Audrey Kupferberg: Blackkklansman

Aug 16, 2018

Spike Lee has a new film that is making plenty of waves.  It has a one-word title:  BLACKKKLANSMAN, cleverly spelled with three “K”s.  The film deals with a theme that is eating up the air waves these days – racial hatred. 

BLACKKKLANSMAN’s story is basic and fact-based.  In the 1970s, a Colorado Springs-based African-American rookie cop and his Jewish associate infiltrate the KKK in order to prevent the Klan’s plans to inflict violence on the black activists in the community.         

BLACKKKLANSMAN is dubbed a comedy, but it isn’t a barrelful of laughs.  Indeed, this is no ordinary narrative film.  Lee blends a basic, rather dull, police procedural with scenes of black activism, dramatized insider views of the Klan, vintage film footage, and news footage which, heavy-handed though they may be, are the power of this film. 

The film begins poorly with Alec Baldwin playing a hate-filled Southern doctor while scenes from GONE WITH THE WIND and THE BIRTH OF A NATION are projected onto a screen behind him.  We never see him again, and the film would have benefitted if we had never seen him at all.  What a waste of Baldwin’s talent!

John David Washington, son of Denzel and Pauletta Washington, plays real-life policeman Ron Stallworth, and if you can get passed his very poorly constructed Afro wig, he is fine in the role.  The strongest player in the movie by far is Adam Driver as the more seasoned Jewish cop who manages to become a leader in the local KKK.  The local Klan members are a mix of a few seriously threatening men, an ill-educated dunce, and one cartoonish drunken moron.  Grand Wizard David Duke is played by Topher Grace with his usual bland style.

The basic plot about Ron Stallworth and the Klan is written in an almost amateur style.  In a movie that runs 135 minutes, at least 40 minutes could have been removed from the police procedural.

Having said all that, it is important to add that BLACKKKLANSMAN is one of the most powerful films of the year.  Why?  Because it incorporates brief scenes about America’s racial hatred.  One of the most powerful scenes features Harry Belafonte relating the horrific details about the Waco lynching, one of the most monstrous moments in American history, when Jesse Washington, an innocent black teenager, was castrated and burned alive. 

We also see Donald Trump famously discussing the Charlottesville events of a year ago. 

BLACKKKLANSMAN may call itself a comedy.  It may spend lots of screen time on the police infiltration of the local Klan.  However, what BLACKKKLANSMAN really is is a portrait of racial division and hatred in America, a terrible disease that has plagued us through the centuries and that, in the era of Trump, may well destroy us. 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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