I’m going to break this review down into three short sections. The first section will discuss the film in general. The second section will assume the response of three categories of moviegoers. And the final section will mention the impressions of black critics.
BlacKkKlansman is the newest Spike Lee joint based on the infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan by the first African-American detective, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. The setting is the 1970s, with the Klan aspiring a resurgence and the black power movement firing on all cylinders. A perfect storm and neither side is fetishizing over diplomacy.
The first image in “BlacKkKlansman” is a famous, stirring shot from “Gone With the Wind” where we see a street littered with Confederate soldiers under a tattered battle flag. At the end, we see the mowing down of civilians by a self-professed neo-Nazi beneath the cries of a nation struggling to keep the seams from tearing apart. In the words of Lee: “[w]e’re living in pure, undiluted insanity.”
And so the setting is prime for a thoughtful cross-sectional indictment of our current system of justice and an unvarnished look into the hearts that prevail in the wakr of America’s slave state. And yet, instead of substance rooted in the education of a period that still haunts communities of color, we get a largely thoughtless piece of entertainment to lighten the mood. We live in a world where the passion for advocacy is constantly fighting a war with distractionism and Spike Lee is playing both sides.
Once the initial train of comedy settles in and the broken record racism wears off. And, the use of racial slurs and the shock-value becomes nothing more than redundancies. What remains is an hour of tedious progression that anyway ends up being scrapped into a the bin of futility. Aside from the bookends, the film spends a good middle portion dragging along Lee’s few good ideas, while diluting the few quality moments that is there in the process. Lee had a bone to pick and he forced us all to sit there and proof-read his diatribe.
While I remain adamantly against these topics to be handled with jest because the comedy inherent in using racial slurs to me is short-lived and the effect of diluting the impact of language only adds to the peddling of language in public. While films like Death of Stalin was able to somewhat match the gravity of the situation with the lightness of the script, the same cannot be said here. Those who find themselves amused with the perfunctory writing of Quentin Tarantino (without the idiosyncratic characters) will find the film mildly amusing. For the rest of us who expect more, BlacKkKlansman will prove stupendously underwhelming. I sat in a theatre with the majority of its audience being from the black community and I sensed an actual palpable feeling of boredom.
The messaging of the film was also unintelligible.
If the purpose was to condemn the Klan and celebrate black power than the film failed by juxtaposing the black liberation movement (BLM) and the Klan as seemingly two sides of the same coin (e.g. during the Belafonte lecture). Perhaps only the cops came away as heroes and barely at that, with no one willing to forgive them; and, for good reason perhaps, with only in the final moments cleaning house.
If the purpose was to draw a correlation between the present “America First” administration with the racist Klan members than, in that mission, Spike Lee was successful. However, based on the (above mentioned) alignment between the Klan and BLM, it does the black community no favors when the Klan prefigures Trump, while the Black Panthers presumable can be taken to prefigure the modern-day anti-Trump campus and street movements we saw with Concerned Student 1950 and Black Lives Matter. These parallel are inappropriate, but based on the directing, they were difficult to ignore. I could be wrong, but the flippancy of the film had almost zero emotional drive to galvanize people into action and the footage of Charlottesville at the end felt disconnected from the general lightness of the script.
Spike Lee has made it clear that the inclusion of Charlottesville was intentionally done to draw parallels between the formal creation of the Klan after Birth of the Nation to the birth of Trump’s America. I suspect that by constantly hearing that Trump is a Nazi, the audience will fail to hear the impact of this alignment thanks to the increasingly loud chorus of The Resistance.
Most likely, your response to the movie will come to mirror your political alignment.
CATEGORY 1: If you are a progressive, anti-Trump voter, who reads his administrations every movement as further evidence of racism and bigotry, and finds that the black community is right to condemn and revolt against the systematic racism still pervasive in our society, this film will be a smooth slide into the warm bath of your ideological establishment. [Prediction: B & up]
CATEGORY 2: If you are a moderate who remains sympathetic to the concerns of the ongoing problems with our justice system, low-income education opportunities, and use of excessive force by officers, while able to judge Trump’s actions on a case-by-case basis without unduly assuming the worst (but not blind to how utterly incompetent and insecure he appears). You will find either liking the film with reservations concerning the inflated reviews, or feel it underwhelming and frankly lacking the creative depth and nuance one should demand from this issue. [Prediction: C+ to B-]
CATEGORY 3: If you are a Trump supporter with grave skepticism about the current complaints of progressives on campus and the identity politics pervasive from second-hand journalists and think the black community is protesting much ado about nothing (or even think they bring it on themselves by being pugnacious with cops), you will likely not find yourself coming back for seconds. [Prediction: C and less]
Since most critics fall into the first category above, the response was predictable. With near unanimity, the critics prostrate themselves to the altar of political correctness while ignoring the general mundanity of the film. I knew this would happen based on how even garbage films celebrating the gay and lesbian lifestyle get high marks (see this post), while equally terrible Christian films get slaughtered.
What I was more curious about was how Rotten Tomatoes critics from the black community responded to the film. All of them gave it Fresh Reviews, sure, but their insights were invaluable for my own reading.
For example, Ferdosa Abdi (Geeks of Color) notes the “seeming one-dimensionality” of Stallworth and preferred that Hollywood’s “issue with colorism” could have been overcome by casting Laura Harrier’s Dumas as “a dark-skinned Black woman.” However, if Lee based the fictional Patrice on Kathleen Cleaver & Angela Davis — both light-skinned — this would make little sense.
Jonita Davis (Black Girl Nerds) describes the film as a demonstration that “Black people seeking equality and civil rights did not create racism or the current hate leader, Trump.” Notably, she sees the juxtaposition during the lecture by Harry Belafonte with the Klan meeting as a reminder that “KKK members playing the lovable idiots were just the latest in a long line of very evil, violent, dangerous men.” I guess Davis wasnt bothered by the seeming cross-comparison between the two groups incorrigible intransigence and the awkward parallelism when both groups chant WHITE-POWER / BLACK-POWER.
David F. Walker (The Stranger), who I agree with a lot, nails the criticism of Lee’s failure to pick a genre and his seeming failed attempts “to take back some of the aesthetics and tropes that Tarantino has staked a claim to.” Echoing what’s been said already, Walker notes the “Stallworth’s hair has more dimension than his character,” which it does. Aramide A. Tinubu (Shadow & Act) adds that “since large chunks of BlacKkKlansman are focused on making sure the audience gets the point, the movie feels a bit long-winded, and some of the relationships between the characters, Ron and Patrice’s in particular, suffer from not being as fully fleshed out as they deserve.”
Travis Hopson (Punch Drunk Critics) offers a tepid review with almost signs of underwhelmed optimism: “It’s good to see Lee back on his high horse, having found something to say and the passion with which to say it.” Others less so, noting the films hard-hitting, unvarnished look at racism and noting the “blinding hatred and racist dogma . . . on display in visceral detail.”
Justin Charity (The Ringer) adds an insightful comment on Charlottesville footage in throwing “the preceding comedic experience into stunning relief” and forcing the audience to remember “Kwame Ture’s awkwardly long and intense remarks” and Belafonte’s storytelling. At the same time, some like Dwight Brown thought Lee overdid this sequence: “[L]ast minutes of news clips would have been stronger if they were shorter. No need to hit the audience over the head with the film’s most obvious message[.]“
Joi Childs (Slash Film) agrees that the alignment between then and now was clumsy: “[t]he lack of subtlety drops you out of the journey, and feels like a vehicle for Lee to express his anger toward the government and Trump rather than tell an otherwise fascinating story.”
And finally, one of the more thorough reviews from Odie Henderson (Roger Ebert) ends with high praise:
This is not only one of the year’s best films but one of Lee’s best as well. Juggling the somber and the hilarious, the sacred and the profane, the tragedy and the triumph, the director is firing on all cylinders here.
Out of the 170+ reviews, I can only find about a dozen (mentioned above) from black critics, which means the film was seemingly propped up by a mostly monolithic base of Hollywood white liberals who hate Trump and focused more of their attention on the message, instead of the presentation. This isn’t a judgment, this is just one explanation for the inflated reviews. This is also why this blog exists (see ABOUT ME) .
Well done to the few brave souls to rate this movie down. I join you in staying off the bandwagon.
* For more, check out the talk on What the Flick?! between Christy Lemire, Katie Walsh, Tim Cogshell, & Tim Grierson.
** If you want to see truly impactful recent films on these topic, begin with Fruitvale Station, American History X, & I Am Not Your Negro. If you want to be entertained, go see BlacKkKlansman.