Ray’s review published on Letterboxd:
I frequently take a little time to get around to writing reviews for the movies I see lately. Less out of wanting to, and more of needing; I often get out of the theater within an hour of when I'm in bed, and am at work less than ten hours thereafter.
That is not why BlacKkKlansman has been waiting with me for three days hence. Typically, even if I won't get words down about it for a bit, I have what I think about a movie in mind, even if that morphs slightly between the car ride home and putting my hands on the keyboard. Klansman is different, though, and it's a movie I've felt demanding me to regard it differently.
"Intentionality" is not a way I regard what I think a film does. Unless what I take away from my viewing experience is so extremely opposed to whatever the ostensible purpose was in making the movie (Under the Sun will probably always be my go-to for this), it seems to me that the ~intention~, as it was, of any movie is to provoke whatever there is to be provoked within the person watching it. It's a cipher, something which may suggest specific topics to the audience around but is open to letting the people take whatever they want out of those roughly-arranged bones.
BlacKkKlansman, I think, is not exactly so open. It's not a screed, not always at least (if it were, that may be fine as well; it's just not), and it's far far far from lacking the straightforward joys of narrative cinema. But my conception of this movie takes shape around the scene in which Stallworth goes undercover at a Black Power rally centered around the speech of a man named Kwame Ture. During the speech, the camera lingers on Ture at times, but more frequently views the audience, mines their reactions and listening, processing faces for the sensation and visual impression of people developing their views, of people hearing Ture's ideas and molding them into their own opinions.
This, I think, is what Lee wants to do more than anything. He want this to be a story that's fun and harrowing and hilarious and all at the same time sometimes, but more than that he wants us to reckon with what we see, to not be able to walk out of this thinking this era of our country is the past. It's something which still is resounding to our current day, which is no less virulent at this very moment. And he wants you to have a game plan.
This purpose-driven cinema is a lot drier than I typically like the movies I watch to be, but I want to lay out now that where he leaves flexibility is really interesting and enriching. Primarily, Lee is not so concerned that you have his plan, that you have any given plan, but that you have ~a~ plan. To whit: many feel this movie is way too easy on cops, which I absolutely do not disagree with, but there's a point where that goes from "cops are historically a state-sponsored way to persecute minorities" to "no cop has ever wanted to do good, even any policemen and women of color," a point that I cannot travel to.
If you think that's naive, that trying to shape the system from the inside is not-at-all achievable, that's your prerogative to believe that. Lee asks only that your recognize that the rhetoric of more radical black activists has its own naivete in shades, and that both are at least based in the conceptual road map to social progress. No matter what path you think the liberation of people of color needs to embody, Lee just needs you to know that we are still not one step away from achieving it, but that being committed to that core idea is the important part.
For all the praise Stallworth gets in the denouement here, all his little moments of victory, a detail I bet is often unnoticed is that... He didn't do anything. All the people he could have gotten arrested blew their own selves up, the innocent people who could have gotten hurt by that explosion are saved by the ruckus made when he's being harassed by his fellow policemen. We live in a social hierarchy which actively resists the kind of liberation activists are seeking, which is designed to get it stamped out whenever possible, which is just as true now as it was then.
So, all that being said, how much my feelings about this movie are almost exclusively conceptual and political leaves me at a crossroads. I care very little for the characters and, to a degree, the performances here, and Lee's structure is just as scattershot as it is often wont to be (I like how many topics it can brush through, but there's a lot of separate times here where it feels like Stallworth is almost purposeless in his own narrative, and not always in a way that feels intentional). I don't mind the bluntness much, since this is so much almost a rhetorical bludgeon in a strange way anyway, but even I found something like the dig at Trump maybe a little overly cheeky. On the complete other hand, scenes often thrum with anxiety, it's an extremely accomplished thriller whenever it chooses to be and transitions into something looser with a phenomenal ease.
But even mere days later, I struggle to remember these things, good or bad.
I theorized something like this might be possible in my writing on 13th, but I've never seen so good an example until now. This is barely a movie to me in some ways, almost a TED talk in the guise of narrative cinema, but above the gifts that Lee does have with conventional filmmaking, two things take that fact and make something really exceptional.
1. The wisdom Lee has gained from fighting this fight for decades on decades, combined with the bravura control of cinema he's built. He couldn't have made this movie before now, and wouldn't have made it before now, and even if I think I'd probably find the version he'd have made in the 90s more rousing I think this is a far deeper and more rich experience.
2. Having watched this all with someone who's not so intimately aware of the extreme depths of ugliness that continue to exist in this world. All of the people I follow on Twitter are lefties, I frequently spend my time listening to lefty Youtubers; I am far far far from an expert, but I definitely know well enough that there's a sneering evil left festering in this country. My fiancee, though, does not love to engage with politics, and even knowing ~of~ what happened in Charlottesville last year, broke down weeping watching the actual reality of it. Importance is not something I give any credit for in movies, typically, but it feels as though Lee has grasped something ruthlessly here.