Biting and brilliant, Spike Lee’s on top of his game with the searing “BlacKkKlansman”
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) confronts David Duke (Topher Grace) while on the security detail for the Klan leader’s visit to Colorado Springs.
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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy, 2018, R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references; Streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), iTunes (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube
Best extra: “A Spike Lee Joint,” a by-the-book feature in which producer Jordan Peele and members of the cast talk about working with the man
SINCE “SHE’S Gotta Have It” 32 years ago, Spike Lee’s never shied from the truth. With “BlacKkKlansman,” he goes at it bare-knuckled.
Furious and funny, biting and brilliant, his take on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American member of the Colorado Springs, Colo., Police Department and the man who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, is so essential that your reaction after the end credits may be to moan about the dearth of substantive extras, like one tracing the evolution of racism in America that lays out how we arrived at where we are.
You wouldn’t be alone, but save it.
Opening with the unforgettable scene of wounded Confederate soldiers lying in the Atlanta rail yard in “Gone With the Wind” and ending with Donald Trump’s half-assed indictment of the white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville, Lee tears the cover off the ugly truth: America’s always been infected.
(1) John David Washington—Denzel’s son—stars as Ron Stallworth, the real-life Colorado Springs, Colo., police officer who took down the KKK. (2) Robert John Burke, as Chief Bridges, and Isiah Whitlock Jr., who plays police recruiter Mr. Turrentine, grill Stallworth about joining the force. He was its first African-American officer. (3) Stallworth is outfitted with a wire by colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) before going out on surveillance.
Enter Stallworth—played by John David Washington with the same calm self-assurance that’s distinguished the career of his father, Denzel, he’s the eye of the storm. (Footnote: His first role was as a schoolboy in Lee’s 1992nepic “Malcolm X,” starring … you get three guesses.)
Languishing in the PD’s records department, he requests a transfer and goes undercover at a speech given by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), the former Stokely Carmichael, at the Colorado College Black Student Union. Attracted to the union’s president, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), Stallworth wrestles with his duty—he’s always wanted to be a policeman and work for change from within—and his black pride.
Afterward, he’s reassigned to intelligence and, pretending to be of European descent, answers a KKK ad in the newspaper. Soon, Stallworth’s talking with David Duke (Topher Grace, “That 70’s Show”), the Klan’s Grand Wizard-cum-national director. When the KKK wants to meet him, he enlists his Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, “Star Wars’” Kylo Ren).
In one of the movie’s most powerful sequences, Lee cross cuts scenes of Klansmen cheering D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” with those of an elderly man (Harry Belafonte) recounting the lynching of a friend for members of the student union. As A.O. Scott points out in The New York Times, Griffith pioneered the technique in his racist screed.
(1) In a dramatic speech to the Colorado College Black Union, Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), the former Stokely Carmichael, urges the students to embrace who they are. (2) One of director Spike Lee’s most powerful techniques is to have the faces of the students listening to Ture blossom out of the darkness. (3) Remember Angela Davis? Laura Harrier is Patrice Dumas, the president of the Black Student Union who develops a relationship with Stallworth. (4) Klan recruiter Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) is Stallworth’s first contact. (5) Jasper Pääkkönen plays the psychotic, confrontational Klansman Felix Kendrickson.
Shooting mostly in Ossining, N.Y., Lee and cinematographer Chayse Irvin (his first major film) go old-school, capturing the '70s vibe by and large with 35mm cameras (2.39:1 aspect ratio) and sprinkles of 16mm for newsreel-like footage.
IMDb says "BlackkKlansman" was mastered in 4K, but it's most likely an upconverted 2K master. The difference in resolution between the 4K and Blu-ray are too similar to be true 4K. Plus, it just doesn't have the crispness of Universal's "The Big Lebowski" and Lionsgate's "First Blood," both recently remastered 35mm films. The 4K gets the edge in overall clarity, while both formats are bathed with a natural, balanced film grain.
The biggest difference is in the expanded HDR10/Dolby Vision toning and color spectrum. The black level is much deeper and natural, especially the numerous dimly-lit interiors, from the Black Student Union rally to the nightclub where Stallworth and Dumas first hook up. Overall, the 4K is a darker experience, which fits Lee’s themes.
The 4K colors are more subdued—check out the police blues, Dumas' red VW Beetle and the red and white Klan emblem. Facial toning is less overtly red to orange, and much truer.
The 4K and Blu-ray both feature the eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Extremely active to the height speakers, it’s nicely balanced with the rest of the soundstage. The well-crafted score by Terence Blanchard (Lee's go-to composer since 1991’s "Jungle Fever") mixes R&B beats and symphonic drama and there’s no shortage of gun and bomb blasts, cheering crowds and annoying telephone rings.
And you can't forget the groovy R&B, pop and spirituals that provide the film’s emotional thread, among them Prince’s "Mary Don't You Weep," which is also featured in the extended trailer, Edwin Hawkins’ classic "Oh Happy Day," Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose’s "Too Late to Turn Back Know," Looking Glass’ "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)” and, of course, the Godfather of Soul’s "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud).”
-- Craig Shapiro and Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
(1) In one of the movie’s most powerful sequences, the great Harry Belafonte, as Jerome Turner, tells the students about the lynching of a friend. (2) Zimmerman, pretending to be Stallworth, is initiated into the Klan. (3) Stallworth cuffs Felix’s wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) after a bomb goes off under Dumas’ car.
Extended Movie Trailer