“BlacKKKlansman” and its Multi-layered Performances Pop Off the Screen

Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer hired in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Based on Stallworth’s memoir Black Klansman, the film follows the young upstart officer through the racial prejudices of the police department. When he is transferred to the undercover investigations department, Stallworth hatches a plan to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

The film sports some obvious artistic license with regards to the plot, but Lee is also sure to ground everything with some potent realistic situations and dangers. Set in the 1970s amid a resurgence of the KKK in Colorado Springs, the film is basically a stylizes buddy cop film. There’s Stallworth, the mastermind and brains of the KKK infiltration, and his senior partner Phillip “Flip” Zimmerman, who serves as his token white person and who must actually meet with the members of the KKK. The two are given sufficient rope to chase this absurd case for a single reason: the local leader of the KKK is planning something big.

The plot of BlacKKKlansman is fine, but the characters and the performances are staggering. The film is full of powerful performances, practically from everyone on the screen, but the attention has to focus on the two actors who must weave a performance into their performance: John David Washington as Ron Stallworth and Adam Driver as Phillip Zimmerman. As part of their infiltration and general undercover worth, these characters must turn in convincing performances of their own, and each is worthy of accolades. Undercover work is inherently performance. Both Washington and Driver must create characters who are capable of creating their own characters, and it is some of the best acting work of the year.

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It starts with Washington as Stallworth. The first moment he is on screen, his race is brought up and used to belittle him. It’s not even clear that this is on purpose, but it doesn’t really matter. The policeman who decided to hire Stallworth as the first black man on the force can’t even get out of his own way. Washington handles these early slights with grace and confidence, and a little bit of wit. Some of the more direct and nasty attacks are met in kind, but the general ton of Washington’s performance is one of confidence and grace. This leads to his first undercover work, attending a rally organized by the black student union at Colorado College, and then later his direct infiltration of the local KKK. With the KKK, his performance is a vocal one, but it is still quite convincing. Once he gets David Duke on the phone and is speaking directly with the 5th Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (played by a chilling Topher Grace), Stallworth does some of his best work.

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And as strong as Washington’s portrayal of Stallworth is, Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman is even more astonishing. Driver gives the performance of the film. At level zero, he has to play a white, semi-closeted Jewish policeman, and does so with amazing nuance. He is a strong detective with a keen eye for undercover work, which has led to a great deal of success for him. Still, he clearly struggles with his own racial identity, choosing to ignore it and whether he is ashamed of it or not. But, maybe that is just what his peers in the white majority have convinced him to do. Unsure of whether to wear his racial identify as a badge of honor or one of shame, he chooses to sit on the proverbial fence and “pass” as a normal white man. This dovetails wonderfully with the second half of Stallworth’s character: he has to adopt all the mannerisms of a genuine white supremacists, epithets and all. Ultimately, Driver’s performance is powerful and poignant, entirely convincing while revealing some of Lee’s major thematic concerns.

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BlacKKKlansman doesn’t settle for the obvious, “racism is bad and you should know it’s bad and here’s several instances of it being bad”, but it more concerned with some of the nuances that develop when race and racism affects one’s relationships. These interactions can be commonplace, cordial, aggressive, or violent, so long as Lee is able to shed some light on how they are colored by race and racism. In fact, the antagonistic interactions are probably the least interesting in the entire film, though they may be among the most satisfying. Instead, I found myself interested in the interactions between Stallworth and Zimmerman as they talked about each other’s ideas of race, of power, and of the evils and stupidity of racism, even though they were each obvious victims of that evil.

Though these themes are powerful, tonally the film flits around too much, losing focus. There isn’t a unified satirical voice, like with Boot’s Riley’s Sorry to Bother You or Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. Nor does the film establish and stick to a peculiar and defining mood like Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, Bong Joon Ho’s Okja or Jordan Peele’s Get Out. All of these films generate a unique and consistent tone and then address serious concepts within that environment. At times, BlacKKKlansman has the dark comedy of Tarantino or Lanthimos, and other times it is more of a straight-face crime drama. Sometimes is embraces the absurdity of some situation, and other times it delves into legitimate relationship drama. Lee’s film is not a complete tonal mess, it’s just a little uneven in its totality, as though Lee tried to cram too much into the story and wasn’t certain where to spend most of his attention.

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Despite this slight unbalance, the ending of BlacKKKlansman is certainly powerful, pointed, and politically relevant today. Though the KKK members are defeated and the heroes enjoy a beer in celebration, across the town a fresh flaming cross blazons its message of intimidation anew. Lee then shifts to the real world, our world. He shows Charlottesville, he shows the real David Duke praising the Alt Right, he shows the preeminent place that race still holds in our daily attention. Lee’s message is obvious: though we have experienced great victories against the scourge of racism and those who espouse it in the past, it is still extant, a hydra of ignorance and hate growing more heads daily.

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