First, the good news—and to be sure, there is some in Spike Lee's new big-screen provocation, which got tongues wagging and took home the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival this past spring. BlacKkKlansman includes sometimes-thrilling performances from its leads John David Washington (son of Denzel), Adam Driver and, in surprise cameos, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and Topher Grace (that last as KKK Grand Wizard David Duke). Lee also reminds us in several moments of BlacKkKlansman that his directorial skills are unparalleled, following a three-decade catalogue of American classics (Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, She's Gotta Have It).
All that said, the narrative of BlacKkKlansman feels as if it's plodding along rather than employing a full arc of surprises and plot twists. Which is rather stunning, considering its jaw-dropping source material: a 2014 autobiography from Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. The delicious twist, of course, is that because Stallworth is African-American, he partnered with another undercover cop to portray him in Klan meetings. Unfortunately, BlacKkKlansman's producers want you know that twist right up front—in fact, even before you see the film. All of the trailers and commercials currently airing on national television, and all over the internet, reveal BlacKkKlansman's surprise, while the movie poster promises that the film is "based on a crazy, outrageous, incredible true story." Sad to say, by the end of the film (it runs 135 minutes and feels even longer), I was hoping for a bit more crazy. To be sure, Spike Lee is a master satirist and the first draft of BlacKkKlansman's screenplay came Lee's way from none other than this year's Oscar-winning screenwriter Jordan Peele (Get Out). On paper alone, my expectations for BlacKkKlansman were extremely high. But there's a reason that we don't hand out pieces of paper in the cinema. You've got to deliver your gut punches on screen. BlacKkKlansman was ultimately a very good film, but greatness was still beyond its reach.
The film's release (it opens nationwide, including in Boise, on Friday, Aug. 10) is timed with the first anniversary of the infamous Unite the Right rally, when Klansmen, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and a whole lot more neo-racists stained the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, with blood and venom. Near the end of BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee makes what I think is a ham-fisted choice to include a generous amount of news footage from last year's riot and, for good measure, pepper in some soundbites from David Duke and President Trump, who famously said there was "hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides" of the conflict. The inclusion of that footage at the end of the film, while powerful, actually diluted the more organic impact of BlacKkKlansman's own reminder that not much has changed. In fact, Lee bookends BlacKkKlansman with another potent film clip at the beginning: an extended scene from 1939's Gone With the Wind showing a Confederate Flag waving over the countless dead of the Civil War. Its inclusion also seemed forced.
Yes, I can wholeheartedly recommend BlacKkKlansman for its performances; but as an overall filmgoing experience, it left me wanting. I wanted more craziness and more outrage, just like the poster promised.