitative, though. In fact, the film’s most violent moment takes place entirely in the audience’s imagination, conjured in a near-perfect monologue by Harry Belafonte. The movie’s goal is to provoke, and it succeeds with flying colors.
Though there are effective moments of satire, the aspects that worked best were those tied into the story, mostly the dialogue between Stallworth and those who surround him. The most politically charged relationship of Ron’s is with Patrice, an activist whose affection for Ron, a police officer and member of the “system,” conflict with her devotion to her cause. Ron’s conversations with her and characters like Adam Driver’s Flip, a Jewish police officer, offer prescient questions that linger long after the film ends.
Effective as they are, Lee’s politics do impede on aspects of his film-making craft. Though understandably horrendous, the Klan members are straight up, static villains that lack depth. Most, if not all, wouldn’t be out of place in a Tarantino flick. Connie Kendrickson, played by Ashlie Atkinson, did have the potential for complexity. The other, all-male Klan members treat her more like a maid than an equal. When they take it too far, she threatens to not help when they need it most. The situation fascinated me, and I hoped her inner conflict would factor into the story, maybe giving her a chance to change. This is never followed up on, though, and she does whatever she’s told to. I found myself wondering what made these people so heinous, and if there was any chance for healing or resolution. Perhaps for Lee, in a time when Nazis are called “fine people,” those aren’t questions worth considering.
The politics become severe enough, mostly toward the end, that one feels ripped from the fiction entirely. This will likely be too much for some, especially when there are direct comparisons to contemporary issues. As the story nears a close, the “fun” takes a backseat to more serious moments of shock and despair. The sheer gravitas of the film did more than enough to smooth over the uncomfort though. The horror made the scenes of joy that much more refreshing and necessary, as they show what the characters are fighting for.
While the political gut-punches do push the entertainment to the side, they are clearly what Lee values most. Doing so with a soulful, thoroughly enthralling flair, “BlacKkKlansman” repeatedly reminds the viewer that America has not left the past behind, as much as it perhaps would like to pretend to.
233 S State St., Ann Arbor
Showing through Sept. 6
Andrew Warrick is a student at the University of Michigan. He is majoring in creative writing and history, and is a part of the Residential College. He also leads the RC’s Creative Writing Forum. When not watching movies, he loves hanging out with friends, especially in the spectacular Ann Arbor, becoming addicted to novels, and listening to Bowie records. Some of his favorite movies are “Cloud Atlas,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Alien.”