Review in Brief: BlacKkKlansman is good as a buddy cop film and a political piece but great at neither

Art: Kevin K.

After a brief intro by Alec Baldwin, here doing a funny though very racist play on his constantly-flubbed Jack Donaghy “acting” bit, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman quickly announces that it’s based on a true story—or, rather, that it’s based on some “fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” It’s a subtle but important difference. That it’s a true story plucked from the ’70s is secondary to the fo’ real shit it’s really about: how far the US has regressed into its racist past. That tagline is about as subtle as Lee gets with this thing, but to his credit, it’s perhaps apt for such unsubtle times. And if you’re not here for his political message, well, at least stick around for the enjoyable, often quite funny buddy cop movie beneath.

The film sees John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, the first black cop in Colorado Springs. Washington, son of Denzel, lacks his father’s casual swagger but has much of his charisma. That charm not only carries the film but gets his character ingratiated with the local Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan—by phone only, of course, chasing this summer’s Sorry To Bother You in using a “white phone voice” as a crucial plot point. Once Stallworth earns the KKK’s trust on the phone, he recruits his fellow CSPD intelligence guy, “Flip” Zimmerman (a typically solid Adam Driver, nabbing yet another directorial “get” in his deservedly skyrocketing career), to be the sort-of-white face (his Jewish identity has a slight arc of its own) in this anti-racist Cyrano de Bergerac act—Flip meeting them in person as “Ron” while the real Stallworth continues courting them on the phone. Though we know Grand Wizard David Duke remains an inexplicably free man even today, their investigation nonetheless reaches all the way to him, culminating in an off-puttingly good-natured Duke performance by Topher Grace.

To jump to the end (don’t worry; no spoilers), BlacKkKlansman closes on a tangent of modern-day footage that echoes the film’s often intense demonstrations (by no coincidence, its release also comes on the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville’s deadly Unite the Right rally). The montage at first seems as painfully obvious as it is painful to watch, but as it continues, it manages to prove itself an apt epilogue. It’s a closing Donald Trump line that pulls it all into focus: the President’s “very bad people on both sides” argument. With BlacKkKlansman, Lee has willfully not made some two-sided debate on the issues. This is an attack on some very physical, life-taking assaults that rightfully paints white-power racists as violent, ignorant fools. While the film is frequently contrived—from its racial politics, to its textbook two-handed cop thrills, to its numerous meta jokes (did The Wire‘s Isiah Whitlock Jr. really need to be forced into a near-“sheeeeeit”?)—it’s largely as effective as it is gratuitous. That may be the best metaphor it makes for American politics.

Grade: B

Director: Spike Lee
Studio: Focus Features
Runtime: 135 minutes
Rating: R
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jasper Pääkkönen, Paul Walter Hauser, Ryan Eggold, Robert John Burke

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