A Spike Lee Joint
Screenplay by Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott
Based on Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Alec Baldwin
There is something beautiful when the film release schedule aligns to give audiences multiple different perspectives on the Human Condition. There is something even more beautiful when a film strikes the right balance between ‘topical’ and ‘human’. Following on the heels of “Get Out,” 2018 has been been lucky to have films such as “Blindspotting,” “Sorry To Bother You,” “The Equalizer 2” and now “BlacKkKlansman,” the latest Spike Lee Joint.
Each film has been able to reflect on modern society without pandering to its audience. “BlacKkKlansman” is the story of Colorado Springs police rookie Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his ‘true’ story of the infiltration of the Klu Klux Klan in 1979. The particulars of Stallworth’s story aren’t germane to this review because the world that Lee creates is much more than his story.
The script by Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Watchtel and Kevin Willmott is as elegant as it is incendiary. The script focuses on the characters and their settings. Stallworth is a cool cat who is out to keep peace between . . . well, everybody. Much like John Shaft and Cleopatra Jones, Stallworth knew the risks to achieve his ends, using his intellect to gain others trust, especially his partner, Flip Zimmerman.
Much like Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You,” Lee uses key phrases and pronunciations to punctuate the dialog as Ron and Flip work together to become one personality. Adam Driver’s sarcasm works perfectly with Washington’s straight-laced rookie. As I watched Ron and Flip’s characters develop, I was reminded, perhaps too easily of Riggs and Murtaugh from the “Lethal Weapon” series: there was an initial lack of trust in one another, but as they learned how each other ticked, they found a rhythm – neither individual was perfect, but as a duo, they were terrific. This is the film’s greatest strength.
While trying to avoid getting either he or Flip killed, Stallworth falls head over heels for Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). She is the stunning personification of Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson: she is as intelligent as Ron, is less trusting than he of authority and is of strong character; she is not vulnerable and that’s an important distinction in her character as the film progresses.
Topher Grace personifies “Make America Great Again,” from a 1970’s perspective. The interesting dynamic with his character is how gullible David Duke was. Grace’s performance plays right into the idiosyncrasies inherent in Stallworth and Flip. That’s because Lee understands the context of the characters and their framework.
The supporting cast is no less important than our main characters. If anything, they are the fabric of this story. Corey Hawkins (“Straight Outta Compton”) plays Kwame Ture, a freedom fighter organizing the local college students in a protest. Jasper Paakkonen plays Felix Kendrickson, a member of the local Klan. His distrusting nature makes the character unintentionally funny. You laugh at his prejudices, but you find a common ground with which to understand his position as well, not that you agree with it. Paul Walter Hauser (“I, Tonya”, “Super Troopers 2”) spends much of the movie in a drunken slur, but he plays Ivanhoe as a loveable twat. Like Felix, you know there’s a dangerous side to him, but we’re dissuaded from exploring it. Ryan Eggold’s Walter Breachway is the bridge between the two worlds as the local Klan leader. He’s straight laced, but is less distrusting than Felix, making it easier for the story to flow.
Alec Baldwin plays Dr. Kennebrew Beaureguard, who narrates the story. His soft voice sets the tone, but never takes us out of the story.
If I’ve spent too much time talking about the characters, it’s because they are so integral to the story and the world that Lee created. Equally important are the technical crafts. Chayse Irvin’s cinematography captures the essence of 1970’s Colorado Springs by way of upstate New York. The number of interior shots and the lighting recreated the shadowy feel of the 1970’s, where distrust ruled the day. Key interior locations were framed to capture the mood of each scene.
The key to this film’s success is in its pacing. While it runs 135 minutes, Barry Alexander Brown’s editing is superb. We get a sense of who these characters are and we want to be a part of their world. This is Brown’s sixth collaboration with Spike Lee, and it shows. Jazz musician Terence Blanchard is also a frequent collaborator with Spike Lee. In fact, people familiar with their works will recognize a familiar piece of music towards the end of the film. Blanchard keeps the pacing of his score light while underscoring the dramatic tension.
I could spend all day talking about my love for this film. It is no coincidence that Focus Features planned the release date with the one year anniversary of the Charlottesville rally. The fight for equality continues even today. We can share a chuckle at these characters and their situations. Hopefully this brings us closer to the table where we can find our commonalities, a continuing struggle for the Human Condition. Spike Lee’s Joint reflects on what was while playing towards our modern sensibilities.
Rating 4 out of 4 stars