Kevin Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
Upon seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent in 1940, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels remarked that it was, “a masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries.” Goebbels was an inhumane monster sure to be rotting in the very depths of hell at present, but he was right. Hitchcock’s film is an overt attempt to convince the British people to fight back against the Nazis and to be vigilant as to who could be living in their community. The film doubled as an attempt to influence Americans to support entering the war, even playing the United States’ National Anthem as the credits roll. Other films of the period, such as Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm or William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver, among many others were similarly propaganda films that aimed to rally the public around the Allied cause.
However, in speaking on the unique brand of “propaganda” - if that is the best word for it - that BlacKkKlansman employs, it is impossible to not speak on 49th Parallel, directed by Michael Powell and written by Emeric Pressburger. It is propaganda. Powell and Pressburger never hid from this with Pressburger even stating, “Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, but I thought I'd show him a thing or two.” Born in Hungary, Pressburger was Jewish, having to flee to Paris and later onto Britain after the rise of the Nazis. After the end of the war, he even discovered his mother had been killed in Auschwitz in 1944. The issue and the fight he presents in the film is one that had and would impact him in great ways with his passion and emotion coming across in every line of dialogue. The same passion can be found in actor Anton Walbrook. An Austrian Jew who fled Germany, he delivered this powerful speech that touches on ideas of tolerance and identity.
And it is from here that we get to BlacKkKlansman. It is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black cop in Colorado Springs and also a man who infiltrated the KKK. As a work, it is a clear call-to-action by director Spike Lee to stand up to Trump’s America and the growing resurgence of neo-nazis. It, like the aforementioned films of the 1940s, is propaganda. Not in the sense that it lies, but in the sense that it uses its true story and its series of images to create an emotional response in the audience. Just as those films of yesteryear tried to convince Americans to join World War II, BlacKkKlansman tries to urge all people to stand up. Just as it was personal for Pressburger and Walbrook, this message is personal for Lee. The Ku Klux Klan, as the film showed, had covered itself in the American flag, infiltrated the churches, and cozied up to Republican politicians and ideals, all in the name of cultivating power and normalizing its message while making it palatable to middle America. This film serves as a rallying cry to mobilize efforts and motivate those who do nothing into taking action against the Nazi scum who have spread like a disease into the United States.
At its core, in propelling its message of unity and of resistance, the film is one that probes identity. For Ron, who is he? What side is he on? As a cop, is he essentially crossing the picket line? His girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) certainly sees it this way while Ron even infiltrates a speech given by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) to see if any “black radical” movement was going on. With the cops, he works closely alongside two men who are not racist, but refuse to turn on their racist co-worker because he is a part of their team. By working with the cops, he believes he is infiltrating the system from within and will be in a unique position to impact black liberation. He does create quite the positive impact, even helping Patrice from a tight spot. Yet, he still has to figure out where he stands and what role he is to play. The same conflict is explored via Flip Zimmermann (Adam Driver) who is the physical version of Ron Stallworth, while also having to hide his Jewish ancestry from the Klan. Having passed as white all his life while not being raised in the Jewish faith, he must confront how he identifies himself, what battles he fights in that regard, and come to terms with how people will view him even when he does not view himself in the same way.
Lee smartly utilizes Blaxploitation of the 1970s in this part of the film, capturing the dichotomy they represent. On one hand, they are powerful. Black stars given first billing on movie posters and the right to kick ass. Some scenes, such as one in which Ron and Patrice see a cross burning, are clearly designed to play akin to a Blaxploitation film. But, on the other side, representation and identity is still an issue. In Superfly, the black hero is a pimp. Sure, he is the lead, but does this type of image really help the black community. Even if one says it does, it does nothing to change the fact that Blaxploitation films capture a fantastical view of the world, not touching on the harsh reality that black people were and are still oppressed. Lee, similarly, jumps off from this point in this film. He captures the fantastical element as Ron dances on David Duke’s (Topher Grace) grave while the film is invited to laugh at him and the other racists throughout. Yet, then he punches us right back. The investigation is stopped by his white superior officers. The footage from Charlottesville is played. Ron did a lot of great work, but the battle is far from over and David Duke is far from defeated. Instead, he is only gaining power. That is the cold, hard truth of the matter.
Much like Lee’s past work, especially Do the Right Thing, BlacKkKlansman pisses you off. It captures the injustice, the hatred, and the terrifying actions of the KKK, bottles it, and punches the audience square in the face with it. This is a film that is firmly on-the-nose and never tries to hide what kind of response Lee wants the audience to feel. He wants us to feel enraged. He wants us to the see the images at the end of the film, remember what was going on one year ago, and want to fight back. He wants us to see two hours of film showing just how horrible these neo-nazis are and then shove Trump’s support of these buffoons right in our face. For those who prefer subtle entertainment, BlacKkKlansman will not be for them. For those wanting a spark, however, this is the film to provide it. As the film opens with footage from Gone with the Wind and the delivery of “scientific” findings that support the supremacy of the white race by Kennebrew Beaureguard (Alec Baldwin), the film punches the audience right in the gut from the very beginning. It confronts the audience with the ingrained, sadistic, and wicked hatred of the neo-nazis. Later, Lee delivers possibly the best sequence of 2018 as he cross cuts between a meeting held by the black student union and one held by the Ku Klux Klan. The former, led by speaker Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte), recounts the terrifying events after the release of the film, Birth of a Nation. Jerome speaks black man named Jesse who was tortured in the streets by the white community after he was falsely accused of raping a white woman. In the KKK meeting, David Duke leads a prayer service and then the group watch Birth of a Nation, becoming increasingly rowdy as they cheer on the whites and celebrate the death of the blackface characters. It is a chilling scene, one that honestly made me fight back tears from the horrifying montage of images. It is transfixing and utterly terrifying. It is a sequence that touches on the power of art, the power of representation, as well as the ramifications from there, but also on the necessity of fighting back to prevent something like the events described by Jerome from ever happening again. It is a scene that juxtaposes the two sides, forcing the audience to recognize the pain caused by the white supremacists and the true horrors that racism has produced. There is no sugar coating of the truth with the film leaving in every single gory detail.
As it examines the Ku Klux Klan, the film excels in showing the conflation of patriotism with Christianity, with conservatism, and with racism. Striking images in the church of two KKK members surrounding KKK while underneath a stained glass window, shots of signs that urge people to leave America if they do not like it, refrains such as “America First”, as well as the softening of Duke’s title to “National Director”, all strike all this unification. BlacKkKlansman is able to show the foundation upon which today’s neo-nazis were built, demonstrating the hatred, and the way in which they wrapped themselves in various ideologies to make their hatred more acceptable all with the goal of gaining power. It is something the film is always aware of, drawing obvious parallels to Trump, and something that is absolutely chilling with terrific use of dramatic irony. Here is a nation of free people and tolerance, a religion built on love and understanding, and ideals built on fiscal responsibility, all manipulated and twisted until they all serve as the backbones of hate and division. It is nice to think they are all stupid - and some of them are - but the men ushering this forward such as Duke or men like Walter (Ryan Eggold) are not stupid. In fact, they are very smart and know just how to cloak themselves and to mislead the public.
BlacKkKlansman also excels when it comes to acting and comedy. For the former, Corey Hawkins, Harry Belafonte, Alec Baldwin, Topher Grace, and Jasper Paakkonen, are all brilliant. Hawkins’ passion as Kwame Ture, the mournful delivery of Belafonte, the terror from Baldwin, the self-absorbed confidence from Grace, and the seething hate from Paakkonen, all capture their characters and the role they play in the film quite brilliantly. When it comes to the leads, John David Washington has considerable charisma and screen presence, adept in handling both the dramatic and comedic scenes incredibly well. Adam Driver nails his role as per usual, utilizing his typically deadpan comedic delivery to the film’s benefit as well as his adeptness in introspective and dramatic moments for the character. With this strong cast, the film is able to not just be infuriating and thrilling, but also incredibly funny. From beginning to end, the film utilizes both dramatic irony and great wit to make the audience laugh, breaking the tension a bit but never interfering with the overwhelming horror of the entire film.
Thrilling, terrifying, and immensely powerful, BlacKkKlansman is one of those films that punches you in the face while watching it and continues to linger in the mind long after the viewing has ended. Spike Lee has created one of the first and best answers to Trump’s America with this film, continuing his trend of racially challenging and engrossing films that wear their ideals on their beating hearts. BlacKkKlansman is a terrifically acted, directed, and written film, one that will undoubtedly trigger and inspire many.