“Timely: done or occurring at a favorable or useful time; opportune.” Example: Spike Lee’s new film is timely.
Forever ago in the 1970s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) became the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs Police Department. As a rookie unhappily assigned to the file room dealing with racist coworkers, Stallworth catches a break by accepting an undercover assignment and a better position. A response to a classified ad earns him another opportunity: the local Ku Klux Klan chapter calls him directly, allowing Ron to convince a recruiter (Ryan Eggold) that he’s an interested in becoming a suitable member. To meet in-person, the department taps Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to become Ron’s white surrogate, resulting in a seven-month investigation to prevent violence that grew to involve the grand wizard of “the organization” himself, David Duke (Topher Grace).
When the buried story broke after the real Ron Stallworth retired in 2005, it was too unreal to be believed: a black man unknowingly given a valid membership into a pro-white organization. Director Spike Lee is no stranger to uncomfortable topics like race relations in a world that still sees its share of racially motivated hate crimes, but this movie seems especially relevant with the recent empowerment of hate organizations trading in fear-mongering. While parts of this story draw clear parallels between today and four decades earlier, will it be seen as mere entertainment or taken as an opportunity for introspection and/or a call to action?
Spot-on casting is Spike Lee’s secret weapon for this film — arguably for all of his films. While the running time could have been tightened up in the middle to total under two hours, it earns the extra time spent and coda tying it to modern-day. The production also uses footage from two other films to provide atmosphere: Gone With the Wind and 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, the latter of which is considered one of the most racist films of all time as well as the first so-called blockbuster — everyone saw it. Political? Yep. Uncomfortable? Very much so. Even the spelling of the film’s title highlights the taboo subject and drags its ugliness into the light, calling attention to past and current racism while marginalizing the racists… and nothing scares them more than that.
While the supremacists are played for fools and the target of humor — epitomized in Undercover Brother — the danger they represent and the fear they spread is purposeful; they never want the targets of their hate to feel safe or empowered in any way… you know, since outright murder is illegal. The duplicity of that thought is also a plot point: how can a living person can be held in such low regard — that a mere touch is repugnant — yet it’s acceptable that they’re desired or even lusted after? How very “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” of them. The truth behind chants of “white power” and “black power” are also addressed simultaneously. “Arm yourself! Be ready for revolution!” Both sides are shown capable of escalation, but one is emboldening continuing control while the other is a means of survival. Anyone unsure which is which or what the difference is are also part of the problem.
From mentions of “God Bless White America” to “Make America Great Again” — even a contextual “America First” or two — everyone knows who Spike Lee is speaking out against, but it’s also a fact this coded language has been in use for decades with the meaning still the same. The one thing not specifically addressed in the film may be the biggest truth of all: the real fear that not only is “the white race is disappearing” but that they might become marginalized themselves or even subjected to the same treatment supremacists have been responsible for toward others. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned there, y’all.
BlacKkKlansman is rated R for language throughout, for disturbing/violent material, some sexual references, and more racial epithets than you can shake a stick at.
Four skull recommendation out of four