Spike Lee is an audacious filmmaker who crosses boundaries and deliberately blurs drama and reality. Never has this been more effective than in BlacKkKlansman, which defies a number of rules and offers a punch in the gut instead.

The movie starts out on a light note and utilizes humor throughout, since this true story is built on a foundation of absurdity. The time is the mid-1970s. Ron Stallworth is an intelligent young man who sports an afro and volunteers to become the first black member of the Colorado Springs police force. We never learn what drives him but we do witness the astonishing results: he’s a born investigator and decides to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, initiating the connection by phone, then using fellow officer Adam Driver as his white alter ego. The film seamlessly shifts tone, highlighting sequences of tremendous suspense where we have no idea what could happen at any given moment. After all, we’re dealing with frightening people who have no hesitation to use their guns.

Two-and-a-quarter hours fly by as Lee presents a narrative that defies belief. Featured in the leading role is John David Washington, the son of longtime Lee collaborator Denzel Washington. What an outstanding showcase for the young actor, who works in concert with a fine ensemble led by Driver, Topher Grace (as KKK grand wizard David Duke), Laura Harrier, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Corey Hawkins, Damaris Lewis and, in an amusingly effective time-warp prologue, Alec Baldwin.

Working with a script by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee himself (with encouragement from hands-on producer Jordan Peele), the director infuses the picture with a political point of view that didn’t exist in Stallworth’s memoir. He even introduces a metaphoric character played by the still-commanding Harry Belafonte, truly a living legend. Closing with actuality footage, Lee seals his message in the most visceral way imaginable.

It might sound odd to describe this hard-hitting film as entertaining, but that’s what makes it so special, and so effective. Watching BlacKkKlansman is not like taking medicine that’s good for you: it’s a great story, told with passion, period authenticity, and humor. Bravo, Spike!

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024