Review: BlacKkKlansman

I saw this a while back and decided to try my hand at a review. It’s been so long! 

Spike_Lee_Cannes_2018

Spike Lee at Cannes earlier this year (via Wikimedia Commons)

Spike Lee has spent much of his long directorial career making sense of the black American experience. His latest film, BlacKkKlansman, is by turns shocking, comic and moving.

Based on a true story, it follows a young black policeman, Ron Stallworth (a brilliant performance by John David Washington), one of the first African Americans to join the Colorado Springs police force in the 1970s. Shunted into the records room, dreams of going undercover.

He gets his wish when he sent to infiltrate a student meeting led by the prominent activist Kwame Ture. In one of the film’s most visually striking scenes, Ture encourages the attendees to embrace their physical features, despite society telling them that black people cannot be beautiful. Stallworth visibly struggles with the internal conflict of working for the police and the stirring of his own identity. He also meets the serious Patrice (Laura Harrier) and they strike up a relationship. This is only the first of the many compartmentalisations Stallworth is forced to embrace over the course of the film. Patrice loathes the police and when she is arrested and sexually harassed by one of Stallworth’s racist colleagues, it’s hard to blame her.

After the success of his first mission, Stallworth is assigned to the undercover team full time. When he sees a classified newspaper ad for those interested in joining the Ku Klux Klan, he calls the number. Soon, Stallworth has charmed the head of the local KKK chapter, Walter (Ryan Eggold), who is eager to meet a new enthusiastic white supremacist in person. There’s just one very obvious problem…

Stallworth persuades his colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go in his stead, and soon the combined phone persona of Ron and the physical affability of Flip lead to the KKK unwittingly admitting a black man and a Jew into their ranks. The local branch is the usual mixture of malcontents and drunks, riven by tensions between Walter and the menacingly volatile Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen). Lee captures well the wasted energy of these people, and I was struck by the thought several times while watching how little else you must have going for you if having white skin is your main source of pride.

The white-pride version of Stallworth is so successful that he is soon on the phone to the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke. In an inspired piece of casting, this real-life figure is played by Topher Grace, who most of us remember as the amiable and slightly dweeby Eric Forman in That 70s Show. Here, he brings that same nebbish energy to the figure of Duke, somehow making the hateful rhetoric coming out of his mouth even worse. And when Duke comes to Colorado Springs for a KKK event, Stallworth is assigned to guard him.

BlacKkKlansman is pretty disturbing at times, but it’s also incredibly funny. Lee invites us to laugh at the inherent ridiculousness of an organisation like the KKK, where silly notions of purity in an immigrant nation like America are impossible to uphold. Washington brings wit and swagger to the character of Stallworth, and the audience can’t help but cheer on his humiliation of the KKK and the racists in his own police department.

John_David_Washington

John David Washington (via Wikimedia Commons)

That’s not to say that there isn’t a serious point behind all the laughter. Lee explores the conflict within many black people about their place in US society. Others will be able to comment on this in a more educated manner than I could, being a white person in a mostly white society. However, Washington ably demonstrates the shock of those who encounter real prejudice for the first time after a lifetime of being told their race, gender, orientation etc. should not hold them back. Stallworth’s awakening to his own identity is powerful. Likewise, the legendary Harry Belafonte has a moving cameo as an older man describing a lynching he witnessed. And in the time of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s clear the issues of police brutality have not gone away.

The last five minutes of the film are the most shocking of all. Lee pulls us abruptly out of the 1970s, to the present day. He shows us the full footage of the incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist rally in 2017 ended with the death of a counter protestor, Heather Heyer, when a car ploughed into the crowd. My boyfriend and I admitted we had not watched this footage in full at the time, as there had been a number of similar attacks at the time and we had, quite frankly, zoned out. It is horrifying, even for those of us jaded by brutal news cycles. Even more horrifying is President Trump’s insistence, which Lee shows us straight after, that there were “bad people on both sides”. There is a lot of rubbish talked about race and immigration these days, but Lee’s film brings us back to basics with a bang. Racism is inexcusable and while America continues to tolerate organisations like the KKK, there is little hope for progression.

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