Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 6, 2018)
Despite a place of prominence as a filmmaker for more than 30 years, Spike Lee never sold a lot of tickets. 2006’s Inside Man stands as his biggest hit, and it only made $88 million.
2018’s BlacKkKlansman stands second on the list of Lee’s highest-grossing flicks, though it didn’t move a lot of tickets either. It got $48 million in the US, enough to turn a profit given its low budget but not enough to make it a real hit.
Lee has always been better at creating social commentary than commercial success, and BlacKkKlansman achieved that goal. Though set in the 1970s, the film clearly acts as a reflection of our current era.
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first African-American member of the Colorado Springs police force. After a stint in menial work, he becomes more involved in active investigations.
When Ron sees an ad for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, he gives them a call and becomes a member in an attempt to infiltrate the organization and investigate their potential terrorist activities. To pull off this ruse, fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) acts as his white surrogate and they dig into the KKK’s actions.
In the meantime, Ron meets black activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) at a speech by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). Ron and Patrice eventually embark on a relationship, and his involvement with her creates issues due to his involvement with the KKK.
Across Lee’s filmography, 1989’s Do the Right Thing remains his masterwork. Though not without its flaws, the movie continues to offer an insightful, powerful piece.
BlacKkKlansman aspires to the same level of social charge, but it fails. Honestly, I think this is more of an idea for a film than a full-fledged narrative. It's a great concept, but as executed, it doesn't really go anywhere especially interesting.
Part - much? - of the problem is that unlike Lee's best movies, this one has no "room for discussion". When you left Do the Right Thing, you could debate various scenes and viewpoints and actions for hours.
What perspectives can you take here? It's "racists bad" and nothing else.
And racists are bad, but Lee really drops the ball in terms of what he could've done with the subject, especially as he looks at two issues: Ron's integration into the police department and the actions of the black activists.
Outside of one bad apple racist cop, there's nothing interesting about Ron's entry into the department. The rest of the guys accept him quickly and he rises through the ranks.
As for the activists, they exist mainly so Lee can give us a history lesson. The Kwame Ture scene goes on forever, just because Lee wants to recreate the long speech - and show endless shots of adoring acolytes. The scene serves literally no dramatic purpose.
The same goes for a sequence with Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte). The movie grinds to a halt to show us the damage done by racists.
Is it important to remember this stain on our history? Certainly, but it doesn't work for the film. It sends the movie off onto its own tangent just so Lee can play "educator".
It's really preaching to the choir. Even if some KKK-sympathetic people see the film – which seems unlikely - BlacKkKlansman won't change their minds. We never get any insights into what pushed these people to the "White Power" side of the street, so they're treated as cartoon bigots with nothing new to say.
Yes, Lee reminds us that racism remains alive in 2018 - but the evening news does the same thing. Lee doesn't unearth any hidden secrets that will shock anyone - we see racism at the highest levels of government these days, so we don't get insights there.
At the film’s end, we see footage from Charlottesville 2017, and those real-life shots offer an undeniable kick in the gut. Unfortunately, nothing Lee generates in the rest of the film comes even close to that level of impact.
This becomes an unfocused narrative that lacks depth or real development. It's a disappointment that becomes a missed opportunity to create something truly insightful in terms of race relations.
Instead, BlacKkKlansman preaches to the choir and lacks nuance or depth. BlacKkKlansman is underdeveloped and patchy, without much narrative focus, so it careens from one scene to another without a whole lot of logic. It maintains decent entertainment along the way, but it disappoints in the end.