Man, it’s nice to see a good movie.
You know what I mean? Not just a movie that’s entertaining enough, but a movie with some real bite – a movie that feels weighty and stylish, pointed and barbed and clever. Not that I don’t love me some fun trash, but I’ve been craving something with a little more weight lately. With blockbuster season coming to a close, we’re moving into the prestige part of the year, and BlacKkKlansman is here to usher in the changes and give us a little bite. And how.
Spike Lee has always been an interesting director, if not the most consistent one, but his latest flick is no doubt a firm return to form for the visionary man behind the camera. For pure style alone, BlacKkKlansman delivers: crisp direction gives way to artfully stylised sequences, a carefully-controlled unleashing of vision that matches bold, striking visuals with the straight stuff. An eye for period detail and a great soundtrack lends the movie a serious edge that it constantly plays with, the entire film feeling as loose and open as it does carefully constructed and designed.
And then you’ve got that cast: it’s a big-picture debut for John David Washington, who delivers a pretty damn strong case for his own involvement in cinema going forward: as Ron Stalworth, the first black cop in a Colorado Springs precinct who infiltrates the KKK, he’s a character who’s forced his edges to file down in order to raise as few eyebrows as possible, but Washington imbues his leading man with an underlying sense of subversion and sense of humour that keeps him from reading too straight. Adam Driver is typically reliable as the man on the ground who becomes the face of Stalworth to the Klan, while Topher Grace is fucking uncanny as David Duke.
Elsewhere, a personal favourite of mine Jasper Paakonen unsettles as the eternally suspicious white supremacist who always seems on the brink of uncovering the ruse, and I’m just happy to see my preferred performance from Vikings get an airing on a bigger stage. Laura Harrier (of Spiderman: Homecoming fame) rounds out the cast as Stalworth’s love interest and head of a local student union, and despite limited screentime, she allows the character space to breathe and feel lived-in instead of winding up a sketched-in cliche of the political student.
But what really makes the film masterful is that ending (spoilers ahead, obviously). The story of Stalworth ends on an upnote, a victory in the face of the Klan and Duke himself made to look like an even bigger twat than he actually is. But the last ten minutes of the film cut starkly out of fiction and into reality, with footage from Donald Trump, David Duke, and the protests at Charllotesville last year where an activist was murdered. BlacKkKlansman doesn’t want you to walk out of the cinema with a warm glow at the victory over a racist. It wants to remind you that, no matter how significant Stalworth’s victory was, the defeats have been piling up. To call a movie a cautionary tale feels too much like condemning it to preachiness, but this doesn’t feel like preaching. The film is peppered with reference to Trump, a few mumbled “make America great again”-s standing out in the fierce furore of the Klan, but with the ending Lee traces a line directly from the events of the film to modern-day America and the rise of white nationalism in the here and now.
And that, really, is what makes BlacKkKlansman such an outstanding movie. It’s rare to see a film wear it’s politics on it’s sleeve in such a blunt way, but it’s vital to the telling of this story that audiences don’t walk out feeling like their job is done. In BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee has created something that feels vital, modern, and relevant, and for that alone, you have to see it.
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(header image courtesy of Vox)
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