Spike Lee’s new film “BlacKkKlansman,” winner of the Cannes Grand Prix award in May, is based on the early 1970s true story of Ron Stallworth, who was the first African-American hired by the Colorado Springs Police Force. Ron is played by Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington, a new face to contend with for future roles, but previously better known as the subject of father Denzel’s television comments on his football playing prowess. (John David—his full name, as he has no middle name—was drafted by the St. Louis Rams after graduating from Morehouse College in 2006 and played for the Hamburg Sea Devils as a running back in ’06 and ’07.)
Lee said of John David’s casting (“Time” August 20th cover story by Rembert Browne), “I told him, ‘I knew you before you were born.’ I didn’t have him audition or read. Even before I sent him the script, I knew brother man could do it.” And so, a star is born. IMDB even awarded John David Washington the STARmeter award in Cannes on May 9th, 2018. Expect to see a lot more of him in the future, (even if we have seen almost nothing of him in the past).
The improbable story that Spike Lee’s terrific cast brings to life is the story of black police officer Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan. It is based on Stallworth’s book “Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime,” which shows up now on Amazon with the movie’s poster as a cover, but was out as a hard cover book in June with the close-up of a single eye, peeking out from a KKK hood.
This film is a direct commentary on the subject of bigotry and racial prejudice in America, and Lee doesn’t mess around. He never has in dealing with racism, violence and inequality in America. Real news clips are used depicting Donald J. Trump speaking, as well as footage of the Charlottesville murder one year ago of 32-year-old white protester Heather Heyer, run down by a car driven by a racist demonstrater. Real film of the event ends Lee’s film, used with permission of Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro. Lee told (“Time”) “I consider her a martyr.”
That event in Charlottesville, one year ago today, also prompted Spike Lee to say, “That is nothing more than home-grown, apple pie, red-white-and-blue terrorism,” in a telephone interview with the New York Times.
BlacKkKlansman is certain to make the list of Best Films of the Year and deservedly so. It is Spike Lee’s best non-documentary film in years, and perhaps the strongest commentary on this incendiary topic since “Do the Right Thing” won him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay in 1989. Spike Lee has been telling America to “wake up” for 30 years and this latest film underscores the need with current film inserts and newsreel or other footage.
BlacKkKlansman opens with the famous scene from “Gone With the Wind” depicting Scarlett O’Hara is wandering amidst the dead, dying and wounded lying on the ground in Atlanta. It uses footage of 1915’s “Birth of A Nation” to show Klansmen celebrating the abhorrent behavior laid out for us in grim detail by none other than Harry Belafonte in a cross-cut scene with the Klan shouting “White Power!” while the African American group meeting across town shouts “Black Power!” The 70s were, indeed, a time when unrest, bred in the sixties, made it appear that race warfare was going to be our next Civil War. If it wasn’t Stokely Carmichael (using the name Kwame Ture in a speech that he gives onscreen) it was SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) or the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) that worried white Americans.
As Alec Baldwin’s character of Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard says in the first few moments of BlacKkKlansman, playing a White Supremacist narrator of a propaganda film, “We had a great way of life, until Martin Luther King.” He goes on to refer to the “monkeys, rapists, murderous super-predators and blood-sucking Jews” who have, in his opinion, ruined the country, calling it an international Jewish conspiracy. The “N” word is thrown around quite liberally in BlacKkKlansman, as well as many other demeaning names for African American citizens. It is not till film’s end that Ron Stallworth’s character (John David Washington) has the chance to respond in kind to the Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke (Topher Grace) during a phone conversation. One small criticism I might make is that the scenes showing the great amusement of Stallworth’s fellow officers during these conversations are over-done at times.
It is a telephone conversation that sets the entire investigation in motion, as Ron Stallworth notices ads in the newspaper for Klansmen and responds by phone, posing as a loyal White Supremacist. Ultimately, he becomes a card-carrying member of the KKK—a completely unlikely scenario—but the investigation could not have gone forward without the in-person substitution of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver of “Star Wars”) for Stallworth’s phone persona.
The cast was terrific throughout. The casting by Kim Coleman was right on the money, with many recognizable faces in the crowd. If John David Washington was an unknown before this film, it is a certainty that he will not be after this film. If you listen closely, you can hear some of Denzel’s cadence in his vocal delivery of lines, but he is clearly a talent in his own right, hitting the right notes throughout.
Contributing to the excellent ensemble, besides Washington and Driver, are Robert John Burke as Chief Bridges. I recognized him immediately from “Rescue Me” where he was Dennis Leary’s “sponsor” at AA meetings. (Bridges was also in “RoboCop”). Laura Harrier, who plays the love interest Patrice, is a more recent arrival, from “Spiderman: Homecoming” in 2017. Ryan Eggold, as Walter Breachway, is a face you’ll know from “The Black List,” where he was the evil husband of the female lead. (Eggold has a new medical drama starting on TV this fall and had a short-lived show that focused on his character from “The Black List.”) Eggold is the Klansman who eagerly accepts Driver as the real deal and wants to make him head of the group! Michael Joseph Buscemi plays Jimmy Creek, one of the police investigators, and, while he is not Steve Buscemi’s son, he is related (nephew?). Brian Tarantino plays Officer Clay Mulaney and Nicholas Turturro, not much in evidence since 1993’s “NYPD Blue,” is a familiar face. The dim-witted Ivanhoe is Paul Walter Hauser, most recently playing a thug in “I, Tonya” (2017). Two faces I did not recognize were Jasper Paskkonen as Felix Kendrickson, the craziest of the Klansmen, and his wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), who worked with Lee in 2006’s “Inside Man.” Arthur J. Nascarella as Officer Wheaton is from “The Sopranos.” All were excellent.
Lee has worked with the same music person many times and Terence Blanchard put together a terrific score, complete with seventies hits like “It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now” and “Oh Happy Day.” The soundtrack will be terrific. We are also treated to some dancing scenes to lighten the mood, which has comic moments amongst this dead serious topic.
Chayse Irvin, with whom Lee has worked before, is responsible for many of the trademark Spike Lee camera shots, most notably the double dolly shot, where the actors seem to be floating towards the camera (both actors and cameras are placed on dollies on tracks). The grainy high contrast footage, saturated colors, evocative end credits and the “wake up” call to his audience are also typical Spike Lee touches. In this film, the close-up shots of faces in the crowd at Stokely Carmichael’s (Corey Hawkins of “Straight Outta’ Compton) speech are an added plus. In order to be able to both shoot the crowd scene (which Office Stallworth is monitoring from inside) and to focus on the faces of individuals in the crowd (Washington and Patrice, for example), a separate camera had to be set up in a side room and the actors had to be pulled aside to shoot them in close-up to integrate them into the crowd scene.
THE POLITICS OF BlacKkKlansman
In a line from the film, heard during Stokely Carmichael’s speech, he tells the black crowd: “We must unite and organize to fight our oppressor. We are being shot down in the streets by white racist cops.” He goes on to add, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If not now, when? and if not you, who?” Powerful stuff on the heels of so many recent shootings. As a student at Berkeley who remembers the protests of the Vietnam War led by Mario Savio (they were locking him up then; now there’s a statue of him on campus!) and lived through the violence of the sixties, the parallels are much more than theoretical. “Wake up!” is, indeed, a call to all right-thinking U.S. citizens when the KKK is quoted as feeling that, “We’re cleaning this country of a backwards race of chimpanzees. First the N—– and then the K—- (Jews).” Is Spike Lee going too far, when, just today, Omarosa’s book is touting the racist epithet’s popularity as used by the man who once was the star of “The Apprentice” and is now President of the United States?
Another telling line that clearly shows the parallels between these two diametrically opposed groups and times is: “We’re a family and, right or wrong, we stick together.” While that line is spoken by a police officer, the comment immediately follows, “That reminds me of another group.”
I went to hear Spike Lee speak years ago in person in Rock Island, Illinois. The author of the “Time” cover story acknowledged that Lee has a reputation for being controversial, “brash, contrarian and intellectually intimidating,”— a guy who is prickly and wonders “when black people, liberals and Americans in general will stop falling for ‘the okey-doke.'” Some have characterized Lee as “indignant.” He was all of those things that night, causing me to ditch my carefully thought-out-in advance question and remain silent. He is said not to suffer fools gladly and to be impatient. He reminds us all of things we would rather forget, like how Muhammad Ali’s status changed from the sixties, when he was characterized as a draft-dodger and thrown in jail, to Ali’s final years, when he was hailed as an American and global icon.
By “the okey-doke” Lee means the skullduggery, shenanigans, the subterfuge and bamboozling that white America uses to stay in control. It is what one of the O.J. documentaries portrayed as being how O.J. became more involved with the white community than with the black community, after he achieved football and movie stardom. As writer Rembert Browne put it in the “Time” cover story: “Lee makes movies to reopen wounds that white America would like to pretend have healed. He’s a provocateur who clearly knows what his role is: to say difficult things about both the history and the present state of race in America.”
Spike Lee inherited this project after “Get Out” director Jordan Peele (who remains as a Producer) found himself too busy to follow up on making it. Lee was exactly the right person for the film. Jason Blum of Blumhouse Pictures (who I recently spoke with at the conclusion of a panel on horror movies at SXSW entitled “The Bleeding Edge”) is also one of the producers.
OSCAR TIME FOR LEE?
Spike Lee has made 35 films since 1983 and is 61 years old. He has also taught film in New York (Tisch Center) and become artistic director, for 16 years. He has had celebrated feuds with others, including one with Clint Eastwood when he criticized Eastwood’s two war films (“Letter from Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers,” 2006) for not having a single black soldier onscreen. (Eastwood suggested Lee “shut his face,” according to Wikipedia).
While that feud has been resolved, Spike Lee is still stereotyped as “an angry black man.” Given the fact that the story Harry Belafonte relates in the film is true and the lynching of Chicagoan Emmett Till in 1955 for supposedly whistling at a white woman happened 63 years ago and the men who committed the act were acquitted, can we really blame Director Spike Lee for speaking out at this time in history. Or should we all just wake up?
Don’t miss this movie. It’s bound to garner awards at award season…maybe even the biggest of them all.