by Alex Gehrlein
With thirty plus years making movies, one would think Spike Lee should have broached a more classic status as a director. Sure, Do The Right Thing is rightfully revered by many (including myself) as one of the greatest films of the 20th century, and many films from The 25th Hour to She’s Gotta Have It have reached a kind of cult status among film buffs, however, Lee has never really received mainstream critical acclaim since Malcolm X back in 1992. He seems to have been kept from the consciousness of popular film for a long time, and that is precisely why it is a great joy for me to say that BlackKlansman is the newest masterpiece from one of my favorite directors.
The story is a historically reshaped portrayal of the true tale of officer Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer in 1970s Colorado, who infiltrates the KKK over the phone and stops a terror plot in the process. A fascinating tale even if it weren’t being told to you by Lee, who takes the film into areas most films aren’t bold enough to go. I won’t get into the specifics of the film’s politics, but suffice it to say, they are present throughout. Lee is making a statement: a well-crafted, entertaining, effective, statement.
I’ll start with the positives. First, the writing. The script is the real star of this film, shooting off well written, witty points every other line, while progressing the plot to a more than satisfactory conclusion. Second, the performances. John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Topher Grace form a perfect trifecta of well executed performances that hold the film together. Washington and Driver do a great job of showing a growing friendship between two cops, each with his own personal connection to the investigation at hand. Meanwhile, Topher Grace shines as a bit of intermittent comedic relief, which balances effortlessly on the tightrope between utter ridiculousness and sheer hatred. Special mention should also go to Laura Harrier whose character throws in a political edge to the dynamic that speaks beyond the film’s time period. Lastly, and certainly not least, is Spike Lee’s direction. Lee’s style has evolved from his humble beginnings of She’s Gotta Have It, while still remaining true to his core sensibilities.
I’ll start the negatives with a few nitpicks. While Adam Driver’s overall performance is quite good, I noticed a few hiccups in his delivery, especially towards the beginning of the film, which could have easily been fixed by another take or two. He did a great job, but it’s not his best work (See Frances Ha). Secondly, some scenes are executed in a way that I feel offsets the film’s progression and really took me out for a minute. No spoilers, but a scene showing a montage of faces in a crowd, silhouetted in complete darkness, floating across the screen really bugged me, as it was not only a completely unnecessary departure from the film’s general tone and style, but distracted from the emotional core of the scene which should be Ron’s specific reaction to the crowd, and not the reactions of nameless characters in said crowd. A simple slow dolly onto Ron’s face intercut with crowd reactions would have been infinitely more effective and not taken the viewer out of the film to question why it was happening. One or two more shots did bug me, but those are more personal preference and not as glaringly obvious as that.
Lee’s film is his newest masterpiece. When the film world looks back on his incredibly accomplished career I hope this film holds up in the company of his greatest works, which, if current reactions can be trusted, appears it will. Simply put, this is a great film with a great message, one which seems to have resonated with modern audiences.