A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that director Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman is a sometimes-absurd account of a real-life black cop's (John David Washington's) undercover mission in the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Expect strong language throughout, as well as mature themes related to racism and terroristic violence -- but the film also portrays courage and cooperation in the face of extreme racial hatred. Though very little violence is actually shown, a particularly sadistic lynching is described in disturbing detail. And the script has lots of swearing ("f--k," "s--t," and many more); a stream of racial, anti-Semitic, and homophobic epithets (the "N" word, "k-ke," "f-g," etc.); and some sexual references. Adults drink socially, and smoking is common. Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, and Topher Grace co-star.
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What's the story?
In BLACKKKLANSMAN, it's the 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. He becomes a detective and infiltrates the local Ku Klux Klan chapter by impersonating a white recruit on the phone. Stallworth enlists his white Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) for the times when his undercover persona must appear at Klan functions and even befriends Klan leader David Duke (Topher Grace). As the deception risks unraveling, Stallworth learns that the beautiful young activist leader he loves (Laura Harrier) could be in danger.
Is it any good?
Although it's occasionally weighed down by cinematic choices, this dark comedy is director/co-writer Spike Lee's strongest work in years. While there's some tension around the fact that the jig could be up at any moment, this isn't a thriller. Rather, BlacKkKlansman plays as an absurd comedy with a premise that defies credulity. But the real Stallworth apparently did spy on the Klan by using a telephone persona and apparently did interact with Duke. Thanks to solid performances by an extremely well-chosen cast, the too-bizarre-to-be-true situation feels real. And because the interactions are so crazy, the film's deadpan approach makes them all the funnier.
Lee can't help but lecture at times, with extended public speech sequences and even excerpts of the infamous The Birth of a Nation designed as viewers' lesson for the day. Despite a few of these heavy-handed lapses that break the film's stride, Lee's commentary is perhaps his most effective since Do the Right Thing. The movie includes undisguised links to today's sociopolitical environment, with Duke and others reviving the 1930s-era isolationist/anti-Semitic slogan "America First" (which they did) and promising to "make America great again" via ethnic cleansing. As you'd likely expect from a Lee production, the cinematography and editing are excellent. And Washington and Driver form a solid, heads-down, hardworking team. Driver's Flip has a particularly affecting moment in which he reconnects with the importance of his Jewish heritage. As Duke, Grace is a fool you enjoy laughing at -- until he shows what lies beneath his three-piece-suit veneer in a moment of anger. Given BlacKkKlansman's subject matter and injections of the real-life horrors of racial violence from America's past, it's notable that its touch stays light enough to let its humor shine ... and then a devastating postscript reminds us how real and present this danger remains.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the language in BlacKkKlansman. Did it seem appropriate for the story, the characters, and the time and place? When does frequent strong language get in the way of your viewing experience, and when does it help? How did the stream of racial, anti-Semitic, and homophobic insults make you feel?
The film is based on a true story. Did any of it feel too hard to believe? How accurate do you think it is? Why might filmmakers choose to alter the facts in a movie inspired by real-life events?
Have racial tensions/relations changed since the 1970s? If so, how? What's different, and what's the same?
Do you think filmmakers/artists should be responsible for exploring big social issues in their work, or do you prefer movies and other works of art to be an escape from the real world? Why?
- In theaters: August 10, 2018
- On DVD or streaming: November 6, 2018
- Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Alec Baldwin
- Director: Spike Lee
- Studio: Focus Features
- Genre: Comedy
- Run time: 135 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references
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