First, though, a little advertisement: starting this weekend, the Morris Theatre is holding the Prairie Light Film Festival, a whole week with a rotating roster of good movies, movies I’ve wanted to see, but had low expectations that they’d ever play in small town rural Minnesota. It’s a small, mostly white and conservative town, and we’ve long had this single screen movie theater that has had to play it safe with their choices if they want to be profitable, and that means we get movies that will appeal to college students or the general community, without a lot of risk-taking. For instance, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was the sole movie being shown for about a month a few years ago. Enough said.
So now we’ve got this crazy wild festival coming up, and we’ve got a second screen, so finally the theater can show movies with narrower appeal, like BlacKkKlansman. Once upon a time, I would have estimated the chance of a Spike Lee film being shown in Morris as negligible — not because the theater management wouldn’t have liked to, but because they needed movies with broad appeal to the Morris audience. But now they can, and I am so happy.
BlacKkKlansman is the best movie I’ve seen this year. Right at the top of my list. Great acting, amazing story, strong and relevant theme, beautifully structured. I had no idea how they were going to pull of the central conceit of the story — a black man joins the KKK — but the way it was done, that there were two undercover cops using the same name, and it was the white guy, Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman, who would appear at Klan meetings, while the black guy, John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, would manage everything over the phone, worked well. It also worked well because it gave both Flip and Ron opportunities to grow in the roles they were playing. Driver was great as a Jew who realizes that this is his battle, too.
But I have to say something about the end of the movie. It was the most powerful gut punch I’ve ever experienced at a movie. So below the fold is a kind of a spoiler — I’m not going to give away any details of the plot, but I am going to say a few things about the structure of the ending.
It’s a fun movie, with a simple premise: will the undercover cops expose the KKK chapter developing in Colorado Springs? Along the way, we learn about these Klan members: a normal-seeming conservative white guy, a dim half-drunk doofus who seems too stupid to function, a crazy-eyed psycho who croons to his adoring wife about his dreams of murdering black people. Topher Grace is great as David Duke, a man who is clearly out of his depth, and he was a perfect choice to play the role, in part because he’s a recognizable actor, and he helps set the stage that this is played as a kind of traditional sit-com, or dramedy, or whatever term of art we should use. It’s a movie. Then at the end, it wraps up the story with Ron Stallworth calling David Duke and revealing that he’d been played by a black man. The End.
Except…Spike Lee then inserts real footage of the Charlottesville marches, the death of Heather Heyer, our bumbling buffoon of a president babbling about “both sides”, rioting alt-right goons, and shoves the truth in our faces: this is not just a movie. You don’t get to distance yourself by thinking of all this as acting, a little play with a beginning and end, it’s real and it’s going on right now. You don’t get to pretend that the wicked Klan characters in the movie are nothing but goofy tropes for your entertainment, they’re around you in your little safe quiet town, too, and are running the government.
So, yes, brace yourself at the end, because your two hours of escapism and entertainment are going to finish with reality slapping you in the face hard. It took me a few minutes to get my heart restarted before I could stagger out of the theater.