‘A true story of the past with plenty to say for the present’
In the age of Trump there have been a number of perspectives looking to make sense of where we are through the lenses of both the past and present. Documentaries including 13TH and Whose Streets? along with narrative features Get Out and Detroit have provided insights into contemporary attitudes towards race, but no recent film has been as incendiary in directly pointing the finger at the current US administration as Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
Awarded an honorary Academy Award in 2015 for his work as ‘a champion of independent film and an inspiration to young filmmakers’, Lee is undoubtedly one of the most significant creative talents of recent decades. Known for his unapologetic depictions of race that continue to stoke spirited debates, the 61-year-old has been responsible for numerous highly acclaimed titles including Malcolm X, 25th Hour and Do The Right Thing. Yet in spite of his influential reputation, his latter day works have struggled to be received with the same level of adulation and cultural relevance as those that put him on the cinematic map.
Spending the past decade delivering a run of releases met to varying critical reception, disappointing box office returns and minimal staying power in the public consciousness, the timeliness and general premise of BlacKkKlansman has provided Lee with a subject matter making the most of his past tendencies while benefitting from a level of relevance that has been lacking in recent times.
Based on the real life story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, John David Washington (Ballers) stars as the rookie investigator tasked with infiltrating the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Initially making contact with ‘the organisation’ over the phone while failing provide an alias, Stallworth employs fellow intelligence colleague Phillip ‘Flip’ Zimmerman (Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) to be the public face behind ‘Ron Stallworth – true white American of pure Aryan blood’.
Ingratiating ‘Ron’ into the Klan’s inner workings by making contact with David Duke (Topher Grace, Spider-Man 3), the Grand Wizard come National Director of the KKK, Ron’s real identity is additionally challenged by Patrice (Laura Harrier, Spider-Man: Homecoming), the president of a black student union, whose views on black liberation being impeded by the police – ‘racist pigs’ – stands in conflict with Ron’s desire for internal reform within the system.
In the hands of a less experienced filmmaker the tonal tightrope walked throughout the 135-minute runtime could have descended into mayhem, but in balancing the various aspects of humour, tension, outrage and even joy, the end result is a deeply impactful experience that much like the best of Spike Lee’s filmography will inspire plenty of subsequent discussion.
Unflinching in depicting extreme sentiments of racism and anti-Semitism, BlacKkKlansman does not shy away from portraying the ugliness of views that continue to be held by some, with the use of ethnic slurs done purposefully in an historical context rather than indulging gratuitously. For some audience members the bluntness will be a turnoff, but much like the horror depicted by Katherine Bigelow in 2017’s Detroit, the confrontational nature is by design.
This is not to suggest that the film is without moments of levity; humour is used to great effect throughout, an early scene between Ron and Patrice at a nightclub is among the most joyous of 2018, while a final exchange in which David Duke learns of the ruse is sure to leave audiences applauding.
Eerily reminiscent in the voice of his father Denzel (a collaborator on Lee’s early work including the Oscar-nominated Malcolm X), John David Washington is tremendous in his first leading role, while having shown the versatility to deviate between the intimate worlds of Jim Jarmusch and the cultural phenomenon of playing a Star Wars villain, Adam Driver furthers his credentials as one of the finest actors of the 2010s. Helping to carry the load Laura Harrier and Topher Grace are strong in opposing, yet similar roles, while Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) and Harry Belafonte leave enduring impacts in brief appearances on screen.
There is much to like about BlacKkKlansman; the performances, direction and technical achievements of frequent Lee collaborators Barry Alexander Brown (editor) and Terence Blanchard (composer) stand out in particular, however for all the praise the film rightly deserves the harsh reality for audiences to contend with is that under better circumstances the life of Ron Stallworth would merely be a story of his past – not our present.
Released to coincide with the first anniversary of the white nationalist rally that saw Heather Heyer murdered in a hit and run attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, the socio-political context BlacKkKlansman exists within is a sombre reminder of the evils that exist and have been emboldened during the Trump presidency. But in keeping with the previous perspectives offered by Lee that foreshadowed the death of Eric Garner, addressed the aftermath of 9/11 and held a mirror up to the history of racial subjugation in American media, the end takeaway refuses to provide a simple answer to issues with far reaching implications.
Confronting by design but never to excess, BlacKkKlansman is easily Spike Lee’s finest film of the decade, while serving as a worthy addition befitting his esteemed reputation as an artist with plenty on his mind.