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‘BlacKkKlansman’ goes under the hood

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When it comes to telling true stories at the movies, one always has to recognize the flexibility of the notion of what is “true.” Terms like “based on” and “inspired by” give filmmakers a lot of leeway as far as shaping these true events in such a way as to serve the story they wish to tell.

Spike Lee’s latest film “BlacKkKlansman” is foundationally a true story, based on the memoir “Black Klansman” by Ron Stallworth. But again, there’s small-t true and Large-T True, and with a visionary auteur like Lee both running the camera and creating the script (Lee co-wrote the screenplay along with David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott), well … he’s going to err on the side of Large-T every time.

The end result is a film that is magnetic and unsettling, one that mines humor from the horrible and finds genuine pathos in unexpected places. It is an unrelenting commentary on the current state of affairs, unapologetically wielding the attitudes of the past as a way to hold up a mirror to the flawed face of the present. It’s also a comedy and a caper, with some buddy cop action thrown into the mix; let’s not forget how flat-out entertaining Lee can be as a filmmaker. The film is thought-provoking and emotionally charged; at times simultaneously difficult to watch and impossible to look away from.

In the late 1970s, a young man named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, TV’s “Ballers”) becomes the first African-American officer in the history of the Colorado Springs Police Department. There’s some resistance to the idea of a black man on the force – while Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke, TV’s “Law & Order: SVU”) is relatively noncommittal, some of Stallworth’s fellow officers are clearly, vocally bigoted.

Stallworth’s goal is to become an undercover officer; soon, there’s an assignment for which he is uniquely qualified. He’s partnered with fellow officers Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi, “Abnormal Attraction”) and is ordered to attend a speech being given by a former Black Panther. It’s there that he meets black activist Patrice (Laura Harrier, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”).

Things really start rolling, however, when Ron reaches out and makes phone contact with the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, a man by the name of Walter (Ryan Eggold, TV’s “The Blacklist”). He manages to get himself invited in, but he can’t show up himself for obvious reasons. Hence, Flip becomes the in-person version of Ron who shows up to meet Walter and other Klansmen like the unhinged Felix (Jasper Paakkonen, TV’s “Vikings”) and the dangerously stupid Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser, “I, Tonya”).

Together, Ron and Flip start putting together a case against the KKK, believing them to be planning something dangerous. Along the way, Ron develops a friendly phone relationship with none other than then-Grand Dragon David Duke (Topher Grace, “Delirium”) himself.

But when the time comes for Ron’s official initiation, things start to go off the rails on both sides of the equation, leaving Ron and Flip and those closest to them in danger. Can they shut down not just this one violent plan, but the entire chapter? Or will they be found out and suffer grave consequences.

It might seem weird to label a movie with such bleak underlying themes a comedy, but that’s very much what “BlacKkKlansman” is. This movie is really funny. Yes, a lot of time it’s funny in ways that make you a little uncomfortable. You’re going to laugh at things that you might otherwise deem inappropriate to laugh at. There’s no denying how funny it is, with Lee kicking the legs out from under racist ideologues at every turn.

But he also conveys the dangers that come from such beliefs. He allows these people to be normal, even pleasant as they engage in their hatefulness. It’s an illustration that while those who shout their hatred are dangerous, so too are those who smile around it.

And as always, Lee’s visual style is unparalleled; his aesthetic choices are working on multiple levels at all times. Many of them will catch your eye, but others are so subtle that you might only pick them up subconsciously … just as the man intends. It’s tight and well-paced, filled with unorthodox choices that only a master of the craft could pull off.

John David Washington is excellent as Ron. He’s not the performer his father was at this age, but there’s no shame in that when your dad is Denzel. It’s rare for a young actor to be at ease in quiet, but Washington’s already got that nailed. There’s still a rawness to him, but that quality was ideal for the rookie cop Stallworth. Driver is one of the most talented actors of his generation and the dude keeps getting better. There’s an ease to his performance here that is just exquisite. Let’s hope he doesn’t get too wrapped up in franchise noise; he needs to be playing parts like this as often as possible. The two of them are a phenomenal pairing – the buddy chemistry is off the charts.

The supporting cast is excellent as well – Harrier and Paakkonen are particularly good – but the star of the ensemble is hands-down Topher Grace. There’s a weird nice guy energy to his portrayal of Duke that allows the venomous nature of his rhetoric to be all the more impactful. It is an absolute home run of a turn and probably the best performance of Grace’s career.

“BlacKkKlansman” is a film that plays fast and loose with the true story on which it’s based, but it’s all done in service to the narrative and to the message, both of which are worth conveying. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you recoil and it’ll make you squirm. It’s as good a film as we’ve seen so far in 2018.

[5 out of 5]

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