The Screening Room | Timely 'BlacKkKlansman' is necessary viewing

The Screening Room | Timely 'BlacKkKlansman' is necessary viewing

In the fall of 1978, eager to make a name for himself, Colorado Springs police Officer Ron Stallworth approached his superiors with the idea of infiltrating the local Ku Klux Klan chapter in order to more closely monitor their plans and activities.

This was significant and of concern to his captain for two reasons — at 24, Stallworth had only been on the force for three years, and the kicker — he was black. That Stallworth's boss allowed him to go ahead with this idea is remarkable in itself. The twists and turns that resulted from this investigation are something else all together.

Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" recounts Stallworth's story and adheres to the truth for the most part. To be sure, it's a fascinating tale, and its power comes from the fact that it shows that while we may have made some small steps toward better race relations in the past 40 years, much of that has been erased by our current climate of ignorance and intolerance.

In fact, the film is at its most powerful during the last five minutes, where Lee uses documentary footage of last year's violent white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in which counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed to underscore how Stallwort's and others' efforts over the ensuing years have seemingly been for naught.

As for Stallworth's story, Lee takes a relatively standard approach, taking a bit too much time in doing so. As the zealous officer, John David Washington inhabits the role with a sense of sincerity that engages us from the start.

Responding on a whim to a KKK recruiting ad he spies in a newspaper, he calls to request more information and is contacted immediately by local member Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen), who invites him to a watering hole outside town to meet Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), head of the Klan's Colorado Springs chapter. Needless to say, this creates a problem, so Stallworth recruits fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to appear in his stead. Zimmerman is immediately accepted into the group, and the two officers begin a nine-month odyssey into the belly of the beast.

The movie's second act is devoted to Zimmerman becoming more and more entrenched in this subculture, deftly skirting one tense situation after another as his true identity and Jewish heritage is constantly in danger of being exposed.

Coupled with this is a subplot about a developing assassination plot, another thread in which Stallworth falls for activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and his developing relationship with Klan leader David Duke (Topher Grace), all of which takes place over the phone, until one fateful day.

While all of this is interesting, the film moves a bit too slowly at times and would have benefited from excising the romantic element, which is fictional. While Lee's intent to honor these activists is admirable, the movie suffers a bit for it. That being said, all of the scenes involving Duke have a spark to them that reignites the film when it starts to lag.

Kudos to Grace, who brings a smooth sense of charm and righteousness to the role that effectively underscores the inherent danger of this seemingly logical man. The actor is a revelation as he employs a rationality and calm here that gets to the core of this insidious person.

Lee's occasionally heavy-handed approach is evident in a sequence in which Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) appears to recount a horrific lynching he witnessed as a child, a story that is cross-cut with a sequence showing Zimmerman, as Stallworth, being officially inducted into the KKK. While his intent is admirable, the sequence is far too obvious and distracting.

Flawed yet vital, "BlacKkKlansman" couldn't be more timely. During its best moments, it puts the most misguided among us in the spotlight and shows them for the cowardly, ignorant, hateful fools that they are. For this alone, the film is necessary viewing, though it will surely be preaching to the choir.

'BlacKkKlansman' (★★★ out of four)

Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Alec Baldwin, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Robert John Burke, Brian Tarantina and Ken Garito.

Directed by Spike Lee; produced by Jason Blum, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick and Lee; screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee.

A Blumhouse Pictures release. 135 minutes. Rated R (language, racial epithets, violent material and some sexual references). At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

Predictable "Dog Days" a bland comfort (★★ 1/2 out of four). If you haven't gotten your fill of the Hallmark Channel — and really, could anyone ever sate their craving for the banal? — "Dog Days" is for you.

Sweet, predictable and just so, so cute, this sitcom writ large will appeal to those seeking nothing more than a pleasant excuse to get out of the sun for two hours and turn off their brains so that they might mindlessly shove popcorn in their mouths and revel in the adorable qualities displayed on screen. If you like dogs even a little bit, you'll probably get sucked in as well.

Taking place in the nicer sections of Los Angeles, the film focuses on a group of very attractive people who are all seeking happiness in their sun-drenched lives. Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev) is nursing a broken heart; Tara (Vanessa Hudgens) is over the moon for Dr. Mike (Michael Cassidy) — so much so that she ignores nice-guy Garrett (Jon Bass), who owns a dog shelter and pines for her; and wannabe rocker Dax (Adam Pally) agrees to watch out for his pregnant sister's (Jessica St. Clair) pooch, a favor that will change his life in ways he can't imagine.

And just how does football player Jimmy (Tone Bell) figure into this? Well, you'll be on the edge of your seat waiting for that narrative shoe to drop. Oh, and I would be remiss if I did not note that most of these folks have doggies, and wouldn't you know it, they all go to the same veterinarian.

Well, before you can say "meet cute," these folks are meeting cute, often because of those darn dogs, who as every one knows are the ultimate icebreakers and conversation starters. When not focused on a canine-induced love connection, the plot unspools stories involving a widower (Ron Cephas Jones) who has lost his dog and the pizza-delivery kid (Finn Wolfhard) who helps him look for the wayward pooch, and a married couple (Rob Corddry and Eva Longoria) who are struggling to make their newly adopted daughter (Elizabeth Phoenix Caro) feel at home.

It's hard to be critical of such a well-intentioned film. Picking at it is as cruel as making a snobbish opera lover sit through this movie. However, there is something comforting to the predictability of all of this, as well as being reminded of why we have and love dogs.

We live vicariously through them, we tell them our problems knowing full well they understand and relate to what we are going through, and most importantly, they are a comfort to have around. There really is nothing like the unconditional love a dog gives you when it seems the whole world is against you.

For instance, after sitting through this trite collection of cliches, I went home to sit with my beagle, Gracie. I wasn't surprised that this made things all better.

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