[Screen It]

"BLACKkKLANSMAN"
(2018) (John David Washington, Adam Driver) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A 1970s era black cop and his white Jewish partner infiltrate the local chapter of the Colorado Springs Ku Klux Klan and eventually make their way up to the grand wizard of the national organization.
PLOT:
It's the late 1970s and Ron Stallworth (JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON) is applying to be the first black police officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department. After passing a litany of questions from Chief Bridges (ROBERT JOHN BURKE), Ron lands the job but must contend with racist fellow cops such as Andy Landers (FREDERICK WELLER). His first out of the office assignment is to infiltrate a rally held by ex-Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture (COREY HAWKINS). It's there that he meets Colorado State Black Student Union president Patrice Dumas (LAURA HARRIER) and is near instantly smitten with the radical young woman who doesn't realize he's a cop.

Reporting back that the group is angry but doesn't seem to pose a threat, Ron spots an ad about joining the Ku Klux Klan and -- using his "white voice" -- calls the number. He reaches local chapter president Walter Breachway (RYAN EGGOLD) and fools him into believing he's a white racist and ends up invited to come on down to meet him and the rest. Obviously realizing that won't work and after confiding with white cops Flip Zimmerman (ADAM DRIVER) and Jimmy (STEVE BUSCEMI), Ron decides that Flip -- a Jew -- should pose as him.

Given the go-ahead by their captain, Flip does just that and not only meets Walter, but also the suspicious Felix Kendrickson (JASPER PÄÄKKÖNEN), his equally racist wife, Connie (ASHLIE ATKINSON), and the bumbling but dangerous Ivanhoe (PAUL WALTER HAUSER). With Flip passing the litmus test of joining the group, and Ron continuing to make arrangements over the phone, their dual investigation of the KKK eventually puts them into contact with the grand wizard of the organization, David Duke (TOPHER GRACE).

As they continue with their undercover work, Ron and Patrice become romantically involved, all of which leaves him conflicted and concerned about how things are going to play out.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
If you told me about the beginning of the year that the summer of 2018 would feature more than one film revolving around black characters using their "white" voices to achieve their goals, I would have said (with teeth clenched to get the correct stuffy-sounding vocalization)"Lovey, you must have had a few too many pinots on the cape. Who would ever believe such a thing?"

Well, following in the footsteps of "Sorry to Bother You" where the black protagonist was instructed to use his white voice when making cold telemarketing calls and then excelled at that, we now have "BlacKkKlansman" where the late 1970s African-American protagonist uses a similar voice not only to fool the local Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, but also its imperial wizard, David Duke, and thus join the white supremacy minded group.

If that might sound like some degree of satire, it is. But it's also based on the real-life story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American man who joined the previously all-white Colorado Springs Police Department and then, answering an ad placed by the KKK, managed to convince them that he was one of them. No, it wasn't a blind chapter nor was that a case of Stallworth doing the old Eddie Murphy bit of applying lots of makeup to look like and thus pass off as a member of that race. Instead, the black cop enlisted the aid of a white one to portray him during those in-person meetings.

That's the general storyline of what occurs in this adaptation of Stallworth's memoirs that's been penned by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & writer/director Spike Lee. As most likely know, the latter is a filmmaker who's never shied away from race and racism in his films or sometimes whacking his viewers over the head with large cinematic mallets that squash any and all subtlety.

This one's also a fairly obvious if timely expose on blatant racism that's once again reared its ugly head in today's America, no longer staying in the shadows but proudly existing in the full sunlight. And if you somehow manage to miss that point, the filmmaker drives it home with the disturbing footage from the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville last year, the counter-protests, and the deranged man who plowed his car through the crowd, killing one woman.

Up until that point and other moments late in the third act, and despite the overt racism found throughout, much of the film plays far more lightly, much like an interesting and entertaining, satirical black comedy. That's particularly true in regard to the portrayal of the various KKK members (who certainly don't need any sort of respect) who are shown at best as being easily duped and otherwise coming off as so racist as to be goofy (rather than scary, or sad, etc.).

Thus, when the serious parts arrive (including a bit where Harry Belafonte plays a character recalling a past lynching -- as juxtaposed against white racists watching and cheering and jeering during a screening of "The Birth of a Nation"), that creates some jarring tonal shifts that could end up taking the viewer out of the proceedings (not to mention unnecessary bits such as images of blaxploitation movie posters showing up superimposed on the screen when such movies are discussed). Other bits simply aren't believable. That includes why the black cop (John David Washington) would keep making the phone contact with the various KKK members when it would make more sense for the white cop (Adam Driver), once having assumed that in-person role, to do so.

Of course, that would take away from the satirical jabs at the racists being easily fooled. Yet, it also holds true for Ron making such calls from a wide open police station where other cop business could potentially be easily heard on the other line and thus blow the cover and entire operation.

It also doesn't help that the protagonist isn't the most interesting character, simply due to the story construction and plot demands. Much of that stems from the fact that Ron really doesn't have much at stake beyond having the young woman he's interested in - played by Laura Harrier as the local president of the Colorado State black student union - realize he's a cop, a profession for which there's no love lost on her part, what with calling officers "pigs."

Instead, it's Flip who's risking everything, what with being a Jewish man in the thick of racists who view people of such ethnicity right down there with people of color. His scenes with the various KKK members (ranging from Jasper Pääkkönen as an extremely suspicious member to Paul Walter Hauser as an unstable buffoon and finally Topher Grace as the grand wizard) are the most charged and interesting, thus leaving Ron as something akin to playing second fiddle.

It's certainly not a fatal flaw for the pic, and overall I'm going to give it a slight recommendation, but the tonal unevenness (where Lee can't seem to figure what sort of film he's making), occasional heavy-handed nature and focus on the least interesting character of the two cops means a potential-filled premise based on an incredible true story isn't as good as it could and should have been. "BlacKkKlansman" rates as just a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed July 19, 2018 / Posted August 10, 2018


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