The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Spike Lee is pissed off, and while that might not be great for his emotional well-being, it's absolutely phenomenal for his movies. His best films take on social issues – racism in Do the Right Thing, the scourge of drugs in Clockers, our gun-worshiping culture in Chi-Raq, and so on. BlacKkKlansman most closely resembles the first of those pictures, in that it examines racism with burning intensity. Spike most definitely has some things to say, and he is not holding back. I'll be surprised if I see a better film this year.

A title card at the beginning informs us that the movie is “based upon some fo' real, fo' real shit,” and it's a good thing that notice is there, because the story would be dismissed as ludicrous if it wasn't true.

John David Washington – in a performance of sheer brilliance – plays Ron Stallworth, a black man who joins the all-white polite force in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Initially assigned to the records room, he eventually works his way up to undercover detective. After learning about Ku Klux Klan activity in the area, Ron calls their recruitment number and pretends to be a racist. After several more phone calls, they invite him to join their ranks. A fellow cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), pretends to be Ron for in-person interactions. Together, they infiltrate the group so convincingly as to attract the notice of the KKK's Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace). Astonishingly, the mission leads to Ron – or “Ron” – being asked to head the local chapter. That's fo' real, fo' real shit, indeed.

There are two related subplots. One involves Flip, a non-practicing Jew, realizing that he has been able to shield himself from bigotry to some degree by not openly identifying his heritage – something African-Americans don't have the luxury of doing. When he hears how anti-Semitic the KKK is -- and must repeat some of their hateful language to sell the ruse -- he's able to identify with Ron in a whole new way. The other subplot concerns Ron dating an activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), who sees police as the enemy.

The story of how Ron Stallworth infiltrated the KKK makes for a perfectly entertaining movie on its own. It's a remarkable tale, filled with drama, tension, and, as Lee finds, a streak of dark humor. A black man fooling the head of the KKK? That's subversively funny, and the film pays it off with a moment that'll make you want to stand and cheer.

Beyond that, BlacKkKlansman makes a colossal impact because of what the director does with the material. There are little asides that help draw out the themes, including a sequence of the KKK members watching D.W. Griffith's racist Birth of a Nation and treating it like modern audiences might approach a Marvel movie. That's intercut with Harry Belafonte (in a cameo) relating a horrific real-life incident of race-related violence, the details of which will make you cringe. The contrast is stunning. Other moments reinforce that, while the film is set in the '70s, the type of racism portrayed is very much alive and well. In one scene, a character speculates whether America would ever elect a president who's like David Duke. No matter which side of the political fence you're on, you probably had a certain thought right there. And that's kind of the point.

Anyone with a strong knowledge of Spike Lee's work will correctly assume he ends BlacKkKlansman by bringing its themes into the modern day. Indeed he does, ending the film with a powerful montage of the neo-Nazis rallying in Charlottesville, the tragic murder of Heather Heyer during that event, and the now-notorious clip of Donald Trump defending those hatemongers as “very fine people.” He then ends on an image, which will not be revealed here, that may send a chill down your spine. To conclude a major motion picture on that note, with the meaning behind that image, took real courage. All of it serves as a reminder that bigotry is thriving in the United States. As far as we think we've come, we haven't come very far at all.

Washington, Driver, Harrier, and Grace are all outstanding. There is not a false note from any of them, at any time. Chayse Irvin's cinematography, meanwhile, helps establish a gritty tone that makes us feel as though we're right in the thick of things.

BlacKkKlansman is urgent and vital. It stands next to Do the Right Thing as one of the best movies ever made about racial intolerance in the United States. Spike Lee's righteous anger is truly a sight to behold.

( out of four)

BlacKkKlansman is rated R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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