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Blu-ray Review: BlacKkKlansman

November 14, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Spike Lee’s latest joint, BlacKkKlansman, is the type of film that will make you deeply uncomfortable to watch at times with its unflinching look at simmering racial tensions in America in both the past and present, and that’s precisely the point of it.

The film is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American detective at the Colorado Springs Police Department, who decides to cold call the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, in order to infiltrate the organization.

Over the phone, Ron is able to pass himself off as a racist white man who hates black people, and he makes contact with the local chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), who invites him to join the organization almost immediately. Needing someone to pose as him when meeting with them in person, Ron recruits his colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who happens to be Jewish, to help him carry out the undercover investigation.

Despite raising the suspicions of the unhinged Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen), a burgeoning domestic terrorist whose wife (Ashlie Atkinson) is more than happy to go along with his increasingly dangerous brand of racism, Flip is brought into the fold of the extremist group, and is able to connect with the various members who view him as one of their own. But the investigation is complicated by the fact that the real Ron is in a relationship with Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the local Black Student Union, whose events are being threatened by the KKK.

Eventually this ruse leads Ron to have phone conversations with David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard of the Klan at the time, who is trying to mainstream the KKK so their message is more palpable to regular people, with the eventual goal being to elect more people to higher office who believe in white superiority. The scenes where they converse over the phone, with their faces shown beside each other in split screen, are some of the best in the film, walking a careful tonal balance between the comic irony of Ron duping the Klan leader into thinking he is talking to a white man and the chilling nature of the beliefs that Duke is so calmly espousing.

While the premise of BlacKkKlansman allows for plenty of dark humour, and there is a hilarious sense of absurdity to the idea of a black man tricking the Ku Klux Klan into making him a member, the film also functions as a searing and powerful look at race relations in America across several decades. This story takes place in the early 1970s, but the film also draws a direct line between the KKK rallies of the past and the terrifying neo-Nazi and white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville just last year, which was followed by President Trump’s abject failure to properly condemn the violence.

Washington carries the film with a nuanced and textured performance as a man calmly taking on an organization that hates him for the colour of his skin, while also battling entrenched racism within his own police force, and coming to terms with the idea that he is somehow betraying the black community by being a cop. Driver does masterful work alongside him, moving effortlessly between the disgustingly racist language that he is forced to use to blend in as part of the group, while also brilliantly portraying his character’s deeper emotional arc of coming to terms with his own Jewish heritage through the anti-Semitism that he is forced to confront and even take part in.

The film is rounded out by memorable supporting work from Eggold, Pääkkönen and Grace, who all bravely dive into their disturbing roles, showing different shades of the extremist spectrum. Spike Lee directs it all with a style that recalls the films of the 1970s, while also feeling timely and urgent, crafting a film about the past that is entirely of the moment. Mixing elements of dark comedy, thriller, and police procedural, BlacKkKlansman is a gripping film that keeps us hooked throughout every scene of the over two hour running time. It’s often challenging to watch, but that’s the whole point.

The Blu-ray also includes a short but informative featurette simply titled A Spike Lee Joint, as well as an extended trailer for the film set to Prince’s cover of “Mary Don’t You Weep.”

BlacKkKlansman is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 135 minutes and rated 14A.

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