Arts and Entertainment

Making America Great Again

BlacKkKlansman contains plenty of Spike Lee’s trademarks but remains the perfect movie to introduce newcomers to the director’s style and genre with a piece that makes fun of white people and celebrates the African-American struggle.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Darren Liang

If there’s ever an appropriate time to laugh at the sometimes bumbling antics of the KKK, it’s now with the return of Spike Lee and his dramedy rendition of the 2014 memoir, “BlacKkKlansman” by Ron Stallworth. “Based on a crazy, outrageous, incredible true story,” the movie stars John David Washington as Stallworth, a young “soul brother”of the ‘70s who became the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs police department and infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan.

The story follows Stallworth as he starts out at the police department, first working a bland job at the records office before being transferred to intelligence. He sees an advertisement to join the Ku Klux Klan and as a joke, leaves a message for the local Klan leader. Throughout the film, Stallworth uses a sarcastic “white” voice when communicating with the KKK. Stallworth’s fake voice is significant, not only because it helps him fool David Duke into thinking he’s speaking to a white man, but it also brings up the stereotype of how people of certain races speak. Like the recent absurdist film, “Sorry to Bother You,” “BlacKkKlansman” attempts to explicate the various advantages that come with bidialectalism: being able to alternate between ebonics and a stereotypically “white” voice when speaking to white people.

Through this effective strategy of masking his voice, young Stallworth unexpectedly gets a call inviting him for an in-person meet with some Klan members. Because he’s black, Stallworth enlists the help of his Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to pose as Stallworth and help him infiltrate the KKK.

The story of a black man successfully infiltrating the “secret empire” of the 1900s should already make for an intriguing biopic on its own. John David Washington does well as Ron Stallworth, rocking groovy outfits and a perfectly-shaped Afro every day, giving extra personality to his wise-cracking yet serious demeanor. Adam Driver, meanwhile, has to literally act like two different people in the film. He banters easily with Stallworth at the police department before managing to impersonate him as a mostly convincing God-fearing Christian Aryan man during Klan rallies. Even minor characters like that one really drunk guy at Klan meetings are well-developed and add momentum and humor to the story.

Spike Lee has always centered his movies on black empowerment and heavy subjects like racism, gun violence, police brutality, and the oppression of cultures. The director’s real trademark, however, comes from his well-developed sense of humor, which gives Lee’s characters vibrancy and his audiences an emotional attachment to those characters who work so hard to right society’s inherent wrongs. His imagining of white culture is terrifying, hilarious, and seemingly outlandish at times, but it is a welcome shift from the shallow tropes of people of color that have dominated cinema until now.

On the technical side of things, Lee hasn’t deviated from his use of provocative beginnings to his films, as the very first shot of “BlacKkKlansman” includes a crane from the 1939 drama, “Gone With the Wind,” featuring a Confederate flag and a disturbingly romantic view of the Confederacy. This and a brief racist tirade carried out by a fictional Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) within the first five minutes of the film teaches viewers how to watch Lee’s latest work: laugh openly, but be prepared for some heavy-hitting commentary on society’s systemic racial issues.

Lee continues to experiment with high-contrast footage, occasionally static, continuous shots, and some questionable fade-ins and outs throughout the movie. They work to bring back that film-like quality of motion pictures back in the late 20th century with Lee’s own twist, further immersing viewers in the story. Lee’s famous use of the double dolly (moving characters on top of a platform with wheels) makes a return as characters Stallworth and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), his girlfriend and local black student union president, look out a window to take note of a Klan cross burning. Like in many of Lee’s other films, the characters are stone-faced as they’re literally pushed toward an important event.

When it comes to portraying the times as they really were, “BlacKkKlansman” fails to bring back the seemingly uncontrolled violence that is present in Lee's older films, such as in “Do the Right Thing,” which features a mostly black community’s uprising against the local pizzeria’s racist owners. Though the films take place a little over a decade away from each other, they’re both very much rooted in intricacies of racism. Perhaps Lee wanted to focus on the heroics of the “Stallworth brothers” and the irony of the KKK, whose members preach for a whiter and smarter America but are often less educated than the minorities. Lee could have hit home with a more realistic view of the violence that occurred during the 1970s and ‘80s. It was a time when the Black Panthers were making headlines every day and David Duke was preparing for his presidential run. Bigotry against minorities was outstanding and white America had all but fallen into the hands of a charismatic KKK Grand Wizard. With Lee’s watered-down version of racially-inspired violence, it is only that much harder to understand the risks Stallworth faced in the line of duty.

The film is appropriately accompanied by a moody series of jazz scores by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, whose music not only pulls from that of film noirs, but also adds to the tone of discretion that Stallworth and Zimmerman constantly harbor. Adding to the success of “BlacKkKlansman” is the cinematography of Chayse Irvin. Irvin, who shot for Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and Kendrick Lamar’s “m.a.a.d.” short film, was picked by Lee specifically for his stunning visuals and ability to create emotionally evocative imagery. Amid continuous shots and close-ups that work to increase drama and comedic effects, Irvin brings not only immersive and beautiful shots, but also an open-minded approach to filming.

More than anything, this biopic is more like a witty spy movie than an action film or comedy. The film does well to establish its light nature at the offset and continuously drops a good dose of unexpected jokes from Zimmerman along with a well-paced buildup of suspense to a climax that admittedly could have been more dramatic.

“BlacKkKlansman” is undeniably a Spike Lee joint. His outrageous humor is a constant presence throughout the film. Almost all the members of the KKK are idiots, but only the audience knows it, and the characters’ performances are carried out with such graveness that it’s hard not to laugh despite the context of the situation. From what could have been a dark movie, Lee’s unique sense of humor has created a memorable drama that doesn’t want or needs to be overly serious.