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'BlacKkKlansman': There's no Politics like Show Business

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires Film Critic
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I doubt I've ever reviewed a movie more important than Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman."
 
Greater? Most likely. Although, in astutely fashioning his heartfelt SOS about America's burgeoning racist threat, Spike Lee is no slouch in the art department, either. This scintillating film based on a true story about how, via a white counterpart, Afro-American cop Ron Stallworth infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, wouldn't be nearly as shocking in its appeal to our better angels were it not such a fine achievement in cinema.
 
Will it win Best Picture? A mere bag of shells. If Lee's magnum opus proves to be this generation's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and successfully causes an electoral outcry against the seething hate that currently threatens our ship of state, it would behoove the Pulitzer Committee to add a film category. I'm fairly sure that, assuming the prize wasn't bestowed on the same night that the New York Knicks were playing for the NBA championship, Spike would drop by to memorialize the occasion of his humanitarian achievement.
 
This is stirring stuff, devotedly ferrying the viewer from intriguing adventure yarn to the realization that racism, whether in its inept reaction to inner-city violence or through the reckless injustice perpetuated at our borders, has tacitly become official policy. Smartly injecting stock footage from cataclysmic episodes delineating the bias that Americans have perennially heaped on their less fortunate citizens, Lee, working from a script that he, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott adapted from Stallworth's book, writes responsible history.
 
But while the action-filled, undercover drama at the center of the work will have audiences on tenterhooks, and thus prime them for the contemporary tie-in detonated in the movie's last 15 minutes, patriots must hope that "BlacKkKlansman" preaches beyond the choir. The seriocomic irony is that it fights fire with fire. Our current crisis had its nascence in reality TV, which inveigled its way into portions of the national consciousness that mistook the appeal of novelty and a promise of quick fixes for good government. Spike aims to out-dramatize the con.
 
In flourishing the First Amendment as the Founding Fathers intended when they created a democracy in a world ruled by kings, emperors and sultans, Lee pulls no punches. Weaving his provocative saga, which takes place in the demonstration-filled era of the early 1970s, the intersplicing of filmed documentation shows how entertainment and politics have merged into a disingenuous Hydra.
 
Fine period piece effects recall the angst of the times, matched in look, mood and attitude by John David Washington's afro-coiffured title character and his eventual love interest, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier.), president of the black student union at Colorado College. The assertiveness of the activists portrayed, at once innocently naïve and staunchly brave, escapes caricature thanks to how confidently Lee etches his muckrake. But there's no equivocating when it comes to how the KKK is depicted — no claptrap about blame on both sides.
 
Similar to Steinbeck's intermittent insertion of the so-called inner chapters in "The Grapes of Wrath," Lee at poignant times poetically pauses his narrative with stills of America's purple mountain majesty, rivers and valleys. It impresses how the beautiful goodness, our new Garden of Eden, is endangered by the sullying greed of narcissistic white supremacists who claim, in profane contradiction to the egalitarian ode sung by Woody Guthrie, that this is their land and their land alone.
 
Here we are in the 21 st century only to again find Orwell valid…that by dint of color there are those who still consider themselves more equal than others. A subplot concerning the surreptitious Jewish identity of Stallworth's white partner, Flip Zimmerman, superbly played by Adam Driver, adds a subtle, expansive wrinkle to the film's insights into prejudice.
 
We red-blooded — not black, not white — inclusionary Americans who know better are outraged by these practitioners of hate. Their fanaticism against African-Americans, Jews, gays and anyone else who stirs their fear is where malevolence meets evil. But while we are rendered aghast, the perpetration serves to affirm our resolve. No matter from where we sprang to embrace Washington, Jefferson and Adams's bold experiment, the legacy, myth and ideology belong to everyone. The Pilgrims, the cowboys and Indians, the wars fought against tyranny, it's all ours.
 
Lee captures and compresses into a nutshell not only the horror of bigotry, but its economic stupidity. Immersed in his crucible of unvarnished truths, it strikes us how many countless lives continue to be tragically ruined or ended by a venal justification as nonsensical as the idea that brown eggs are healthier than white ones. How many potential curers of cancer were deterred, barred or killed for no more reason than their color, creed or religion?
 
As "BlacKkKlansman" cries out to our humanity, it's almost as if we can hear Daniel Webster himself exhort, "End this suffocating indecency that has shrink-wrapped itself over our democracy in the guise of a TV show. Push a lever in the voting booth and change the station."
 
"BlacKkKlansman," rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Spike Lee and stars John David Washington, Adam Driver and Laura Harrier. Running time: 135 minutes

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