Much praise has been heaped on “BlacKkKlansman” the new Spike Lee feature based on a daring tale as told in the book by the same name by author Ron Stallworth. The action takes place in the seventies, in the heady times of Vietnam War protests, desegregation and black power movements. These last, as we now know, went nowhere. The lucky African-Americans fill prisons, the less lucky ones are murdered on street corners by white cops, and the country has the biggest racist problem in the Western world.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black cop in Colorado Springs, manages to infiltrate the regional KKK, all the way to the infamous David Duke (Topher Grace), while being impersonated by a white colleague, Flip (Adam Driver) as the “organization” would probably not open its arms to an African-American seeking membership.
Spike Lee is an enormously-gifted director, which allows him to bring fun into an overview of the unspeakable present level of racism after an unspeakable history of racism, but his film left me cold. The KKK is not a quaint, half-forgotten organization. It’s not an antiquated club for imbeciles fueled by rage. It’s a reminder of how low human beings occasionally fall, especially when running in a pack, as present times well demonstrate.
“BlacKKKlansman” serves everything at the same time. Past and present, terrible times such as the gruesome murder of a teen at the beginning of the twentieth century, movingly retold by an aging man (Harry Belafonte). Then hilarious moments, though the overall film is not half as funny as critics make it out to be. I found the tone off throughout as we swing between remembering the scars of the past and being curious to see how the present story will play out, then laugh at some outlandish scheme on the part of the goofy klansmen or the sometimes hapless cops, both black and white, with skin in the game. Scenes from “Gone with the wind” and “Birth of a Nation” add to the impression of mishmash and lack of focus, as do reminders of last year’s sad Charlottesville events or occasional winks in the direction of the vaudeville/spy story/crooks on the run/lunatic asylum reports enacted by the present administration.
I recognize that I’m probably not the best person to write about a film that didn’t engage me much but I suspect that I’m not the only half-hearted member of its vast audience. The Village Voice puts it best. “BlacKkKlansman resists closure, reconciliation, or catharsis, and Lee has no interest in keeping this thing formally unified. What use is that kind of unity in a society that’s falling apart?”