BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman ★★★★

Spike Lee is not a subtle storyteller. Themes that would likely be treated as subtext by many, if not most, other filmmakers are often put front and center as text for him. If it's worth saying, it's likely worth saying loudly for Lee. This approach can seem hamhanded and clunky when it doesn't work, but bold and daring when it does. Often, there's enough room in his films for a balance of both and it can be an open question which way that balance tilts.

'BlacKkKlansman' is the story of Detective Ron Stallworth, the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, who joined the force in the seventies and came to infiltrate the KKK. The premise itself so loudly screams 'RACISM IN AMERICA!' it's hard to imagine anyone else tackling it successfully -- or at least doing so without being compared to Spike Lee. It's the type of story that can be marketed as 'if it wasn't true, you wouldn't believe it.' With the theme shouted from the marquee, Lee is freed up to not only tell what the story is, but to focus on how and why he's telling it.

Perhaps it's telling that the actual events took place in 1979, but the film is set in 1972. Our current historical moment has made it so abundantly clear that our past on race and racism is far from settled, it's almost polite that Lee didn't just set the story yesterday or tomorrow as an "I told you so" to anyone who's ever griped about his body of work's focus on the topic. The film starts with a clip from 'Gone With The Wind' -- that famous shot of Scarlett searching among the wounded that cranes out to reveal and end on a tattered yet still somehow triumphant Confederate flag. First, the confidence it takes for a filmmaker to lead off with a shot from someone else's film, and one so well known, is bold in and of itself. Second, it's a none too subtle reframing of that classic scene to illustrate that, yes, racism has been not only allowed, but celebrated, out in the open for as long as anyone can remember. But what's the point of subtly in taking on flagrant lies and misrepresentations. From there on, Lee uses Stallworth's story to deliver example after example of open racism while simultaneously exploring the early stages of how the David Duke-era KKK tried and, to some extent, managed to mask the worst parts of their agenda while unmasking their faces.

The film is so explicably tied to events currently playing out in our country that it's hardly a coincidence it was released on a weekend one year after white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, ultimately killing Heather Heyer, injuring many others, and shocking many to finally wake up to what's been in front of them all along. In the end, Spike Lee is a satirist and the past is hardly worthy of satire when the present is in need of so much attention. His use of the former to focus on the latter is not only a success, but a much needed one.