I’ve always admired Spike Lee as a director because he’s a risk taker. While a lot of filmmakers know how to put on a show, not as many can truly say they’re bringing something fresh to the table. So when I found out my boss was sending me to a pre-screening of the highly anticipated Lee film “BlacKkKlansman,” it was hard not to feel lucky.

As the film began and the plot started to unfold, discomfort began to spread through the room. It quickly became clear that the audience was not always sure if the jokes playing out on screen were all that funny.

In hindsight, they were — with two caveats: The humor was provocative, and, more importantly, we were a test audience. There weren’t any reviews online to reference. Our reactions had to be organic, which meant that Lee had already succeeded: His film was challenging us.

Based on a true story, “BlacKkKlansman” is about Ron Stallworth, played by John David Washington, who joins the Colorado Springs Police Department as the city’s first black detective. He works with Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, to adopt the persona of a Ku Klux Klan member in order to infiltrate and expose the Klan.

While Stallworth works as the voice and puppet master of this fictional character — grooming Klan members over the phone to gain their trust — Zimmerman becomes the physical incarnation, so that he can meet with the Klan in person and extract deeper information at private gatherings.
The story on its own is staggering, and Lee’s film bolsters it with its witty dialogue, an unconventional structure and an open avenue to address disturbing political issues. But the film’s real success is in its expression of how every social group harbors a mix of beliefs and opinions, rather than subscribing just to one doctrine.

For example, Stallworth and his girlfriend Patrice Dumas, played by Laura Harrier, have diverging ideas on what it means to embrace Black Power when addressing police brutality in their neighborhood. In the second half of the film, Stallworth finds Dumas just before a rally against the police department and encourages her not to participate. While Dumas feels the effort should target all police officers to make a statement, Stallworth argues it is not right for the movement to target those who have not acted violently and that she should seek out other ways to challenge police brutality.

Though Stallworth witnessed the inner workings of the Klan, he feels that there is a way to fight against persistent inequalities by working within the system, rather than retaliating with further hatred. The tension between Stallworth’s and Dumas’ social values reminds the audience that ideas about power and passion can look very different among individuals.

Yet while Lee manages to weave in this politically relevant message, he misses the mark with other directorial choices that hold “BlacKkKlansman” back from being a roaring success.

About halfway through the film, one of the Klan members, Felix, played by Jasper Pääkkönen, lies in bed colluding with his wife to plant a bomb at a civil rights rally. The scene is long and intimate, marking an abrupt shift from Stallworth’s larger effort to this specific plot within the Klan. The scheme itself is relatively anticlimactic, as the Klan members botch the operation by parking their car near the scene and getting themselves blown up.

While it could have been an interesting twist to expose the incompetence of the organization, Lee ends up constructing a gimmicky action scene that detracts from the film’s initial intentions: to explore Stallworth’s narrative and his personal experiences interacting with the Klan.

In addition to the film’s unexpected shift in focus, the end of the film is disappointing. Until this point, the film remains humorous, poking fun at the Klan’s ignorance of Stallworth’s mission and at the irony behind his success. It even ends with Stallworth revealing his “true” identity to David Duke, the grand wizard of the KKK, over the phone. He sits casually at his desk at the police station, a handful of his colleagues gathered around his chair, and they crack up as Duke’s stunned silence clouds the receiver. The scene is a natural ending point.

Yet this build-up is knocked down when real footage from the deadly August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., is shown just before the credits to close out the film.

It’s not that the footage serves no purpose — it just feels like an uncomfortable cop-out, used to evoke emotions that the film’s direction didn’t deliver, but that the subject matter on its own does. The unnerved feeling will stay with viewers as they exit the theater. Unfortunately, this ending does not do the film or the audience justice.

“BlacKkKlansman” rings of unfinished business. While the film is refreshing, like the bulk of Lee’s work, it leaves something to be desired, particularly given the closing footage. The end of the film feels out of place — like a forced way of connecting the past to the present. But perhaps this discomfort is what Lee wants: to provoke us into puzzling over the ending’s meaning, even if there is no easy explanation.

Olivia Simon is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. DIRECTOR’S CUT appears in print every other Friday.

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