I feel the need to be cautious reviewing a movie by Spike Lee. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because I’m white and he is a resounding voice from within the African-American community. That takes me into sensitive territory these days.
But a little research compels me to revisit some of Lee’s more noteworthy films, including She’s Gotta Have it (1986), which launched his career, Do The Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Malcolm X (1992) and If God Is Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise (2010). If you’re a fan of Denzel Washington, he is frequently cast in Lee’s films, as is Samuel L. Jackson.
So here are a few things you might not know about Shelton Jackson (Spike) Lee: his background is one of arts and education – the son of a jazz musician father and a school teacher mother. He studied film making to the graduate level, and won a student Oscar for his first short called The Answer in 1980, a reworking of The Birth of a Nation, which features prominently in Oscar nominated (Best Director) BlacKkKlansman. He frequently teaches and lectures, and started his own production company with the money he made on his early work.
His grandmother sent him to college and helped fund She’s Gotta Have It. As a man with a close relationship to my own grandmother, I have an affinity for others similarly blessed. While not entirely prolific, he has been a steady, busy, message-driven filmmaker for almost four decades, and he’s only 61. He is not without controversy, being vocal about his passions and visible as a sports enthusiast, sitting courtside at all New York Knicks games.
So, on to BlacKkKlansman, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Set in the early 1970s, the film draws its inspiration from the career of Ron Stallworth, the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police department. Like many other films “based on actual events” there are those who poke holes in Lee’s adherence to the literal sequence of events as portrayed on screen. Call it artistic license, but unlike others who leverage their creativity, Lee seems unfairly held to a standard others fail to meet. And that is called a double standard. There is enough actual footage drawn from recent events, and still photos from horrific chapters in our history, to qualify as near documentary.
In short, Stallworth (John David Washington) manages to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan over the telephone with the help of a fellow white officer (Adam Driver) who attends Klan meetings and earns his KKK membership card. Together they become embroiled in protests, cross-burnings, a bombing and the take-down of a racist officer, much of which never actually happened, but certainly adds excitement and a sense of redemption to the film.
Lee incorporates quite a few early 70s songs in the soundtrack, attempting to cement us into that strange turbulent/jubilant time, including the irresistibly funky Ball of Confusion by the Temptations, and Too Late to Turn Back Now by Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. A couple of tracks jolted me out of the story line as misfits - Brandy by Looking Glass and Lucky Man by Emerson, Lake and Palmer are definitely period pieces, and I like both songs so I overlooked their intrusion. I guess they played on the radio at that time whether they “fit” or not.
The potpourri of 1970s nostalgia Lee pulled out of his hat (he also has a line of off-brand sports and other lids) is significant, primarily in capturing black culture during a period so rich in music (Motown), hairstyles (the Afro), language (can you dig it? Right on!) and dance (the Soul Train Line) and clothing (colorful and distinctive bells, disco leisure about to take off and many others.) Of course, cars that are now classics like the original VW Bug, Nova, Charger, Pinto and many more bring the streets of the 70s to life.
Several film production notes worth mentioning: Lee likes to use the “Dolly Zoom” effect in his films. This was a technique developed by Alfred Hitchcock that makes an actor appear to float forward independent of the background. It’s quite unsettling, as evidenced in Vertigo and later in Jaws and many others. Lee apparently really, really likes this effect and gives us a nice long zoom in this film.
When a mistake or an effect pulls me out of the film and returns me to my seat in a theater, it may as well be a cell phone ringing in the theater. One such instance was a distinct solar flare on the camera lens during an outdoor sequence. Another was Lee’s use of animated stills that swiped right and left from off screen during a conversation between characters to illustrate their points. It felt amateurish, like iMovie effects.
BlacKkKlansman is perhaps not a great movie, but it is a good movie worth seeing, if nothing else, as a reminder during a resurgence of racial tension in our country that there are profound and deeply rooted reasons for unresolved anger and hatred. That the KKK still exists and David Duke still speaks in public is astounding. That Spike Lee was able to incorporate humor into a film this meaningful is impressive. And a chilling series of high quality current news footage segments counters that emotion with one of horror as you leave the theater.
BlacKkKlansman (2018) runs 2 hours, 15 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?