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August 14, 2018

BlacKkKLansman

BlackkklansmanSpike Lee’s latest failure “BlacKkKLansman” is all the more disappointing for its squandered potential bite as a satirical take on modern race relations between whites and blacks in America (see “new boss same as the old boss”). Lee creates a safe pastiche of commercial embraces that include a 1972 approved “Soul Train” vision of [dancing] black activists, and a storyline without a dramatic arc. Lee ends up equating black activists (read radicals) with David Duke’s motley crew of Klansmen (a group that does not always exclude women). These insults are exacerbated by an overlong running time that turns the movie into a dead-end marathon. Things get tedious. 

Spike Lee’s dramatic sins are many in this picture. Stylistically, “BlacKkKLansman” has a cliché riddled design that reads as mundane when Lee manages to properly light the shot. Thematically, the film is preachy without ever throwing down on its ostensible political agenda.

However the hairstyle that Lee’s lead actor John David Washington wears (courtesy of Shaun Perkins and La Wanda M. Pierre), for his character Ron Stallworth, is exquisite. Washington works his fro with a deadpan delivery that borders on cartoonish but stays firmly tongue-in-cheek. Still, Washington never gets the chance to run with the story due to a by-committee script (with four credited screenwriters) based on Ron Stallworth’s autobiography. 

Audiences will always fall for the old “based on a true story” ploy. Don’t believe the hype.

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Newbie police officer Ron Stallworth is a lucky guy. Not only is he Colorado Springs' first black cop, but he moves up from file clerk to undercover detective overnight. Stallworth strikes up a groovy romance with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), president of the local Black Rights group. The group’s message of “all power to all people” hits home when Stallworth attends a rally featuring keynote speaker Kwame Ture (a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael) in fine form.

Ron keeps Patrice in the dark about his occupation, which involves teaming up with his police partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, i.e. “the organization.” The movie could potentially go in an entertaining direction, but it does not.

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Stallworth and Zimmerman make a pass at matching their voices to avoid suspicion since their ruse relies on Stallworth’s ability to sound immaculately white while talking on the (police precinct) phone to various Ku Klux Klansmen, including David Duke himself (as played blankly by Topher Grace). Did no one on Lee’s team consider that using the police precinct desk phone might not be the best way for an “undercover” officer to remain undercover. What happens when David Duke calls Ron Stallworth, and the voice on the line says, “89th police precinct”? Busted. Yet these screenwriters got paid.

Still, plot holes are sadly the least of this film’s worries. Spike Lee and his band of merry writers never settle on this film’s genre. “BlacKkKLansman” sounds like a social satire, think Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” It could be a true crime biopic (see "Serpico"). On paper it should be a buddy flick a la “Lethal Weapon.” It could also be a black comedy, which would must needs involve a murder or three (think “Fargo”).

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Instead we get a mediocre, [politically] middle-of-the-road movie that shows its tell card at the film's end when Spike Lee editorializes over the closing credits with violent scenes from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia where Heather Heyer was the victim of a car attack. Lee’s effort at commentary is ham-fisted as it is naive. Lee only  points out what this film needed to be if it was going to address America's ongoing incremental genocide of black people in any meaningful way.

What would it have taken for Spike Lee to go balls to the walls like he did on his best film "Do The Right Thing"? We'll never know.  

 Rated R (135 mins) (C-) 

Two Stars

Footnote: If you want to check out a movie that handles the complexities and prejudices of race relations in America, see "Six Degrees of Separation," it's currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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