Spike Lee is one of cinema’s most controversial and influential African-American filmmakers and his latest offering is a brilliantly executed experience. But, be warned, it contains moments of extreme racism.
Lee manages to convey his unique storytelling power through a rollercoaster of emotions. These range from comic to heroic and from tragic to ridiculous.
There are horrifying moments, too, in this vibrantly constructed, well acted exercise, which effortlessly shifts tones and styles, but still retains its primary objective, to satirise and entertain.
Based on a crazy true story, BlacKkKlansman follows the fortunes of Ron Stallworth (a commanding John David Washington), an African-American detective in the Colorado Springs police force, as he orchestrates infiltrating the notorious Ku Klux Klan in the mid-1970s.
He passes as white over the phone but he allows fellow Jewish cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to pose as Stallworth’s white avatar at actual Klan meetings. Lee seizes every opportunity in that startling setup to play with the notions of identity and belonging, aspects that have always provided fuel to his work.
Before his Klan investigation, Ron’s first assignment is to go undercover at a Stokely Carmichael speech. There, he meets and falls for local college activist leader Patrice (Laura Harrier), and even as he woos her, he tries and fails to stop her from using the word pig to describe cops.
Ron remains loyal to the force, but he’s also moved by Patrice’s passion and righteousness. In many ways, Ron’s investigation feels like an attempt to solve this tension between his dedication to police work and his growing sense of activism.
He is determined to reconcile his two tribes by going after a common adversary.
This identity awakening also affects his partner Flip, who repeatedly gets questioned by Klan members if he’s a Jew. He later confides to Ron that, while he is Jewish, he wasn’t raised with any real religion or sense of difference. He says he never thought about it before, but thanks to these constant accusations and hatred he’s thinking about it all the time.
Lee’s creative genius shines through in his message. He goes to great pains to illustrate through this absorbing narrative that the many seemingly disparate elements of a person’s psyche are all connected.
Identity is a key element here. It resonates on an ever-shifting canvas through his vivid depiction of three diverse tribes; the police, the black activists and the Klan.
The Klan are depicted as a bunch of illiterate, low-life bullies. They are dangerous people, but also an hilariously incompetent collection of ignorant brutes and slack-jawed local yokels.
Topher Grace portrays the repugnant David Duke, the Klan’s Grand Wizard, who succumbs to Ron’s ruse and his praise of this racist organisation. In Grace’s hands the character comes across as quite chilling and surreal.
Lee resists closure, reconciliation, or catharsis, and demonstrates no interest in keeping things formally unified. What is the use of that kind of unity in a society that is rapidly falling apart, he appears to ask.
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver
Director: Spike Lee
Classification: 16 BDLPV