“Dis Joint Is Based on Some fo’ Real, fo’ Real Shit”
Yo, this be Reuben. Spike Lee’s one of those names in cinema I know of, and holy moly has he been involved in a tonne of movies, but it turns out I hadn’t seen any of ’em until I went and saw BlacKkKlansman — and what an introduction it was. Since seeing its trailer on IMDb a couple months back, this was probably the film I was looking forward to most of any still to come out this year, and my anticipation was not unwarranted, as it could well end up being my favourite film of the year. Spike Lee’s done a goodun here.
Fronted by the lead performances of John David Washington and Adam Driver, the film follows new Colorado Springs cop Ron Stallworth’s (Washington) infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the area, as he attempts to expose them, while Flip Zimmerman (Driver) impersonates him and becomes a member of the Klan as an undercover detective.
Set in 1979, the tone set is just right. Together with an atmosphere of cool and swing that came with the times, there’s a foreboding offset from the get-go which makes every moment seem threatening. An intensely racist speech predicting the war between blacks and whites in America opens the film, flowing seamlessly into a brilliantly chill guitar-based track that sounds like it’s come straight out of Lethal Weapon as viewers are treated to Stallworth’s pristine afro and ridiculously cool character. Throughout the film you’ve got that awesome and flashy ’79 style strutting around, but while you’ve got that, you’ve also got the terrifying reality of the Ku Klux Klan beating at its heart. Lee’s stylistic and smart directorial work throughout means that every aspect of the film is given room to flourish, making the film deep and layered, playing like a classic action hero movie but with a twist.
The fantastic thing is, there is not one aspect that is done better than another. The script-writing at the base of it all does comedy, character building and suspense equally well. In terms of comedy, there is nothing tacked on, and while it only comes up every so often, whatever moment is funny in BlacKkKlansman is genuinely hilarious; every time a moment like this comes up it feels like a load off the shoulders, so much so that everyone in the cinema, including me, laughed louder than most sounds that came out the speakers (although I do think maybe the clapping and shouting was slightly too far…). The driving force of that is brilliant comedy writing, of course, but what makes it so effective is how scarcely it happens, and how it always comes after so much building suspense. At every single moment of the film, it feels as if the bubble is about to burst, that something awful is gonna happen. Maybe that’s just me being paranoid, but I think it’s deliberate, don’t you?
There are reasons BlacKkKlansman feels as intense as it does. For every flashy jacket Stallworth wears, the n-word is said. It does not hold back from showing the brutal reality of racism, with a script that pulls no punches and a cast which genuinely portrays a horrible, and terrifying group of people. Felix Kenrickson, oh holy crapples, Felix. Jasper, you are far too good at playing the most intimidating man alive.
Another factor contributing to the edginess is the stark contrasts between Black Power protesters and the White Power movement of the Klan, which are shown throughout in lengthy speeches juxtaposed against each other, so when Kwame Ture tells an audience that you’ve been totally familiarised with that a war’s about to break between the races in America, part of you believes him, while David Duke’s radical White Power conversations pervade through a lot of the movie in contrast.
Indeed, throughout, BlacKkKlansman acts like a powerful commentary on race relations in America, and Lee manages to make this commentary so powerful in fact that the film feels like an important moment and a big statement. The film manages to be much more than just a retelling of an old story, and provides a starkly relevant reminder of how times really are now, its most powerful tool being its ability to tie 1979 to the present day, and in this, creating a shocking and politically charged message, which personally, at least, has really stuck with me.
To really take in this message, though, and for the film to feel so intense as it does, there needs to be an aspect of familiarity developed. Consequently, the main characters of the film are given room to breathe as a small portion of the cast are given the primary focus, while both Stallworth and his impersonator are acted, and developed, to equally brilliant levels — to the extent that Adam Driver has shot up in terms of my favourite actors, this being a particularly strong performance in a string of great ones. So, the viewer can fully familiarise themselves with the main cast.
Furthermore, the soundtrack, other than some radio doohickeys, consists entirely of one track. It’s that aforementioned chill guitar-based track and, while I would have liked a bit more funk to spice things up, it’s groovy enough and gives the film an important sense of continuity, tying in perfectly with the compact sets, which by the end of the 2 hours feel very familiar, while, when that one song reaches its climax, you’re in for a damn good moment. I think without that aspect developed, there would be little foundation for the suspense to build from.
The only little qualm I can articulate about the film is that Micheal Buscemi’s detective character just kinda disappears after a little while. And while a bit confusing, it’s a shame because I would’ve loved to get to know his character better. I also feel like Stallworth’s relationship with Patrice doesn’t actually add much to the film, or could have more if there was more of a believable spark in it. And I gotta be honest. A bit more funk would have been nice.
Nonetheless, those are about the only bad words I can say about BlacKkKlansman. It’s full to the brim with highlights and it intertwines the past with the present with such ease, a damn cool atmosphere put in a blender with intensely edgy fear, creating a delicious, layered milkshake. Spike Lee’s masterstroke here is a totally immersive, memorable cinema experience with an air of legitimate importance that comes recommended to anyone into film.
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