Review – BlacKkKlansman (2018)
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Topher Grace, Paul Walter Hauser, Corey Hawkins, Harry Belafonte, Alec Baldwin
It has been almost thirty years since Spike Lee burst into the public consciousness with Do the Right Thing. In a year when the Academy gave Best Picture to Driving Miss Daisy’s comparatively trite take on race, Do the Right Thing was a cinematic primal scream, offering an uncompromising and profound look at the African American experience. Since then, Lee has somewhat unfairly born the burden of being considered the cinematic spokesperson of the African American community, with this political lens often overshadowing the aesthetic appreciation of his work. He hasn’t enjoyed the standing of some of his contemporaries in recent years and his work has varied in quality. But when faced with the madness of Trump’s America, the bat signal went up in the sky and Lee responded, returning to his sparkling best with BlacKkKlansman.
BlacKkKlansman is based on a true story, or as the title card puts it, “Dis joint is based on some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t.” In 1978, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) became the first black police officer in the city of Colorado Springs. Working in the intelligence division, he spots a newspaper advertisement for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and, on a whim, decides to call them. Posing as someone interested in joining, but foolishly using his own name, he is invited by the local chapter leader Walter (Ryan Eggold) to come down and meet the guys. Obviously, attending a meeting is not really an option for Ron, so a plan is hatched whereby he will headline the investigation over the phone while a white detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), will pose as him for face to face meetings.
Even before there were physically two Ron Stallworths, Ron was living a double life. He tells his Chief (Robert John Burke) that he is fluent in both the King’s English and jive, and we see him switching back and forth between personalities depending on context. But rather than his dual existence making him at home in either context, Ron is outsider to all – untrusted by an all white police force, and untrusted by a black community who don’t like cops. He sees a potential ally in Flip, who is Jewish, but finds himself disappointed. “For you it’s a crusade. For me it’s a job,” asserts Flip. Where Ron can’t hide his blackness, Flip has, for ease, concealed his Jewishness. Having never really been forced to consider his Jewish heritage as something that marks him as different in the eyes of others, the deeper into the investigation he gets the more Flip can’t stop thinking about it. It ends up being Flip, rather than Ron, who goes through the film’s most significant transformation.
BlacKkKlansman functions effectively as both comedy and detective story. In a prologue we see the wonderfully named white supremacist, Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin), rehearsing to camera a slide presentation on the dangers that “mongrel nations” of mixed races pose to their white protestant values. Watching Beauregard continually flubbing his lines and losing his place creates a humorous juxtaposition of the vileness of his message with the incompetence of its delivery, setting the tenor of the film that is to come. Lee’s film finds great humour in its absurd scenario and characters while never letting you lose sight of the horror. From the lowliest chapter member to Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), the klansmen are presented as buffoons. Some are simple, some spiteful, some genial. All are hateful. As a collection of individuals they are shown to be ridiculous, but the threat they pose is very, very real.
Spike Lee has never been a particularly subtle filmmaker, which is not to say that his work lacks nuance or that he doesn’t embrace ambiguity, simply that Lee is always pointed and direct in the presentation of his ideas. You always know what a Spike Lee film is talking about. Where a standard detective thriller would provide a neat resolution in which the case is solved, justice is served and order is restored, BlacKkKlansman undercuts any such satisfaction or catharsis by finishing with a powerful montage of footage from the 2017 Charlottesville rally. Punctuating this absurd story with such a moment of harsh realisation (as well as the smattering Trump references and MAGA slogans along the way) ensures nobody leaves the theatre under the impression that the issues explored have been consigned to history.
Lee also uses BlacKkKlansman as an opportunity to interrogate the role of cinema itself in the spreading of messages about what it means to be black in America (Lee is a faculty member at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts). The film features extra-textual footage from both Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation, two films which seek to lionise the Confederacy, while another scene shows Ron and his love interest, the activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) discussing the merits of blaxploitation cinema, and in particular the comparative merits of Shaft and Superfly.
With the story being so outrageous that it is easy to forget that it is based in truth, it is the reminder that the current state of race relations in America is almost more unbelievable that makes this film so effective. BlacKkKlansman is brilliantly entertaining and wickedly funny, but deadly serious in its anger at the continued presence of intolerance and racism in society.
Review by Duncan McLean
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