Hate and a Half - BlacKkKlansman
Spike Lee is arguably the most decorated Black filmmaker of all-time, but his track record over the years is filled with as many misfires as hits. For every Do The Right Thing, there is a She Hate Me, working to undo what is still a special legacy. When his films don't quite work, it is largely a function of over-indulgence. He is never shy to 'go for it,' sometimes to the point of excess. Misguided musical interludes, lengthy speeches and over-stylized elements have all cropped up in various forms throughout his career, so any time he is back with a new film, there's always the question whether we will get the 'Good Spike' or the 'Bad Spike.' It doesn’t take long to realize, this is the former through and through. This time, when speeches stretch on in a Tarantino-like fashion, it is actually furthering the feel. The film carries a number of Spike Lee's trademark directorial devices, but none feel overwrought and they are all in service of an inarguably compelling narrative.
The premise of the film is that it is based on the true events surrounding a Black police officer infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington) is an undercover police officer who one day decides to respond to an ad in the paper soliciting people to join the secretive KKK. Unable to tell that Ron is Black, they agree to meet with him. For obvious reasons, they can't send Ron, so they send his White partner, Flip (played impeccably by Adam Driver). The pair split duties like this (phone and in-person) throughout the movie. Their goal is to investigate any potential violence the KKK might be planning, but they must evade detection at every step.
While the officers are investigating, tensions are growing between the KKK and the Black Student Union at Colorado College. When Ron develops feelings for the President of the Black Student Union, he must work to protect her from the KKK without revealing himself as an officer because she has as much contempt for law enforcement as the KKK has for Black people.
If separating out what did and didn't happen in a story like this is important to you, this one will give you a headache. Most of the story is invented for entertainment purposes. The central premise--Black officer infiltrates KKK--is true, but the rest is meant to maximize the drama--and does it ever.
The film takes twists and turns that reveal layers to various characters that truly give the story gravity. Flip, for instance, ends up being a deeply conflicted Jewish man with his own questions of identity; Ron ends up contemplating his place in his own community when no matter how noble his work is, his profession still makes him the enemy to many Black people. Throughout the film, wedge issues like the Vietnam War are used to ask difficult questions about identity and allegiance.
There is a lot to love here, but more than anything, Adam Driver's performance is truly special. Every time he is on screen, the stakes feel amplified. His character's convictions are doubly tested as he can, in many ways, blend in and become the face of a member of the KKK, even if his Jewish heritage would actually make him their enemy. There are scenes here that ratchet up the stakes and Driver meets them head on in a way few actors could. If there is one thing from this movie that deserves recognition, his performance is it.
If the film has a weakness, it is in the somewhat cartoonish nature of its villains. During most of the movie, their zealotry comes across as maniacal but realistic. The Third Act brings with an almost wacky level of evil that takes a little of the bite away from their villainy. Yes, there were and are people this evil, but some of their over the top glee made the action feel forced. But Lee had a point to prove, and prove it he does. This isn't hitting the audience over the head with a message, this is burying them under a mountain of messages. The contemporary commentary is impossible to miss, as characters do everything but break the fourth wall to tell you what they mean.
But regardless of how obvious some of the messaging is (looking at you, Harry Belafonte sequence), the film represents an achievement in conveying complex ideas. So much of the racial divide we experience today is a function of talking past one another. It's often not that one group hates another--it's more that they don't understand one another. We see concepts like Black Pride mistaken for a threat of violence and Black Joy mistaken for some form of provocation. It is those notes that the movie thoroughly nails. Even if we don't then need footage from Charlottesville's Unite The Right rally, that the film settles there can be forgiven. This is Spike Lee, after all.
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