An incendiary, essential movie for a dangerous time.
There’s a particularly startling scene towards the end of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, when the white cloaked and hooded idiots are gathered for an initiation ceremony, and they celebrate with a viewing of D.W. Griffith’s infamous The Birth of a Nation. This is intercut with a black power meeting, led by an elderly man who is recounting his tales of suffering and the atrocities he’s had to witness against his people. We watch as the Klan members yell racist language and cheer on the poorly aged film (it’s really not appropriate anymore – not that it was anyway), whereas the other group are far more civilised, restrained in their grief but with a quiet will to rebel and revolt against a country that has wronged them. Lee’s allusion to the classic film isn’t coincidental – it notoriously gave rise to all sorts of violence, such as the lynching of African-Americans across the country. This is his revenge; this is Lee lynching America.
As the opening credits pronounce, this is “based on some fo real, fo real shit.” When Ron Stallworth (John Washington) becomes the first black person to join the Colorado police force, he has his eyes set on something more than organising records in the file room. He decides to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan, using a white surrogate in the form of fellow detective ‘Flip’ Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Stallworth phones the Klan, organizes the meetings, but Zimmerman goes in his place (naturally). You may be thinking, “Surely they’d be able to tell their voices apart?” Surprising, they’re not all that different; characters do pick up on it mildly, but it’s not so different it would warrant much attention.
Lee establishes very early on that he is angry. He opens the feature with a promotional video, brilliantly acted by Alec Baldwin, propelling a typically discriminatory agenda, attacking on all cylinders at African-Americans and Jews. Rather hilariously though, Baldwin’s character constantly messes up his lines, exclaiming and flustering each time he does – it’s a reminder that this sort of extreme hate can’t be natural, it has to be rehearsed.
From there begins Stallworth’s incredible story; we watch as he strolls up to the police station, tending to his stylish hairdo. This is 1970s Colorado, a place with a mixture of views on African-Americans. Many people are as accepting as they should be, but there’s plenty who would like to see their town as a Black-free zone, even some of the police officers themselves (a pull-over scene reminiscent of 2004’sCrashhelps reinforce this further). But none of it ever feels crass or out of sync with reality – it’s a hard pill to swallow, knowing the world was and is still like that.
Lee and his team of writers (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott) have pulled absolutely no punches in the script. It’s a fearless creation, littered with appalling language that yes, is appropriate for the context, but no matter its frequency, never loses its enraging impact. Lee normalizes such horrible attitudes admirably, but infuses some stellar comedy into the mix (the influence of producer Jordan Peele is very clear in these moments), evoking the sort of nervous chuckle similar to when you watch something like Borat, or What Is America?. You’ll laugh at the outrageousness of their camaraderie, the jollies the Klan get from meeting their ‘Grand Wizard’ David Duke (a terribly amusing performance by Topher Grace), but quiver in their fierce aggression against minorities, shudder as they hauntingly burn a cross.
Washington, the son of a certain Denzel, may have a charming resemblance to his father (particularly in his uncanny laugh), but he very much makes the role his own, certifying himself as an iconic hero in Lee’s filmography. He channels a swagger and quirkiness into his performance; remarkable considering the subject matter he’s at the centre of. Watching him tangle with Duke over the phone is a hilarious novelty that never gets old. Driver is the real star here though, utterly dedicated to the script that doesn’t lend him much decency, often making him say unspeakable things. The sad thing is none of it is shocking because it’s unrealistic – it’s shocking because this is happening.
Amidst the passion of the material and the discriminatory dialogue, Lee has allowed himself to be slightly blinded by his ambition. There are scenes cut in a puzzling fashion, like moving shots that stop for no rational reason, often leaving you a little disorientated. The music is mismatched, appropriately funky in some moments but abruptly and unnecessarily heroic in others. This only helps uneven the tone of experience, jumping from conversation to conversation without much breathing room to take in the atmosphere of each scene. Lee’s tendency to do this lessens in the tremendous, almost perfect third act – a tour-de-force of thrilling filmmaking that beautifully ties all the events leading up to the pleasing climax together. The true story is an absolute triumph in its respective scale, but ultimately it’s a film without much grand resolution, something Lee is very keen to remind us of. A signature dolly shot introduces harrowing real-life footage of the atrocious events in Charlottesville last year. Said to be an inspiration for this work, it’s hard to not see why. You’ll want to look away, you’ll want it to stop, but Lee isn’t just here to entertain us – he’s here to educate us, show us the disturbing world in which we live, and show us what happens when America is governed by someone whose priorities are not in line with what’s right.