Spike Lee has never been a director I can say I’ve been totally enamoured with, but that’s probably because a large proportion of his films aren’t really made for me or someone of my background. But I would be lying if I said the story being presented here wasn’t intriguing, on two levels: the idea of an undercover cop drama where the cop is black and the criminal target is the KKK, and a film about historical race relations in America at a time in the present when they appear to be disintegrating more and more. Lee has his controversies, and his duds if we’re all being honest, but you couldn’t imagine many other directors better placed to deliver on the source material here. So, is BlacKkKlansman one of those, or something worthy of greater attention?
Hired as the first black cop in 1970’s Colorado Springs, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is soon assigned to undercover cases, wherein he begins a phone relationship with members of the KKK, up to and including David Duke (Topher Grace). Utilising white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play his racist persona in person, Strickland’s investigation becomes increasingly dangerous, as it becomes clear that members of the Klan are committed to turning violent rhetoric into violent action.
I said that BlacKkKlansman intrigued me on two levels, so let’s evaluate it the same way.
As a taut police drama about cops going undercover to infiltrate a violent group of racists, it succeeds admirably. Strickland’ investigation straddles the line between tense and darkly humorous, Zimmerman’s interactions with the actual Klansmen are riven with tension and the film is edited and paced with skill. Intercutting the investigation with asides on Strickland’s relationship with Patrice (Laura Harrier), the local Black Student Union President, provides a nice opportunity for more human moments for the main character, and also allows him to fully explore what it means to be the city’s first black cop, a position that isn’t automatically one of pride. There’s a seething undercurrent of anger to this film, from both Lee’s direction and Washington’s central performance, that only gets let out fully on brief occasions, but which gives BlacKkKlansman some serious engine power. Lee is attempting a lot here, but the magnetism of the film’s central plot keeps things ticking over nicely.
Whether it’s Stallworth’s first hesitant steps into undercover work, or Zimmerman’s more tense get togethers with members of the Klan (always referred to by them as the “Organisation”), Lee demonstrates an understanding of character and the gradual ratcheting up of peril, until even something as ridiculous sounding as a “Jewish lie detector test” becomes cause for serious concern. The Klan is a multi-faceted beast in BlacKkKlansman, at one point seemingly populated by just ignorant red-necks, at others people capable of the most abhorrent violence.
There are questions aplenty to answer here, and Lee takes us through them all in what could rightfully be called a mishmash of themes, but which still somehow all ties together. Are the American police, traditionally one of the most racist institutions in America, really the right tool to go about fighting the Klan? Does unspoken cop brotherhood mean more than confronting internal racism? Is there merit to the ideals of violent black revolution, or is it better to try and change things slower and more peacefully? That large parts of the account – a planned bombing, Harrier’s character, elements of the actual undercover work – have been fictionalised doesn’t really matter: Lee knows when to change things to suit the narrative and the message.
There’s a fine cast for the director to play around with here, and not just relative newcomer Washington or current Hollywood golden boy Driver, though they do excellent work with their parts. Topher Grace as Duke, goofily disarming one moment, heinous the next, is an excellent send-up of that type of racist, and is matched by the likes of Ryan Eggold and Jasper Paakkonen, who fit the bill in a more traditional way. Harrier has limited screentime but makes the most of it, stepping beyond her very different role in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and even the minor players, like Corey Hawkins as a radical black speaker, or Robert John Burke as a racist police chief, manage to make themselves interesting parts of the scenery.
The other main angle of the film is the examination of race relations with an eye on the present day. I’ve seen comparisons between BlacKkKlansman and Django Unchained, or even The Hateful Eight, in terms of how it can be perceived as a revenge fantasy for African-Americans. Certainly, the film sensationalises elements of the real Stallworth’s investigation into the clan for the sake of drama. But there was always something a bit infantile and distracting about Tarantino’s films – not always a bad thing, in the right circumstances – that prevented them from being the hard-hitting exposes of race that the director wanted to be. Lee’s film feels a bit weightier just by being even slightly rooted in reality, and much more so by the way Lee chooses to tie his film directly to the present day situation in America. We must also have a mind for the films that Lee chooses to show or talk about inside his own creation, from blaxploitation conversations between Stallworth and Patrice, or the opening shots of Gone With The Wind: everything ties back into how races in American view each other, view others and the friction between the two.
It starts somewhat subtle, with Stallworth insisting to a superior that America would never elect someone like David Duke President, whatever his attempts at entryism. The superior admonishes him: “As a black man I didn’t think you would be that naive”. From there, Lee rapidly abandons the pretence, most notably in a scene where Duke and his compadres chant “America First!” at a meeting, and the closing scenes, real-life footage of the Charlottesville violence mixed with Donald Trumps’s infamous remarks makes the point even more clear. Yes, BlacKkKlansman is set in a past where blacks were treated appallingly. Yes, things have changed as a result of people like Stallworth. No, things haven’t changed all that much.
Lee’s direction is entrancing one moment and engaging the next. There are a number of real stand-out sequences, like a compare/contrast between the Klan exulting in a viewing of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation and an elderly black man recounting the death of Jimmy Washington, scenes of black radicals preaching revolution echo Ava DuVernay’s Selma in their power, and every encounter between Stallworth and an openly racist cop is framed just right. Alec Baldwin turns up a for a brief cameo as a racism-spewing clam member who keeps forgetting his lines for a quasi-PSA, blaxploitation-esque Dolly shots are employed and at critical moments of verbal wonderment, Lee choose to make his focus those listening to them, portrayed in cascading portrait shots.
But between his script and his cameras, Lee also has time for more comedic moments, like when Stallworth attempts to coach Zimmerman into sounding like him through a King speech, or in his various phone conversations with Duke, which rapidly take on a surreal quality, such as when Duke attempts to explain the way black people say certain words differently (Duke thinks blacks say “are” like “are-ah”). Those conversations, increasingly played for laughs until a final cathartic take-down, seem like an expose of the so called “white voice” hypocrisy, as evidence when Stallworth bitingly questions a superior, who is asking how he expects to trick the Klan into thinking he’s not black on the phone, “And what does a negro sound like?”
The closing moments of BlacKkKlansman actually verge on the surreal in a way. Without meaning to ruin the film, things seem to be coming to a close in a way so optimistic you half-think it’s going to turn out to be a dream sequence, but then Lee pulls the rug out from under you with a direct look at how the events of the 70’s aren’t all that different from events of 2018. The message seems clear: that David Duke and his ilk appear to have won after all, while the rest of us were too busy dismissing them. The United States is in distress. But in that BlacKkKlansman can also take on the visage of a rallying cry: we beat them before, and we can beat them again. Just because they’re carrying tiki torches instead of burning crosses nowadays, doesn’t make the battle all that different.
While I haven’t changed my mind too much on Lee as a somewhat over-rated director with a tendency to lose the point of his creations too easily, BlacKkKlansman is probably his best work in a long time and is easily my favourite film of his. Washington steps out from his fathers shadow here, a tense police drama and an expose of race mix well together and the film carries a powerful, timely message that more people in America and beyond could do with being exposed to the deeper we get into the rabbit hole of Trump’s disastrous Presidency. There’s light in there somewhere, and we might find it someday. Until then, it’s good to be reminded why the fight goes on. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Focus Features).