The word ‘powerful’ is thrown around a lot in film criticism, especially with big, important ‘issues movies’. But there really is no movie better suited to the accolade than Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a terrifying, astounding true story which echoes loudly with the present day in the most worrying ways.
Indeed, BlacKkKlansman is about power in all its different forms. Abuses of power. Powerlessness. One race’s power over another. The police’s power over its citizens. The power of cinema to affect the politics and perceptions of the masses. And the power of the individual to change history.
Part Argo-esque true-life caper with a strong vein of comedy, part shocking history lesson focusing on racism in the ‘70s and charting the rise of the Ku Klux Klan into the mainstream, BlacKkKlansman isn’t so much a cautionary tale as a frightening exposé of how we got where we are now, culminating in footage of the 2017 white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville. Tense, funny, uplifting, moving, scary, devastating, BlacKkKlansman is an emotional rollercoaster, a bravura piece of filmmaking and, if there’s any justice, so far the one to beat for the Best Picture Oscar 2018.
John David Washington (son of Denzel) stars as Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs police department. Frustrated with the records room, Stallworth bags a gig working undercover. Chancing his arm, Stallworth responds to a newspaper recruitment ad for the KKK and manages to convince various Klansmen, including insidious Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) that he’s a fully-fledged white, racist, anti-semite and perfect Klan material.
When the local Klan want to meet in person, Ron needs an avatar. It falls to his white, Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to take on the job, in a plan which becomes increasingly risky, insane, but also important in foiling a potentially fatal Klan plan. That Driver and Washington’s voices sound vaguely similar helps suspension of disbelief in a story so outrageous it would be hard to swallow were it not true.
Washington is cool, charismatic and funny and it would be possible to get caught up in the bravado and forget what a crazy and dangerous move the plan was were it not for Lee’s judicious use of juxtaposition throughout. One scene in particular, towards the end of the film brings all the themes to head as a high profile Klan meeting with David Duke in attendance hosts a screening of D.W Griffith’s 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation, the first American feature film to ever have been shown inside the White House and a movie which glorifies the KKK and features offensive racist caricatures played by white men in black face.
While the Klansmen in attendance cheer, whoop and munch popcorn, in another room elsewhere Harry Belafonte playing activist Jerome Turner tells the harrowing real life story of the lynching of Jesse Washington. It’s troubling but it’s a brilliant crescendo hammering home the link between mainstream racist rhetoric and violent hate crime.
Discursive but never heavy handed, Lee plays with and critiques cinema’s portrayal of race through the ages too, from Gone With The Wind to Tarzan and ‘70s era Blaxploitation films, as well as society’s media-led definition of beauty.
Stallworth’s activist girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) raises questions about activism and protest vs trying to exact change from within a corrupt system, while one particularly on-the-nose speech relating to the rise to power of David Duke draws a direct timeline to Trump’s election victory.
BlacKkKlansman is important and it’s current and at times it’s seriously upsetting. But it’s also way more entertaining than the big political themes might make it look at face value. Jason Blum and Jordan Peele who made Get Out are both on board as producers and like with discourse around that film, it almost feels disrespectful to emphasise how pacey, and funny and at times rather sweet this film is. But it is.
Driver’s growing understanding of his own Jewishness is a fascinating sub thread, while the camaraderie between Stallworth and his white work mates (including an endearing turn by Michael, brother of Steve, Buscemi) leads to a genuine punch the air moment towards the end. The performances are across the board exceptional.
And of course there are inherent thrills generated by the undercover operation and the occasional subtle slip-ups that threaten to unravel the whole thing and leave our two hero cops in danger for their lives. BlacKkKlansman is an extremely well made movie and for one that talks about the power of cinema it seriously packs the punch of a shot of coffee, a jolt of electricity and a slap in the chops, possibly all at once.
And maybe, maybe, it’ll effect real change. Just maybe Blackkklansman could be a spotlight on a terrible part of history that doesn’t actually have to repeat itself.
BlacKkklansman opens in UK cinemas on August 24th
Special nationwide screenings + Live Satellite Q&A with Spike Lee on August 20thwww.BlackkklansmanScreening.co.uk