Since releasing She's Gotta Have It in 1986, director Spike Lee has been a formidable name in the film landscape. His films challenge the status quo and highlight problems in America, and in black America, all while gripping audiences with heightened reality and strong casting to deliver his directorial voice.
Co-written and directed by Lee, BlacKkKlansman, continues the trend of making audiences uncomfortable with our own history — this time based on true events. The film portrays the story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), a black Colorado Springs police officer who goes undercover to infiltrate the local Klu Klux Klan chapter in the late 1970s.
"Nobody has ever accused Spike Lee of subtlety — he tends to bludgeon his messages. He's very determined to make his points as clearly as possible, and you can say that BlacKkKlansman does that," says Film Contributor Dave Luhrssen. "One of the things that's very important in thinking about Spike Lee is his awareness of the history of race and the problems connected with it in American society, and we're getting a history lesson in this movie."
Classified as a "dark comedy," the tone of BlacKkKlansman often lurches from entertaining to disturbing, but that's most likely Lee's intention, according to Luhrssen.
"Maybe the violent lurching back and forth is part of the way of making his point, that this is uncomfortable. That the situation of race in America is not a comfortable thing and maybe the audience should feel this discomfort through the aesthetic of the film," he explains.
Moving between two worlds, much like its main character, BlacKkKlansman shows the juxtaposition of the Black Power movement against the actions of the KKK and white supremacist movement through stunning cinematography and a powerful score. Luhrssen notes the casting and screenplay offer audiences co-protagonists in Stallworth and his partner, Flip Zimmerman (portrayed by Adam Driver), adding genuine depth.
"Really, Flip has just about as much screen time as Ron does. I think the two of them are very important characters," he says. "The relationship that develops between the two of them seems very natural. There was an evolution certainly in their attitudes toward each other."
The film incorporates footage of last year's white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Luhrssen notes a lot of the questions BlacKkKlansman raises are still relevant a quarter of a century later.
"You have the first black officer in the department, not an uncommon situation back in those days, confronting this problem how to serve, how to be what a police officer ought to be to protect and to serve within this kind of environment. This question has not gone away," he says.
Luhrssen thinks everyone should watch Spike Lee's movies, particularly Malcom X and Do The Right Thing, "because they continue to speak about things that haven't changed enough."