Film Review: Black KkKlansman (2018)

**No Spoilers**

I used to be a big fan of the work of American film-maker, Spike Lee. Over the past few years, I seem to have missed a lot of his releases, and I got a bit miffed with him for remaking the wonderful Korean film ‘Old Boy’ for no good reason.

When ‘Black KkKlansman’ came along in 2018, I was intrigued to discover it was a true story, and there was a lot of praise from both critics and audiences for this historical take on one policeman’s story. Last week, it was on TV here, so I decided to watch it.

If you don’t know about the real events, they concern the first-ever black policeman to be hired by the Colorado Springs police department, in 1972. Ron Stallworth was a college educated man who sported a large afro hairdo, and had a desire to become a police officer. Most of his colleagues are overtly racist, so the police chief sticks Ron in the boring job of the Records Office, where he is subject to racist abuse and intimidation by many of the white officers.

When he applies to become an undercover detective, that coincides with a visit to the city by black power activist, Stokely Carmichael. The chief sees an opportunity to use Ron to infiltrate Carmichael’s supporters, and he does a good job getting to know them and being accepted by them.

Following this, Ron is reassigned to Intelligence, and cheekily decides to apply to join the Ku Klux Klan, the racist group very active at the time. He does all this over the telephone, but when the local KKK organiser insists on meeting him, he has to get a white colleague to impersonate him. The added difficulty is that his colleague is Jewish, and must hide that fact from the other KKK members he meets.

With no spoilers, that’s the plot.

This is a long film, over two hours forty minutes on the TV version I watched. It covers a deception that leads right up to the then head of the KKK, David Duke, and has much to say about racism in America at the time, in the 21st century, and in an historical context. It uses clips from the film ‘Birth of A Nation’, as well as photos from lynchings and murders of black men in the past, and at times has a documentary feel.

During the scenes when the undercover cops face the danger of being discovered by other KKK members there is genuine tension, and the 1970s setting is very well rendered, with clothes, vehicles, and sets all feeling authentic. Casting is good too, with John David Washington as Ron, Adam Driver as his Jewish undercover colleague, and Michael Buschemi (looking uncannily like his brother Steve) as the third member of the team. Harry Belafonte makes a dignified appearance as Jerome Turner, and Topher Grace is a good choice for David Duke.

I wanted to really like this film. It is an important subject, and we all know that the KKK is still very active today, emboldened by the Trump years.

But, there’s a big BUT.

Parts of the film are played as a comedy. I got the feeling at times that Washington was channelling a young Richard Pryor. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there is anything remotely amusing about the KKK. And for that reason alone, I was left feeling very disappointed.

But you might like it, so here’s a trailer.

26 thoughts on “Film Review: Black KkKlansman (2018)

  1. Sorry Pete – I really didn’t like this one. Spike Lee still feels like a student film maker to me. Thought it was forced and clichéd, with the acting wooden and the writing particularly poor (“brother this, brother that” – just lazy). It’s obviously an incredibly important, correct and prevalent message that he’s trying to get across, but it was so heavy handed and, unfortunately, preachy, that it’s clear Lee cares much more about the message rather than the film he was actually making – which is far enough, but I don’t think his films are the best way to put it across. It completely overpowers any story or characters or cinematography. Sorry for the rant!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rant away. I didn’t like at least a third of it. The ‘funny stuff’ felt contrived, and I expected canned laughter to follow. The ‘mean villains’ were theatrical, and the racist cops very stereotypical.
      But as for ‘brother this and brother that’, I think that as accurate. I was in my 20s at the time this is set, and saw news footage and documentaries that came over exactly like that. When it was actually happening, it really was so much like this film in many ways
      But I still don’t rate the film that much, and would much sooner watch ‘Do The Right Thing’ for the sixth time instead, or ‘Mississippi Burning’.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I loved this film, Pete–though I’ve never been a big fan of Spike Lee. So on this we are different sides of the same coin, so to speak. As a Southerner, I got the heavy dose of black comedy that Lee exploits–and it rings clear as a belle. So I think there is something lost in the translation, from North to South and across the pond.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. He made a few of my favourite modern American films, including ‘Do The Right Thing’, and ‘Malcolm X’. I was expecting this film to be something like ‘Malcolm X’, and it didn’t live up to my expectations. That said, it is still a very good film, if only it hadn’t been so hyped at the time.
      But some of it may be a better fit for Americans, I agree.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Pete, Spike Lee’s career is indeed polarizing…hard to be someone who always has a “message”, then go away from that for films that seem forced and inauthentic…and his nadir was indeed the absolutely AWFUL “Old Boy” remake…this one had so much potential – and terrific performances especially Topher Grace as David Duke…but the tone and style is very uneven and I agree his approach diminishes the power of the story. Great review as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I can’t remember which channel this was on a while back [only a month or so?] but I enjoyed watching it; although I seem to remember thinking at the time about David Duke:”Seriously? Can he be that naïve?” The film has a very worthy message, anyway. Cheers, Jon.

    Liked by 2 people

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