Tuesday, February 19, 2019
BlacKkKlansman: A Review (Review #1180)
*Editor's Note: While the official title is BlacKkKlansman, for the rest of the review save the opening and closing I'm opting to write out 'Black Klansman'.
BlacKkKlansman is a surprisingly funny movie. Amid the politics and dark turns of this 'based-on-a-true-story', Black Klansman has some fun at the expense of wannabe terrorists who are more inept loons than serious threats. It does not make them any less dangerous, but it does show them to be fools, an apt and surprisingly kind description to those who hold to racial superiority.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has a wish that comes true: becoming a police officer. When he joins the Colorado Springs Police Department, he becomes the first black police officer in the department's history. Dissatisfied with being in Records though, he wants more.
After doing some undercover work at a Black Power rally where he meets the Black Student Union President Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), almost on a whim he calls the listed phone number of the local Ku Klux Klan. Using his real name, he convinces "The Organization" that he is a pure Aryan who wants to go after all minorities.
There is, however, the problem of actually meeting with "The Organization": Stallworth is black. To actually do the meetings, a white officer, Flip (Adam Driver) is pretty much roped in. This plan does have one hitch too: Flip's real name of Philip Zimmerman marks him as Jewish, though to use Ron's term Flip has been 'passing' for white versus Jewish.
The primary members of "The Organization" (as they never use the term 'The Klan') are Colorado Springs chapter president Walter (Ryan Eggold) and his second-in-command Felix (Jasper Paakkonen). Walter is the calmer, almost pleasant face while Felix is the hothead who is convinced "Ron Stallworth" is either Jewish or at least up to something. Walter, fortunately, has "Ron's" back, especially when the real Ron becomes unlikely friends via telephone to Grand Wizard/National President David Duke (Topher Grace).
The investigation and the subterfuge continues, especially when the CSPD suspects the Klan is planning some kind of terrorist act. The real Ron continues his own romantic relationship with Patrice, who is all about 'the struggle'. Things come to a head after "Ron", through Duke's personal intervention, is processed quickly into membership and we learn of the 'Organization's' plot against Patrice and her organization. The real Ron continues his delicate balancing act, and while the plot is foiled and Patrice struggles between fighting the systematic oppression of her people and her feelings for Ron, we see via Charlottesville that things have not changed.
Black Klansman is not subtle in how it connects the KKK with current politics. We see this in the faux-introduction in the film by "Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard" (Alec Baldwin), who gives a bizarre monologue about white supremacy. Lee along with his cowriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott have "Dr. Beauregard" use the term 'super-predators', which is the term then-First Lady Hillary Clinton used to describe young criminals but was seen as code-words for "young black men".
This is not the only shout-out to current-day events. At one point, the real Stallworth remarks that "America would never elect somebody like David Duke President of the United States". We have Duke refer to America's potential "to achieve it's...greatness again". Later on, Duke toasts the new members with "America First". We end the film with footage from the Charlottesville protests and President Trump's remarks about 'good people on both sides'.
Lee's connection of how cinema promotes 'white supremacy' is equally skilled, from the idea that in the 1970's the KKK still screened The Birth of a Nation to excited white viewers up to how Gone With the Wind promoted a false reality of the South. I could argue that in the Gone With the Wind clip we see in Black Klansman, that is not Vivien Leigh's voice we hear, the dialogue heard is not part of that specific scene and the sight of the Confederate flag was meant as an ironic comment on the Confederacy's inevitable fall.
Lee is a master filmmaker and Black Klansman shows this in how he sets up scenes and directs his actors. We are appalled at the Klan gatherings and laugh at the collection of clowns the 'Organization' has. We can enjoy the club scene where the song Too Late to Turn Back Now both sets the mood and describes the Ron/Patrice storyline. We can feel the tension when the essentially unhinged Felix threatens Flip by getting him to try and admit he's Jewish and/or a cop.
We can even laugh when the real Stallworth, made to be Duke's police detail, ends up hugging both him and Walter at a photo op, a little throwback to when Sammy Davis, Jr. ends up giving a shocked and horrified Archie Bunker a peck on the cheek on All in the Family.
Black Klansman is a very well-acted film. Washington's Ron Stallworth remains pretty unflappable and balances the serious police work with a romantic side while also showing a nice, droll manner. Driver has excellent moments, such as when he contemplates the idea that he has been 'passing' despite not giving his Jewish identity any thought. Harrier hopefully will have more roles, for her Patrice was fascinating in her commitment to The Struggle and her feelings for Ron.
Eggold was a standout as Walter, whom I found the more dangerous due to his surprising rationality versus the more theatrical Paakkonen as the hair-trigger tempered Felix. In a small role, Harry Belafonte holds court as a witness to a friend's lynching recounting his horrifying tale to the black students.
BlacKkKlansman sometimes overreaches in its connections, but in terms of film, it is an interesting story with again surprising moments of humor mixed into the horror.