Edwin Arnaudin: Since so many critics are suggesting as much, I’ll just come right out and ask: Is Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman one of the year’s best films or even the top film of 2018 so far?
Bruce Steele: I can’t go that far, but it hits its marks. I have a feeling that sentiment is coming from critics impressed by Lee’s audacious topicality, his aggressive critique of Trump and racial divisions, more than his storytelling. As a narrative, it’s neat and effective without being especially creative. But with its fact-based premise, it can’t fail to be engrossing.
Edwin: It has a lot going for it, including the surprisingly straightforward presentation of Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrating the local Ku Klux Klan chapter with help from his white stand-in colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Lee’s one of my favorite filmmakers, but his subject matter and style rarely play to the masses. Do you think producer Jordan Peele had a hand in steering Lee toward some Get Out level accessibility?
Bruce: I don’t think Lee can be steered by anyone, but his filmmaking has always been adaptable to the cultural context and subject matter. He made a straight-up epic biopic, with Lee characteristics, with Malcolm X, and he’s made genre films that stay largely within the bounds of audience expectation. This film seems akin to his Summer of Sam, in terms of evoking both the 1970s (when it takes place) and present-day issues, but it has a good dose of the freighted humor and upfront culture-war lecturing of Do the Right Thing. He really wants a broad audience to see this, and I think that was foremost in his mind.
Edwin: I agree that he wants this film on as many screens as possible, and to accomplish that goal he’s significantly toned down his stylistic trademarks. There are some nice touches, like spotlighting individual faces at a Black Student Union rally and the extended, no-fuss sequence of young people dancing in a club to "Too Late to Turn Back Now” — one of those lovely moments in Lee’s filmography where he simply presents an element of black culture in its natural form, free from directorial commentary.
Bruce: Lee has often left room for some straightforward romance in his movies, and the dancing scene is a turning point in the unlikely romance between Ron and Patrice (Laura Harrier), the leader of the Black Student Union, who’s entirely fictional but integral to the plot. Their scenes tend to be shot in fairly conventional ways — as was much of the movie, actually.
Edwin: There’s only one free-floating dolly shot (which arrives mere minutes before the end) and the camera angles and editing are far less aggressive than usual. It’s in those aspects where I think the more workmanlike Peele might have been influential, and I feel like a good amount of Lee’s personality is lost in the process.
Bruce: The movie is both bold and conventional. The story line — an invented narrative inspired by the real Colorado police detective — has a traditional arc: White Ron, undercover, and black Ron, via telephone, risk discovery as they try to uncover a plot to attack the black activists, which leads to a decent but unspectacular finale. Lee has more fun with the comic bits, especially as black Ron scams the clueless KKK members, including Grand Wizard David Duke (a fully committed Topher Grace), on the phone.
Edwin: I indeed laughed a lot, but also had trouble breathing a few times while Flip was out in the field, risking his neck in the name of the investigation. Credit goes to Finnish actor — and Asheville Movie Guys umlaut record-setter — Jasper Pääkkönen for creating one of the year’s most terrifying villains in the volatile, unpredictable Felix Kendrickson, who never quite buys White Ron’s racist claims. How tense did the film get for you and do you feel Lee was able to balance it well with the humor and message?
Bruce: Considering Lee’s willingness to make good people suffer to underline his films’ themes, I thought this one was on the mild side. The tension is there, but the often-jocular mood — inserts of blackspoitation movie posters, for example — mitigated my worries. I think Lee’s message is that these guys are all small potatoes compared with their 2018 equivalents, a message he trumpets repeatedly, including with some shocking current-day news footage at the end.
Edwin: I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t ready for those clips, even with the film’s release coinciding with a particular tragedy's anniversary weekend. The montage was the closest BlacKkKlansman came to activating my tear ducts, so I think you’re right about the “today’s torchbearers” — as it were — “are the realization of these long-held fears” theme. I also found Lee's use of scenes from Birth of a Nation quite effective in calling out the long-standing presence of racism in popular culture, though anyone who’s seen D.W. Griffith’s film might have trouble believing a group of knuckle-headed Klansmen and their wives sitting through the entirety of that four-hour slog. Perhaps they just watched certain organization-fortifying sequences?
Bruce: Realism is not a priority here, despite the fact-based inspiration. The romance isn’t credible either, but it’s necessary. The movie isn’t just a critique of racists. It also questions black activists’ dogmatism, albeit more gently. The scene with Harry Belafonte describing a lynching I’d highlight as the most powerful moment for me, but it’s there in part to question whether the black students are falling into an isolation that has parallels with the racists’ unforgiving view of the world.
Edwin: The movie screening to one side, I disagree about the realism and think Lee’s commitment to that approach is what prevents the material from soaring via assists from his usually more plentiful imagination. Stunning though the Belafonte scene is as it accomplishes what you describe, it’s also the main instance in BlacKkKlansman where I expected Lee to be more active and diverse in his visual angles and cuts, and also utilize longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard's superb original score to a more emotional degree. Instead, like much of the film, I found it surprisingly restrained on a filmmaking level. That’s not to take anything away from the strong performances by Driver and especially Washington (a central player on HBO’s Ballers and, yes, the son of Denzel). I like it a lot, but I was ready to love it, so for me it’s firmly in B-plus territory.
Bruce: I wasn’t really looking for flashier filmmaking here, but I do wish the screenplay had given some depth to all the various characters, from Ron to the racists to the activists. One reason the Belafonte scene works so well for me is because he’s playing a character with a palpable history. Everyone else is just the type they are assigned, with no known past, no family (save for an imaginary sister and one spouse needed for the plot), no nuance. It’s a credit to the talented cast that their performances are all strong and credible with so little to work with, especially Washington. I’m fairly certain this was a conscious choice on the part of the filmmaking team, since the movie is part history and part parable, more focused on 2018 than on 1977. That mission is accomplished. I’ll concur with your B-plus and recommend viewers see it and judge for themselves.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photos: David Lee/Focus Features)