James Cole Clay // Film Critic
Spike Lee is a filmmaker that nobody would accuse of putting the “b” in subtle. His work has been loud, brash and offered social commentary that some even called incendiary back in the DO THE RIGHT THING days. But while his films do vary in quality, from masterpiece to pedestrian, his voice is always shining through, giving power to those who have not had the chance to be heard.
His latest, BLACKkKLANSMAN, is in the pantheon of his best narrative films, which include DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X and (some may disagree) HE GOT GAME. This true story of Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in 1978 using an over-the-phone “white voice” to gain access to their “secret” criminal underbelly. Stallworth is a sharp guy with ambition and an attitude to truly enact change within his world, yet he’s focused on doing his job to the best of his abilities. He partners with Jewish officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be the face that enters the den of the KKK, while Stallworth chats on the phone with Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).
While sneaking around the dumbling dunderheads of the KKK, Stallworth is assuming yet another identity as he is infiltrating a radical movement while attempting to woo Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a woman who leads the local black student union. He’s a layered individual who goes against both systems, the radicals looking for social change as well as the conservatism of his police force.
This is Lee’s most riveting work in well over a decade. It inflicts a style that will appease general audiences, while feeding a story that incites change with the charismatic charm of its cast and the voice of Lee shining through every frame of the film. And Lee doesn’t look down upon his audience; he’s inviting them to listen more intently to the message than ever before. This is a chance for Lee to come to his audience rather than asking them search for meaning in his work.
BLACKkKLANSMAN is an accessible story that will introduce many filmgoers to John David Washington, whose father is now legendary status – yet the actor is making a name for himself all on his own as Stallworth. Lee, Washington, Harrier, Driver and company are having a blast telling this story with humor and unapologetic social commentary that’s worthy of applause in a true crowd-pleasing fashion. Cinematic in every way, Lee crafts scenes with a visceral nature using music to great effect.
In one scene, Lee uses Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s groovy song “Too Late To Turn Back Now” in a disco sequence between Washington and Harrier that features them dancing with a group of partygoers. Lee inflicts a freeing feeling of pure joy in this scene that is of the best work in his storied career. For a film that speaks to the nation in 2018, BLACKkKLANSMAN shows that Lee is reveling with delight in every frame. It’s one of the best uses of music in film… perhaps ever?
At the heart of the film is the struggle of a man attempting to assimilate vastly different groups while keeping true to his own identity. Yet, Stallworth operates with confidence even when the odds are stacked against him.
BLACKkKLANSMAN is one of the years best and will end up in the Oscar race this fall with the right push and word of mouth. But more importantly, the actual man, Ron Stallworth, is a courageous man who has paved the way for many women and men who came before him and his story is stranger than fiction.
BLACKkKLANSMAN opens Friday (8/10).