John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
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…a straight up, fierce, political polemical from an acknowledged master of the form, who has not and will not run out of reasons to be justifiably angry.
The weirdest thing about BlacKkKlansman is that, for most of its running time, it kind of feels like renowned filmic firebrand Spike Lee is playing softball.
It is the strangest feeling. After all, this is the filmmaker who gave us Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, and this is the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Lee regular Denzel), an African American detective who, in the 1970s, infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by the simple, ingenious gambit of calling them on the phone and pretending to be a white racist.
That’s a brilliant conceit and one worthy of one of Lee’s more provocative fictional joints, but it actually happened, as the real life Stallworth detailed in his own book. Lee’s film follows the real story reasonably closely, detailing how, with the help of white Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, whose onscreen character differs significantly from the real life model), who stands in for him at face to face meetings, the two of them together forming a kind of gestalt Ron Stallworth – one who will be liked and trusted by the Klan. As Ron wryly says, “With the right white man, we can do anything.”
Parallel to this we see Stallworth’s increasing involvement with the civil rights movement, starting when he’s assigned to undercover at a lecture by Civil rights leading light Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), where he a) gets himself good and woke to the African American plight, and b) gets hooked on black student union president Patrice Dumas (Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s Laura Harrier playing a version of radical and academic Angela Davis).
Ron gets hip to Patrice’s politically awake jive but she doesn’t know he’s a cop. Meanwhile, the ersatz Ron Stallworth is inveigling himself with the KKK, to the point where he finds himself in the orbit of David Duke (Topher Grace), avowed racist, Grand Wizard, and soon-to-be visitor to Colorado Springs. Stallworth is pretending to be two people: a politicised young black man and a racist young white man. Will the real Ron Stallworth please stand up? And what for? After all, though he may be working to undermine the white sheet brigade, the film doesn’t let us forget that the police department he’s employed by has its own less-than-sparkling history of race relations, illustrated in no small part by the way Stallworth himself is treated by one of his fellow cops. As a boy in blue, is Ron part of the problem for the black man?
It’s juicy, angry, complex material, but for the most part Lee keeps it light. BlacKkKlansman is almost a buddy comedy at times, with Ron and Flip running rings around the collection of inbred idiots and rabid dog racists that compose the local Klan chapter, the whole thing executed in a fresh and funky Blaxploitation style. It’s terrific fun, and while there are fraught moments – a traffic stop by a racist cop for one thing – and scenes of classic Spike Lee poetic rage – Alec Baldwin opens the film as an apoplectic segregationist “intellectual” – they’re isolated moments in an upbeat story of joyous, nigh bloodless, social revolution. The good cops are good, the bad racists are bad, our bright, brave, young black hero vanquishes evil and is lauded by his superiors, old white men who have seen the error of their ways.
And then Spike Lee punches you right in the face.
That’s barely an exaggeration. Lee spends over two hours lulling us into a false sense of security, then in the last ten minutes recontextualises everything that has gone before and rips away any hope of a pat, cosy feelgood ending, at the same time demonstrating that, despite a dozen or so years in the wilderness, he remains one of the most vital and vibrant voices in modern cinema. Lee knows that the risk inherent in a film like this is that (white) audiences can view it as a recreation of the bad old days – sure, things were rough then (and in the ’50s, and in the Civil War, and in…) but we’re not like that now, right? We’ve learned, we’ve changed, we’ve –
Nuh uh. No chance. BlacKkKlansman forces the viewer to acknowledge how pitifully short a distance we’ve travelled from the events it depicts, in just about the most visceral and confronting way imaginable. It’s straight up electrifying cinema, and easily one of the most important films of the year.
Which means that it’s uncomfortable and confronting and may struggle to find an audience, because very good films almost always do at this point in time. But make no mistake, BlacKkKlansman doesn’t just deserve to be seen, it needs to be – it’s a straight up, fierce, political polemical from an acknowledged master of the form, who has not and will not run out of reasons to be justifiably angry.