Spike Lee made his career on bringing the struggles of black people in the United States to light on film. Do the Right Thing. Bamboozled. Malcolm X. The list goes on and most aren’t exactly known for their subtly. Spike is rightfully pissed and wants you to know it. Enter BlacKkKlansman, a film based off the true story of a black Colorado detective that goes undercover with the Klan, and the first ever Spike Lee joint to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. BlacKkKlansman isn’t a bad film, it’s fine, great in places, uneven in others. It’s one that I don’t think even breaks into the top five Spike Lee directed outings. So why now? Why honor this film with nominations while his better work went largely unrecognized? In a fairly weak year at the cinema, “pretty good” seems to be enough to get some overdue acknowledgement, not just here, but with a host of other nominees. I doubt Spike is complaining though.
I’ve always viewed Spike Lee as more of an actor’s director than a technical one, and that holds true with BlacKkKlansman. While I wasn’t blown away by any of the performances, everyone filled their role nicely and no one felt out of place. Except for maybe Topher Grace as David Duke, but I can’t help but always seeing him as Eric Forman, through no fault of his. That’s on me, sorry Topher. John David Washington in particular handles his arc as a rookie cop that gets involved with the KKK well, and has a few moments that’ll put a genuine smile on your face. Also of note are the troupe of actors who play the Klan members, they come off with just the right amount of stupid and danger that makes them believable. Even if Spike ruins some of their menace with some forced shots, like lingering on a chant of “America first!” for way too long. These are some bad guys, and their ilk are still around today, do you get it yet?
Spike pulls no punches here when it comes to the message of the story, and dammit he’s going to keep hammering it home well after the point was made. Which is the biggest problem with BlacKkKlansman, it’s heavy handedness makes a negative impact on his message. These are easily remedied problems that could be solved with an editor, or just someone to tell him “no.” There are multiple scenes here that are nothing more than extended monologues that go on forever, stanzas that could be cut down for the sake of the flow of the story, while still not losing their impact. I would argue that some of these go on for so long that their impact is actually lessened, making the viewer anxious to get them over with instead of actually engaging them throughout. We have nothing like the famous speech in 25th Hour here, but Spike doesn’t seem to notice. Couple that with two short, unconnected segments that bookend the actual story to show us that racism was and is still a real danger, as if we weren’t trusted to figure that out on our own. It’s unnecessary self indulgence, heavy handedness at its worst, and though these scenes can be easily tossed aside when talking about the merits of the actual story, their inclusion makes the case for an artist who isn’t clever enough to let the audience connect this story to the present day.
BlacKkKlansman occupies a weird spot in both Spike’s general filmography and that of the racially charged movies of 2018. It’s a competent, though ultimately disappointing work, one that sits on a tier below his best films. But it doesn’t have the well paced structure of Green Book, nor the imagination or guts of Sorry to Bother You. And while it would be unfair to compare any of these to the juggernaut that was Black Panther, it just goes to show that in a year filled with other films tackling the same issues in different ways, BlacKkKlansman doesn’t stand out as much as it should. But if this is the catalyst for people unfamiliar with Spike’s work to check out his better material, then that’s not a terrible legacy to leave.