46 years ago, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington in a star-making turn) made history. He not only became the first African American cop to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department, but he also set up and executed a sting operation that ended with him near the top of the Ku Klux Klan local chapter.
Seen as the enemy at first, Stallworth gained the trust of his superiors (a never better Robert John Burke) and his partners (the always dependable Adam Driver) in order to successfully infiltrate the KKK and commence their ultimate downfall. Say hello to the BlacKkKlansman, the true story about an undercover cop who changed the game.
Co-writer and director Spike Lee uses Stallworth's story to blaze a trail through the cinematic landscape, commanding everyone's attention with a film that is equal parts powerful and darkly hilarious. Few filmmakers can work within that narrow margin and come up with something that won't just satisfy, but make you stop and think about how far America has come-or not come-in the last 50-60 years when it comes to racism and bigotry.
Teaming up with producer Jordan Peele-who turned heads with last year's Best Picture nominee, Get Out-Lee reenters the danger zone of filmmaking. I'm not saying that Lee has served up duds over the past few years, but nothing comes close to the power of his latest film. He has dabbled in television movies, specials, and stretched his talents to previously untouched grounds over the past ten years, leading some to believe he was done with wide-release movies. Perhaps Lee wasn't done at all, but merely loading up to truly knock us out.
Labeled "the Jackie Robinson of law enforcement" due to his breakthrough, Stallworth's greatest asset was irreverence towards hatred. When racist cops came up to him, he didn't step down in their presence, holding his ground instead. He was asked to work his way up in the files room, but he saw an opportunity to be something more. His big break came going undercover at a Black Student Union gathering for former Black Panther leader Kwame Ture (a phenomenal Corey Hawkins), where Stallworth meets the equally ambitious Patrice (Laura Harrier). She doesn't know he is "a pig" like the ones who abuse her friends, but the two find a similar calling while working at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Screenwriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee craft a story from Stallworth's book that wisely draws from the past and the present. Opening with a scene from Gone With The Wind and closing with unfiltered footage from Charlottesville last year, Lee and his team of scribes are trying to connect our past to our present, and show us how the same demons that fueled the fight 50 years ago still haven't been purged just yet.
A hilarious yet sadly true opening commercial with the vile Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin leaving a dent with one scene) kicks off the action in 1972, lighting a fire under Stallworth as he starts his trek from nobody to undercover civil rights hero.
Usually when you see four writers on the docket, it can spell trouble for a movie's direction, but here each writer brings something different to the table, lighting up the true tale like poignant Christmas lights on your need-to-see movie list. By not trying so hard to make a mark, Lee and his team of writers leave us with something substantial that will be slowly unpacked for days.
A first-rate cast sure does help. Washington is magnetic as the lead character, holding the weight of the movie on his shoulders in his first leading role. This is the moment where the actor-who is known mostly for his supporting turn on HBO's Ballers-goes from Denzel's son to a bona fide star. There are no longer doubts about what he can do on the big or small screen.
Driver has a way of taking any size role and soaking as much juice form the dialogue as possible. An undeniable presence, he may be known for his work in the recent Star Wars films, but he is such much better as a vital component to ensemble casts in films like This Is Where I Leave You and Logan Lucky. Driver has a way of making you unsure on where his Detective Zimmerman truly stands for part of this film, but the slow burn is useful for Lee's story.
Driver and Washington share some of the film's best scenes. The two actors find a rhythm and chemistry that doesn't feel forced or tacked on, making it easy to understand and digest their unconventional partnership. The way the investigation worked was Ron Stallworth worked the Klan over the phone, while Zimmerman posed as Stallworth he met them in person. You need two game actors to pull that off.
Jasper Paakkonen steals a few scenes as the venomous Klan member Felix, sharing a few tense and uncomfortable scenes with Driver as detective deftly tries to reroute the tormented man's thinking on who he is. The classic case of a supporting actor leaning into a part that is ungodly violent yet simplistic at the same time, Paakknone is a marvel here. The rest of the cast gets their licks in, but this film's train is driver by Washington, Driver, and Paakkonen.
The true star here is Lee. He has made some of cinema's finest, movies that pushed rearranged the table of what someone could do in the world of make-believe. By tying the troubles of the early 70's to the current crisis that the modern world faces, he doesn't just aim to please, yet inform as well. As bold of a streak as Lee crafts here, he never wades into the territory one would describe as preachy. When you are making a film about the Ku Klux Klan being undone by an African American cop, one could have gone by the book and made a crowd-pleaser. Lee has other plans and thank goodness for that.
BlacKkKlansman is a special film that will stick around for the remaining months of the year, finding its way into awards season. While Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You was subversive and something different, it turned such a hard corner with its climax that it shocked several people with its bold symbolism, the connection may have been lost over time. Lee decided to take a more grounded and truer story to get his point across that racism is still a viable threat in our society.
This movie should make you uncomfortable, drudging up feelings that may have lived inside you for a while, but had no idea how to climb out. While comedic in parts and light on its feet, Lee's latest joint asks you to stop and think about the lack of progress that has been made between 1972 and 2018. Instead of drawing outside the lines, Lee gets in your face and digs into the "why" of the dilemma.
On the surface, BlacKkKlansman is entertaining and informative. Deep down, it's a truly bold slice of cinema that represents the return of Spike Lee to the ruthless filmmaker list and John David Washington to the actors to watch list.
Go see it and grab some coffee afterwards.