THIS BRILLIANT MOVIE is the successful result of some wild directorial risk taking. Essentially, Spike Lee manages to effortlessly combine laugh out a loud black comedy, cum buddy movie with news footage and fierce, passionate anger. It really shouldn’t work. But it does, quite spectacularly. So that even though you know in the few feel good moments that the director is going to pull the rug from under you, when it happens it’s both shocking and cliché busting.
The story centres on the (real life) undercover penetration of the KKK by a black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his White (Jewish) doppelgänger Flip (Adam Driver). Ron is the smooth, white sounding voice on the phone that insinuates himself into the local KKK chapter; Flip is the public face to the voice (and, ironically, the one in the face of clear and present danger from the White Supremacists he’s forced to cosy up to)
It’s a wildly ludicrous story that’s so far fetched it could only be true.
The narrative is bracketed by two powerful vignettes: It begins with a scene from Gone With the Wind. We see that movie’s final shot of Scarlett O’Hara searching for her lover among the serried rows of the war wounded and dead. The scene slowly pans to a flapping, torn Confederate flag (an icon that punctuates many of the scenes). This image was meant to suggest the passing of an era.
Not so fast, Lee suggests. The militant nostalgia for the all-white values of an antebellum South are alive and well in the seething, cross-burning Klan, an organisation as antiemetic as it is racist.
BlacKKKlansman’s closing vignettes replay news footage from the recent Charleston riots when Nazi Supremacists (Let’s just call them what they are: terrorists) attacked a crowd and were exonerated by their White supremacist President.
Lee is suggesting that the race issues that sparked the Civil War have never gone away.
The past is the present… the grim reality of USA circa 2018.
The story is strategically set in the late sixties, the mid point between Emancipation and today; the point when post Civil war anger finally began to manifest itself, just as Black pride and Black resistance, stoked by a charismatic Stokley Carmichael began to rise.
It was a time… of Afros, Vietnam, Blaxploitation movies, David Duke, the Black Panthers, cross burning and of course racist police harassment. It’s presented as a neat foreshadowing of today…this recent past viewed through the prism of a sort of seeding ground for today’s mainstream MAGA racism. But it was also a time when the integrationist dream of Black and White cops working together like Ron and Flip and their entire department – an oasis of togetherness in a desert of institutional racism – could have become a reality. At a meta level this is the director’s own moment of nostalgic yearning.
The careful balance in this absurdist serio-comic take between the political and the personal is made to work because Lee allows his characters their full scope to develop as people, not mere symbols or expressions of a theme.
John David Washington (The US TV series, Ballers) is almost as charismatic an actor as his father (Denzil). His Ron Stallworth is an earnest, naive, super-confident man with the endearing swagger of someone who’s as proud of his job (as the Colorado PD’s first “coloured officer”) as of his well manicured ‘fro.
As his sidekick, Adam Driver gives one of his better (understated) performances as a person forced to reluctantly come to terms with his Jewishness. Even the miscellany of Klansmen are also nicely sketched, from the ever suspicious, slightly manic Fritz (Jasper Paakkonen from Vikings) and his adoring wife (Ashlie Atkinson) desperate to prove her Supremacist loyalty. There is a chilling scene in which the two of them are nuzzling each other lovingly while they make plans to blow up a Black gathering.
In one of the final scenes, the Klansmen have gathered, under the auspices of David Duke, to anoint the new recruits. Part of the anointment ceremony is a cathartic viewing of the bilious Birth of a Nation.
“The horror, the horror” of US race relations is its dangerous offspring.
BLACKKKLANSMAN. Dir: Spike Lee. With: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Alec Baldwin. Writers: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee. Cinematographer: Chayse Irvin (Hannah). Composer: Terence Blanchard (Inside Man)