Director: Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
It’s so funny when shit like this happens in real life. I’ve always found the random and seemingly out-of-place outbursts of comedy in the more serious dramas and in the grittiest of crime fiction (i.e. Breaking Bad) to be funnier than that of most comedic shows or films. It’s a nod to the fact that sometimes real life, even dark or life-and-death circumstances, can have their moment of hilarity. And BlacKkKlansman has plenty of these moments. This is the second film this year that has featured an African-American man making progress in his career by using his “white voice” over the phone, but instead of badly lip-syncing the actor with David Cross’ voice (Sorry to Bother You), this film uses this to showcase the vocal range of its hero, played by Denzel’s talented son, John David Washington. There’re humorous opportunities taken and thoroughly exploited by director Spike Lee, as any black cop acting undercover as a Klansman (in the 1970’s no less) would find themselves in an awkward position. With his cinematic track record and common themes, this sounds like something Lee would simply make up, but it is apparently very real. This could very well be the I, Tonya of this year, exploring an infamous pocket of American history from an angle that nobody expected.
It’s 1972 and the two most common races of the United States are still walking a thin line of tension, and “equality” is a word easier said than done. In a place that could easily be labeled “quaint,” (Colorado Springs) Ron Stallworth is hired as the residential black police officer. Despite being stuffed in the records room, in a moment of hilarious impulsivity he calls the local Ku Klux Klan chapter leader and sets up a meeting under his real name, coercing them with what sounds like a Caucasian voice. Through this, he forces his way into the undercover faction of the Colorado Police Department. We have an often deadpan and unfortunately Jewish Adam Driver (who proves comedic lengths and range as opposed to Star Wars and Paterson) playing the human stand-in of Ron Stallworth, and Topher Grace (in my favorite role of his) playing a David Duke who is portrayed as a mostly nice albeit severely bigoted man, who has regular conversations with the real Ron Stallworth, completely oblivious to his race. There’s also an interesting placement of the Black Panthers in this film, with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) portraying one who is also a love interest for Stallworth.
There’s always a discomfort and difficulty in the mixing between drama and comedy. Many films will take away the seriousness of the situation, with no sense of realism, or some will become a dark hopeless void in which there is no joy to be found. BlacKkKlansman carefully balances its variables of both comedy and drama to create a sophisticated blend. It doesn’t take every chance of comedy because its not catering to idiots, but it seems to acknowledge that the very ideas of irony and coincidence are factors that originated from real-life anecdotes. This is so much more than a police-procedural crime drama (with its social commentary and historical relevance) but the scenes that do cater to the fans of Law & Order inside us all offer their own brand of intensity, as we become very attached to both Washington and Driver’s characters. Their characters develop a sense of camaraderie paired well with the suspense caused by the suspicions of the various Klansmen.
Although I appreciate the various juxtapositions it presents and the layers of complexity it adds to Stallworth’s character, I found little significance or investment in his blossoming relationship with Laura Harrier’s Black Panther character. It gives him reason to display secrecy, and displays us to his true views of law enforcement in the post-integration American society, but on the surface level of the film’s plot, it is little more than a cliché. It makes Lee’s final product seem a bit more studio-made for the everyday consumer and less like the personal project I suspect it to be. Whether or not this relationship is historically accurate, I am uncertain, but I am certain that its presentation could be a bit more professionally handled, without its archetypal threatening to Stallworth’s undercover identity and predictable conflicts about him being true to himself. Even though I believe this film can please even the most elite of filmgoers, I can see some people complaining about the film’s climax, and the way its ending on a positive note is based solely on one bigoted character’s sheer stupidity.
I didn’t expect much from Spike Lee after Chi-Raq, but was pleasantly surprised with this film, which I believe to be physical evidence that you can have a film with a sociopolitical message without it being obnoxiously blatant or sacrificing entertainment value. There is footage from real-life events in BlacKkKlansman, but its not brought about with the rolling of eyes or sighs of disdain, but it instead brings an eerie silence amongst its audience.