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BlacKkKlansman
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by Peter Sobczynski

"That 70s (And Beyond) Atrocity"
5 stars

Ever since he burst on the filmmaking scene with his audacious 1986 debut “She’s Gotta Have It” (which had some observers labeling him as the next Woody Allen—that certainly didn’t last), it has been apparent that Spike Lee is one of the most prodigiously talented filmmakers of our time. The trouble is that while his directorial skills cannot be faulted, the same cannot always be said for his taste in material, leading to a filmography in which stone-cold masterpieces like “Do the Right Thing” and the criminally underrated “Bamboozled” sit alongside the misbegotten likes of “Miracle at St. Anna” and that dreadful “Oldboy” remake. That said, even when he has made bad movies in the past (if one were to make a list of the very worst films ever made by world-renowned filmmakers, “She Hate Me” would certainly rank near the top, or the bottom, as it were)they were never the works of someone who was just going through the motions in the hopes of someday scoring some big franchise gig—he poured just as much of himself into the clinkers as he did the classics. Thankfully, the current social and political climate seems to have inspired a new sense of focus in his work. His previous theatrical film, “Chi-Raq,” a “Lysistrata” riff revolving around the crisis of gun violence was his best film in years and his latest effort, “BlackKklansman” is even better, a jaw-dropping work in which he uses anger, humor and sheer audacity to recount a true-life story that may be set nearly forty years ago but which feels so of this particular moment in time that it seems to be torn directly from today’s headlines.

Things kick off with a white supremacist leader reciting a canned stump speech about the dangers of integration while propagandistic visuals that begin with a clip from “Gone with the Wind” and proceeds to illustrate how things have not necessarily changed since the Civil War play on a screen behind him—unfortunately for him, the alleged power of his words is undercut by a stumbling approach that mere makes him look foolish instead of fearsome. (To underscore that further, this guy is played by none other than Alec Baldwin, who has garnered new fame as of late for his work as another character that brings together hate and stupidity.) From there, the movie jumps to the late 1970s as African-American Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) applies for a position with the Colorado Springs police department—they are theoretically trying to open their ranks but based on the outrageous question posed to Ron during his job interview, they still have a long way to go. Ron gets the job but his Shaft fantasies are put on hold when he is stuck away in the records room.

Ron finally gets a chance to do some real work when he is given an undercover assignment to attend a speech given by civil rights leader Kwame Ture that is being presented by the black student union at the local college and report on any possible “subversive” activities. In essence, Ron is being asked to betray fellow African-Americans but he is so desperate to prove himself that he agrees to do it and even winds up kicking off a relationship with student activist Patrice (Laura Harrier) in the bargain. Emboldened by this—and perhaps in response to the rough treatment that Patrice and some fellow students receive at the hands of a racist cop (Frederick Weller) during a bogus traffic stop—Ron makes the audacious move to pick up the phone and contact the local chapter of the KKK, pretending to be a White Power adherent hoping to join “the Organization.” Ron’s spiel on the phone pretending to be an ordinary racist sounds so wildly over the top that it might be considered ridiculously laughable to most ears but sounds good enough to the local head to offer Ron an invite to meet with the possibility of joining the highly secretive society, which Ron immediately accepts.

Taking advantage of this unexpected opportunity, Ron pitches his superiors on a full-scale undercover investigation to monitor the activities of the Klan chapter. Of course, there would seem to be a certain insoluble hitch to that plan but Ron has an idea that he thinks will take care of it—while he will continue to deal with the various Klansmen on the phone to ferret out as much information as he can, for face-to-face encounters, another officer, the white and non-practicing Jewish Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), will pose as Ron and gather more intel that way. As the investigation progresses, things get complicated on both ends as Flip has to avoid the suspicions of another Klansman who doesn’t think he is on the up and up (and who even has a jerry-built lie detector in his basement to help fuel his paranoia while Ron works his magic on the phone to the point where he becomes a trusted confidante of no less a figure than Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). In one especially surreal moment that blends split-second comedy and nerve-wracking tension, Duke himself comes to Colorado Springs to perform an induction ceremony that will include Flip-Ron and the real Ron ends up being assigned to Duke’s security detail for the day.

With its tale of undercover cops on a big assignment with danger potentially around every corner, “BlacKkKlansman” is, at its heart, essentially a genre film and in that regard, it is, despite the potentially incendiary subject matter, arguably the most accessible film that he has done since his 2006 heist drama “The Inside Man.” However, this is not to suggest that he is playing it safe by any means because this is one of the most stylistically and dramatically ambitious works of his entire career. While the central narrative line is the one dealing with the undercover case, the film also makes room for developments ranging from Ron dealing with living virtually every aspect of his life as someone other than who he really is (Patrice, who he is now seeing, is still unaware that he is really a cop) to Flip coming to terms with his own identity as he gradually realizes that this is more than just another case to approach in his typically dispassionate manner all the way to an indictment of Hollywood’s own dubious past when it comes to racial matters. (In one of the most electrifying scenes, Ture, previously known as Stokely Carmichael, gives an impassioned speech in which he talks about watching the old Tarzan movies as a child and finding himself rooting for Tarzan to defeat the savages that opposed him.) If that weren’t enough, the screenplay by Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott goes to great and not particularly subtle lengths to suggest that even though this is a period film we are watching, the parallels between the on-screen events and those currently unfolding in the real world cannot be denied (including a couple of references to the Klan hoping to make America great again). To juggle so many side elements in the course of a single story is not a new thing for Lee—it sometimes feels as if for every movie he does, he tries to cram three additional ones into the mix—but rarely has he handled it as deftly as he does here. The only element that doesn’t quite score is the relationship between Ron and Patrice that is the one major aspect of the film that was made up. These scenes aren’t bad, per se—Harrier is quite good as Patrice and it allows Lee to bring a discussion of black radical politics into the mix—but they tend to feel like typical movie scenes and lack a bit of the snap of the surrounding material.

At first, some may object to Lee’s spending most of the running time depicting the Klan and its members as little more than comical rubes who are far less intimidating in person than they are in the abstract. Although he never lets us forget how dangerous they can be, most of the time, they are shown as slack-jawed yokels who, if quizzed, would indeed be hard-pressed to detect any difference between Shinola and that there other stuff. Even David Duke, the more sophisticated face of the Klan, ends up betraying his seemingly placid and reasonable demeanor with his willingness to take Ron into the fold for no other obvious reason than his ability to say to him exactly what he wants to hear. Of course, writing them off totally as a joke would be irresponsible and as it turns out, Lee is merely using this approach to draw us in and see them as insignificant before springing a trap on us to point out the horrors that they are indeed capable of. Towards the end, the sequence involving the big Klan induction meeting with both Rons in attendance (which concludes with them all sitting around watching “The Birth of a Nation” and chortling in a manner that resembles the creatures in “Gremlins” getting a load of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”), Lee deftly intercuts their pretensions with Harry Belafonte delivering a harrowing speech to the black activists chronicling in stomach-churning detail the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. This is a powerful moment that fully and ferociously encapsulates what the Klan has represented to so many people over the years and Lee builds on that in with an audacious finale that illustrates in the starkest manner possible why this 40-year-old story is so relevant today.

However, “BlacKkKLansman” is more than just mere agitprop. It is also a hugely entertaining film that contains a number of huge laughs (even if some of them do catch in the throat), a surprisingly effective amount of suspense and thrills, a number of strong performances (especially the star-making turn by Washington, who suggests the undeniable screen presence of his famous father while still delivering a unique and intriguing performance that is all his own) and enough points of provocation to inspire plenty of post-film discussions. For Lee, it derives a place on the shelf along his finest works and it serves as a powerful reminder of just how good of a filmmaker he can be when he is firing on all cylinders. Don’t be put off by the deliberately lurid title (itself taken from a sleazy 60s-era exploitation film)—“BlacKkKlansman” is sure to go down as one of the best and most devastating films of the year.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32206&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/10/18 10:13:38
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  10-Aug-2018

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  10-Aug-2018




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