In November of 1992, my life was changed forever. My parents took me to a Saturday night screening of MALCOLM X in the biggest theater in my home town. I was a casual movie buff at that time and enjoyed some of the major studio movies on the big screen and watched some movies on laserdisc, but I never really assimilated myself into the film culture. My parents were insistent that we see the movie and that I go with. I was reluctant right up until the screening (I mostly went because I knew it was on that theater’s largest screen), but then, suddenly, director Spike Lee’s transcendental, epic three hour film unfolded before me, woke me up to the racial divide of the past, made me understand the importance of acceptance of anyone based on their character versus their skin color, and also made me a die hard lover of the cinema thanks to the legendary performance by Denzel Washington and the incredible, endlessly fascinating filmmaking. This movie set me on my path in life.
I mention this screening because after watching BLACKKKLASMAN tonight, I was reminded of the absolute thrill of the best of Spike Lee’s filmmaking in connecting a true event to the power of his unique brand of storytelling and making the movie the event itself. In his best work, he tells an effective story in a grand, thrilling way and somehow manages to be funny, thrilling and tell a unique perspective on the past all at once. And in how MALCOLM X brought Denzel into my cinematic life, this movie brings us another award-worthy performance by his son at the forefront in a thrilling premise.
John David Washington absolutely disappears into Ron Stillworth, who arrives on the scene in Colorado Springs during a major political and racist upheaval, and manages to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan which has been raging on for generations, and somehow getting all the way to leader David Duke. How he does this is some sort of miracle; he starts out as a lone black officer in a police precint and gets involved with his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and manages to get the KKK on the phone. Ron is the voice on the phone but Flip becomes the person who goes undercover and assimilates completely into the group. (Echoes of the recent SORRY TO BOTHER YOU by a black man using a “white voice” are very evident here.)
BLACKKLANSMAN is such a rich and dedicated piece of work throughout; endlessly fascinating as it moves from one scene to the next, in the rare theatrical experience where there is nothing on your mind other than the movie that is being projected on the big wide-screen before your eyes. There is a lot to unpack here. At what point have our heroes gone too far? The racism of the time was so strong that it’s incredibly difficult to create any actual chance. How is it possible, at one point, for a black police officer to become security for a Klansman? How long do the police even put up with Washington as one of his own? There are many parallels to current racism and politics here, showing that maybe racism WAS different, but it’s still here in another form.
The movie goes far down the rabbit hole, but Lee does some of his greatest work with this movie in balancing his own politics (he is never shy in doing this, and even I understand his final coda might annoy some more conversative audiences) along with tremendous social commentary. It’s also some kind of miracle that this movie is also so funny while also being so shocking at the same time; there are some truly horrific sequences (once of which involving a potential, racially motivated bombing at a house that had me on the edge of my seat) and some incredible, laugh out loud moments as we have our lead characters on the phone with the head of the KKK, unbeknownst to the group. There are so many echoes to earlier films as well, such as the opening sequence the famous “wide shot” of GONE WITH THE WIND and as well DW Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION which brings the relevance back into our eyes with full force.
Above all, the movie is joyous cinematic experience based on Lee’s look and feel alone. We come to the movies to be entertained and BLACKKLANSMAN is a professional, polished and entertaining experience, something movies have to be before anything else. Gorgeously shot by Chayse Irvin on film and featuring some of his trademark styles with help from regular editor Barry Alexander Brown (the double edits of characters embracing, surprise edits, and one of his most famous, the “people mover” shot, will take your breath away) along with scenes so joyous, like a dance sequence featuring the song “Too Late To Turn Back Now” that is so immersive and thrilling to experience. That Lee has used some of the same talent as he has done for decades in his work shows a true testament to his passion.
Earlier I mentioned Washington’s performance, but the entire cast is wonderful and matching him is Adam Driver in his best work to date Zimmerman; his character is a deeply conflicted partner who completely infiltrates the KKK but also creates a deep connection with his partner. Topher Grace also has a tremendous performance as David Duke; Grace has always been known to me as the son in THAT 70’S SHOW but has a great amount of pathos and intrigue here.
Like when I sat in a gigantic movie theater back in 1992 and having MALCOLM X changed me, I am hoping a young woman or man watches this movie and becomes inspired in many ways. I left the theater equally moved, teary-eyed and inspired for change and wanting to tell everyone around me of the sheer emotional power this movie will have over you. That the audience applauded as the credits started rolling is a true sign that this movie will have an undying power in not only its theatrical release, but long down the road. This is some of Spike Lee’s great work in an already great year for him (his Amazon Studios filmed performance PASS OVER, which is a short and sweet presentation of a famed Chicago play, was also one of my Top 10 of SxSW, link here) and BLACKKLANSMAN will be on my list of the best films of 2018.
Rating: **** out of ****
BLACKKKLANSMAN is now in theaters in Canada and the US.