12 February 2019

Devouring the Oscars--BlacKkKlansman for Best Picture

In which I make the case for Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman for Best Picture. 

I could tell you that this movie is easily the most entertaining film of the year, and call it case closed. But this movie bears some discussion. It is so many things. It does them all to perfection. It is my favorite movie of the year by far. So, when MovieRob asked me if I would do a post for The LAMB's annual Devouring the Oscars series, I was obliged to do so when I saw this one was for the taking. 

BlacKkKlansman opens by skewering a Best Picture winner, the Confederate flag-waving favorite of grandmothers everywhere, Gone with the Wind. (A movie I find more...old, as opposed to racist, though it no doubt has its moments.) From there, it slams the viewer with a viciously racist and anti-semitic propaganda film within a film, starring a master of monologue I'll save naming for those still out on this one and solidifying director Spike Lee's clear mission to demand that we hear the parallels to much of today's racially-driven, even political, rhetoric. This is a running motif throughout the movie, that the discourse, the language of hate is alive and well in this country and has hardly changed, despite the Civil War and Emancipation and The Vote and Civil Rights and Race Riots and on. 

Based on "some fo' real fo' real shit," Spike Lee's best movie since 25th Hour is largely the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black officer hired to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, a force occupied by white men ranging from outright racist to openly suspicious to essential to the cause. After being briefly promoted to go undercover at a black college student union meeting to get some dirt on its Black Panther Party-esque activist guest speaker, Ron finds himself at his first conflict. He is inspired by the speaker, Kwame Ture, perhaps even more inspired by the student union president, Patrice (Laura Harrier). We are inspired as well as Lee, in the first of many brilliant directorial touches reserved only for a master filmmaker, gives us black faces in the crowd, isolated in front of a stark black backdrop, beautiful and bold and close. 

From there, Ron, reassigned to the intelligence desk, calls up a local chapter leader of the Ku Klux Klan and gets an immediate in. He enlists seasoned undercover Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play him in an operation to infiltrate the chapter, a crew of natural born ignorant gun nuts, one of whom actually garnering a plot to attack a meeting of Patrice's student group. Most of the rest of the film revolves around Ron dealing as a middle man between the KKK and his new girlfriend's student activist group, militant in their own right, at least towards the police, while Flip works at great length to hold up the charade and bring down the threat of racially-motivated violence. In the meantime, Ron makes his way into a series of delightfully, darkly hilarious, sometimes scary prank phone calls to KKK Grand Wizard, or "National Director," David Duke (Topher Grace). 

BlacKkKlansman is a tonal experience unlike anything I've seen. It starts with a face slap of overt racism we've all been raised with and ends with a gut punch of reality that will leave you in angry tears. In between is Ron's story, perfectly acted by both Rons. Washington's performance is as bold as his character's actions. He plays up an inherent whiteness in his voice, one that sounds a great deal familiar to his father's, the great Denzel. Lee's choice to make the phone calls from and life within the police precinct fully comedic is masterful, having Washington's Ron spout racial slurs in a believable rawness, epitomizing dark comedy. Such is a powerful way to deal with racism, lightening it but still keeping it dark and painful at the same time. Ron's conversations, a series of dates, with Patrice serve to anchor the story in the reality of the black experience of the time, an early 1970s fueled by the angry conservatism of Richard Nixon's administration. It is Adam Driver's Ron that drives the real pain and pathos of the film. Another smart move on the part of Lee and the film's screenwriters, filtering Flip's white privilege through a connection to his own Judaism, which is brought to life by the purely hateful anti-semitism of his new "friends." 

All at once, Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman is a comedy, a police procedural, an undercover nail-biter, a satire of biting truth, a joke-laden buddy comedy, a searing drama, a workplace comedy, and something of a love story. It is also a story of the unfinished business of small ducks in a large pond. It uses its period setting to the max, featuring perfect costuming and production design, gorgeously shot, as well as several masterful needle drops. The best of this is a purely SPIKE LEE dance sequence in a bar set to "Too Late to Turn Back Now" by Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose that will go down as one of my favorite sequences of the decade, a powerfully overt love letter to the soul of black people.

Each scene of happiness brought back down to Earth by the painfully relevant mentality of the KKK plotters and their master, the suit-wearing political face of the hate group, David Duke, spouting "America first" and touting his goal to put somebody who embodies his nationalist ideals of a segregated nation in the White House. (Not made up for this movie. He is actually on tape saying these things.) Topher Grace was bold to play such a man. Spike Lee captures him in the frame almost exclusively in Dutch angles, highlighting his twisted world view and the crooked danger his words. That the two Ron's succeed and fail at the same time is just the way of the world and the reason we are still in this conundrum now. We keep trying and failing and racism persists. 

This is the Best Picture of the year. There is no other way around it. It ticks all the boxes. Important. Unique. Relevant. Powerful. Thought-provoking. Genre-defying. Old. New. Painted in bold, broad strokes, then in hard, often hilarious, detail by a master of American cinema. 

Can it win Best Picture? I don't know. I'm not one to try and predict, and I haven't seen all the nominees as of now. Vice did not work for me really at all. The Favourite is sick solid gold. Black Panther RULES! And A Star is Born is a gift of a movie. Will catch Roma this week on Netflix (sad face) and will catch Green Book...at some point...(I'm sure it's delightful.). Bohemian Rhapsody...same. Any way it goes, no movie hit me like that one. Doubt one of those will. It was just the movie for me this year, and I can find solace in the fact that this movie is nominated this year, a year where we need to hear its message as loudly and as clearly as possible. 


  1. I would not be mad at all if this one Best Picture. I really wish Lee was the front runner for director and not Cuaron since Roma is such a bore.

  2. Great write-up man.

    This film is terrific. The Too Late to Turn Back Now scene is my second-favorite scene from 2018 (behind the lake burial scene in You Were Never Really Here). I would personally vote for Vice for Best Picture, but if this or any other nominated film besides Green Book (which is bland outside of Mahershala Ali) or Bohemian Rhapsody (which is a overblown mess) won, I'd be happy.

  3. Great work! And hey, at this point, I can see almost any of the nominees wining Best Picture, for any number of reasons. It'd be great if Spike landed at least one win for this!