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I just went to see BlacKkKlansman. I had high hopes. But let’s first talk about Spike Lee.
I’m well aware of how his films get in your face. Drawing both criticism and praise, he’s a cultural lightning rod that cannot and should not be ignored. For my part, I’ve only seen a few of his films. I liked Malcolm X, while Inside Man is among the best movies I’ve ever seen.
Spike Lee – Always in Your Face
But herein lie the roots of what I didn’t like about BlacKkKlansman. You can just see where Lee hijacked Russell Gewirtz’s screenplay to impose his views on Civil Rights and 9/11 related injustices.
Not that I am out of step with Lee’s concerns, but the instances portrayed were, as stated, in your face. Guess what the entirety of BlacKkKlansman was?
Still, I heard the film got a standing ovation at Cannes and didn’t consider whether this was unbiased approval. I just went to see it.
I Definitely Empathize
Our introduction to Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is pretty amusing as he’s interviewed by the Chief of Police. The far from politically correct exchange plays pretty funny. Still, you’re encouraged by the progressive move into the future by the Colorado Springs Police Department.
After drawing clerical duty and hating it, Stallworth is sent undercover to spec out a Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) rally. Black power, revolution and all the extremes that White society has long provoked, I empathize wholeheartedly.
Corey Hawkins’ recreation of Carmichael and this quintessential 70s moment is pretty good. There Stallworth meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), who is the leader of the Black student movement. She provides a radical pivot point to play against Stallworth’s hopes to change things from inside the establishment.
I’m not that smart.
A duality that is lauded by Mark Kermode of the Guardian. “What’s most remarkable is how well Lee balances the tonal shifts, provoking both laughs and gasps with a film built upon dualities: fact and fiction (Stallworth’s story is heavily fictionalised, yet rings “true”); past and present; inside and outside. Just as our central figure becomes two characters folded into one…so BlacKkKlansman revels in mirror images.”
Yeah, I’m not that smart.
This left me trying to put my finger on why the film wasn’t working for me—especially in terms of the back and forth between Stallworth and Patrice.
This is what I came up with: the college revolutionaries just came off as annoying young people who are against everything. It didn't matter that the struggle, the anger, and latent yearnings toward violence make sense to me.
You still have to give the characters depth. In this case, I just wanted the movie to end.
Holding out Hope, It Fades as I Can’t Get Invested
Nonetheless, a cold call by Stallworth incites the real action. He finds an ad for the KKK in the paper and arranges a meeting. Again the scene is pretty amusing, and I still thought we had something going.
Stallworth proceeds to recommend an undercover investigation that would send Adam Driver in person. The “tonal shift” is also amusing, but I had a problem with the basis for an investigation.
If we sent an undercover cop to every small hate group in America, we wouldn’t have any cops. Initially there wasn’t a threat of violence either. I admit it’s a minor point, but there was not enough of a hook to make me want to invest in the story.
Stallworth feels like a cop with the goods. So it would be nice if Lee provided some insightful police work to highlight a threat. Instead, the story forces it.
Why would a police department take up a cause that doesn’t speak to anything they’ve ever stood for? Remember, they just sent Stallworth to a rally to make sure Black people are toeing the line.
My admitted minutia aside, Adam Driver meets this ten member threat to Colorado Springs. Up first, Walter exhibits a level of intelligence commensurate with any leader, and Ryan Eggold’s portrayal doesn’t detract. But his underlings are morons.
I don’t need to be hit over the head.
That may make us feel assured of what we’d like to believe. But by portraying them as caricatures, we diminish their evil—especially when the group goes from spouting off steam to actual terrorism.
In contrast, we see full evil on display in the discourse of David Duke. Portrayed pretty well by Topher Grace, his cool dispassions seer as Stallworth engages the grand wizard by phone.
Of course, over the top we go as Duke arrives to address the Colorado branch office. He drones on about how we must protect the White race and put “America First.”
Not very subtle, but as the whole chapter begins chanting "America first,” I almost threw up in my mouth. I already know I don’t like Donald Trump, when you hit me over the head with it, once again, the message is diminished.
Hugs, High Fives, and Crank Calls
The plot eventually revealing itself, we know one thing for sure. CSPD is on the upswing. High fives and hugs all around, the once exclusive unit now works as one America. The silliness of the sea change and the rote camaraderie is insulting.
We really get it in the face as Stallworth reveals himself to Duke by phone. Playing more like a crank call, the officers hover around and gleefully exhibit their new found unity. All giggling at Duke’s expense like 14-year-old boys, the message is clear: We really stuck it to him.
I don't think so. The camaraderie is supposed to bode well for the future too. We know that not to be true so apparently another "tonal shift" was required. We are bombarded by clips from Charlottesville to remind us that the progress made in Colorado Springs didn’t quite take.
You could say the same for Spike Lee’s storytelling skills.
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