Back in the summer of 1989, Spike Lee lit a joint that critics said was sure to cause riots and incite anger among young African American males. With a boombox in its hand and a “fight the power!” on its lips, the director’s third feature film polarized audiences, with some hailing it as one of the best films in recent history and others writing it off as a controversial, hateful social experiment, with little to no restraint or thought for its implications for its audience. Nevertheless, Do the Right Thing has become recognized as one of the most societally vital movies to have ever been released and a film that still shoves a mirror in our faces after all these years. Almost thirty years later, Spike Lee has another joint for us, this time perhaps easier to scrutinize, but no less powerful or urgently requisite than that poetically profane foray into social equity that reminds us to always, no matter the cost, do the right thing.
The year is 1979, and the only thing thriving more than America’s spiking afro percentage is an obscure organization I’m sure you’ve never heard of dubbed the Ku Klux Klan. The Colorado Springs Police Department has just welcomed (so to speak) its first black detective, a bright young man named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington). Ron zealously seeks out the position of an undercover officer. He is reluctantly granted this position, and his first assignment is as follows: infiltrate a local rally headed by civil rights leader Kwame Ture and report the audience’s reaction to Ture’s oration. Soon after, Ron is reassigned to intelligence. While paging through a magazine on the job, Ron comes across an ad for the KKK and decides to call up his local chapter, eventually coming in contact with the president of that chapter. He secures the help of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to create two Ron Stallworths: the one on the phone, the real Ron, and the white Ron, Flip, who meets with the Klan members in person. Together, they work to expose the group and ultimately bring it to its knees from the inside.
BlacKkKlansman, technically, is a marvel. Lee captures the spirit of the 70s with an auteur’s eye, and oftentimes the audience feels as if they’re being swept up into the radical events expressed in the film. Crisp, clean cinematography from Chayse Irvin (who shot Beyoncé’s Lemonade) beautifully captures a distinct era with vibrant spirit; clothes, hair, cars, jackets all suggest an experienced production team. Overall, the acting from all parties is supremely convincing at worst and terrifyingly sublime at best (while John David Washington phenomenally brings the character of Ron Stallworth to life, I believe Topher Grace’s unsettling performance as Ku Klux Klan Grandmaster David Duke is truly the highlight of the film). However, the best aspect of the film rises out of its choice of genre — it’s a comedy. A quite funny one, in fact. Though the humor isn’t exactly what one would call sophisticated, it serves many different purposes, each lending itself well to the overall perfection of this film and accentuating its enjoyability. Firstly, the comedy works well as a counterbalance to the murkiness that is historically unavoidable. Without spoiling anything, several moments throughout the film can be quite sickening, and the humor interspersed throughout keeps the film from collapsing under its own weight with a concept that, though historically accurate, seems a bit ridiculous. Secondly, the humor makes the movie more accessible. One thing I’ve noticed as a major difference between this and Do the Right Thing is that the latter is so saturated in its own culture it becomes slightly esoteric, at least to an outside viewer. With a message as important as BlacKkKlansman’s, Lee seems to want to pull in more viewers rather than risk alienation. He does this through the film’s comedy, a step above regular studio fare but still appealing to the average moviegoer. Thirdly, the comedy serves not exactly to make light of the KKK and their malicious exploits, but to examine their loathsome philosophy and expose its obsessiveness as ridiculous. The humor doesn’t result in what one would refer to as caricatures, but rather serves to effectively reduce the evil that was the Klan from a terrifying menace to a laughing matter, and it’s beautiful to watch.
One criticism of Lee’s filmography as of late is that his recent films have become emulations instead of the distinctive voices they once were. BlacKkKlansman is a return to form, not because it is a thematic echo of his previous cinematic offerings, but because it’s not. Instead, Spike Lee has finally decided to forsake relevancy — well, so to speak — and make a movie not only supremely reflective of our time, but one that looks a few years ahead, something we desperately need in modern filmmaking. Lee realizes this need for foresight and in the process creates for us a movie that is easily accessible, but not necessarily easily digestible. The humor exists to portray even the greatest of evils as ridiculous and ironically self-defeating by nature, but as the film comes to conclusion, Lee offers an unspoken thesis — evil can be laughed at, reduced, ridiculed, but this doesn’t ultimately vanquish it. The film is a lament in the face of tragedy, tragedy that comes from the realization that though manifested differently, the same hatred of goodness present in this film was present the instant this world fell. The same stark white robes donned by the Klan members in this film were donned in the past and are being donned even still, albeit in different form. White is the absence of all color, and never is this fact more apparent than when we see it in the forefront of this film’s antagonists. What BlacKkKlansman seeks to proclaim is that this hatred still exists today, in distinct but arguably more hateful forms. A wise philosopher named George Santayana once sat down to reflect on the narrative of history. He came up with an adage to express what he found: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”