TL;DR – Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is at times hilarious, at times deeply provoking, and at no time will it hold your hand as it explores the deep centred racism in America (spoiler: it is not just America)
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
I was not one hundred per cent sure what it was that I was getting myself into when I walked into to see BlacKkKlansman. I knew it was about a black police officer infiltrating the KKK and that it was based on a true story but that was about it. Spike Lee is a filmmaker whose work I am unfortunately not that familiar with, so was this going to be a comedy, was it going to play it straight, was it going to do both while being deeper for it? Well with that in mind let’s take a look at the race relations of the 1970s which in no way reflects on America of today … in no way …
So to set the scene, in 1972 Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is hired as the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. While this is meant to be a step forward for race relations, Ron is hidden away in the records room taking abuse from his fellow police officers. That is until one day an important African-Amerian activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) comes to town and they need someone to go undercover at the speech and well every other member of the police force would stand out. It is here where he meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) one of the event organisers, and listens to the speech which focuses on promoting the cause of African people from white oppression, up to and including armed resistance. Happy with his success the police decide to move Ron into the intelligence division and on his first day he responds to an ad in the paper about a new KKK chapter starting up in the town. One slight problem, just a small thing really, but it kind of won’t work if they ever have a face to face meeting. So Ron enlists officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), Ron is Ron on the phone, and Flip is Ron in person, and all of it flows from there.
The first thing I really appreciated about the film is that right from the start it is very clear about what the subtext, and well sometimes the literal text of the film is. Indeed we open on Alec Baldwin doing a pitch-perfect rendition of a 1970s Alex Jones type character, only with veiled racism replaced with literal unabashed racism. This film is not only a spotlight on one of the more fascinating real-world events that I have heard but also mirror on contemporary society because we are not as far removed from the 1970s as we might like to think we are. All of this is crafted by some truly wonderful performances by actors sometimes playing truly repugnant roles. Now, of course, a lot of the attention has been focused on the two lead actors John David Washington and Adam Driver, and there is a very good reason for that. They command every scene they are in but for very different reasons, John by the very nature of the role he is playing draws your eye every moment he is on screen, and backs that up with one of the more nuanced portrayals that I have seen of someone living in two worlds. Driver is playing a character that is much more reserved, and who reveals small parts of himself over the course of the film. All of this is supported by a supporting cast that helps create a world that both feels like an alien relic of the past but also inescapably familiar today.
It also excels with the themes it is exploring and how they present that for the world to see. The first is the role of the KKK and its members. In many films, it is easy to cast the KKK as stupid rednecks lost in the past because their lack of intelligence, now to be fair, in many cases like Django Unchained that is because they are being used to ridicule the modern KKK, and have at I say. However, here we look at the KKK as it exists in reality, and like many other terrorist or extremist groups, sure there are the fools or those who are just looking for violence, but then there are also those who are incredibly intelligent, and are very capable of creating and implementing tactics to forward their despicable goals. As well as this, I really liked the dissection of the debate around historically corrupt or racist organisations. Can you change them from within, or must you tear them down and start again? It is a question that there is not one clear answer to, and it was interesting to see that discussion play out between Ron and Patrice throughout the film.
All of this is added to with how the film is constructed, filmed, and edited together. There are these moments where they almost create a cinematic bait and switch where they present something as almost benign and then shift the framing to show you just how horrific it really is. Like when the KKK members go for some target practice, for all of that sequence we see everything down range with the targets behind us, with only the sound of bullets hitting metal to indicate something is odd. However, as everyone leaves we spin around and see that what they were firing at were metal cutouts of African children, and horrific caricatures of African children as well. There are also several moments in the film where it almost breaks the fourth wall in a very Brechtian manner. These are moments when BlacKkKlansman moves almost into an educational mode explaining parts of the history of African-Americans that people might not know about like Blaxploitation films or parts of American history that has been almost purposefully suppressed like the practice of lynching. Looking at Spike Lee’s filmography he does have a strong history of making documentaries, and it was really interesting seeing some of those techniques added to a dramatic film. Also, it takes a moment to look at the power of film to shape public option and not always for the better, as The Birth of a Nation the first film shown in the White House directly led to the reformation of the KKK.
However, the one thing that elevates BlacKkKlansman from being a great film into being an excellent one is in its ending, and of course, to talk about the ending of the film there will clearly be [SPOILERS] for the rest of this paragraph. Throughout the film there were these moments where I interpreted it as the film almost winking at the audience, like for example when Sergeant Trapp (Ken Garito) let’s Ron know that some of his contacts told him that David Duke (Topher Grace) the current Grand Wizard of the KKK has been trying to shape the public view of the organisation so that he could better make a run for politics or make sure his candidate of choice made it to the presidency. This along with images of Nixon that the film lingers on just that little bit too long to be accidental and other hints all paint a picture as to who is the key target of the film. However, I thought that it was going to remain at just that hints to the audience, but no. So at the end of the film, there is no real happy ending for any of the characters though we do get one more laugh at David Duke’s expense, and the more mockery of him the better. Just as we are contemplating that lack of a happy ending as a cross burns in the background we hard cut to the events of Charlottesville and President Donald J Trump’s offensive response finally ending on the terrorist attack that happened in the city days later. The attack is shown in all its detail and people go flying through the air as the car hits them. As this played out there was complete silence in the cinema as a wave of shock rippled through the room. I grew up in the era of 9/11 to the point where I thought I had become desensitised to seeing events like this on screen, but it is clear that that is not the case. All throughout the film, there is this tendency to comfortably take all the despicable language and actions of the characters in the film and say, well that is the 1970s, that is not today, but the end of the film is there to not give you that luxury.
In the end, do we recommend BlacKkKlansman? Yes, yes we do. It is not going to be an easy film to watch by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it is an important one and if there is ever a more pressing time for it, well then I don’t know. Before I leave, I should also note that this is not something where we can just go ‘oh America’ here in Australia as I was writing this very review an Australian Senator used his maiden speech in Parliament to argue for a ban on Islamic immigration, pay tribute to the White Australia Policy, and “The final solution to the immigration problem.” This is an issue we all need to confront across the globe and we need to confront it now.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of BlacKkKlansman
Directed by – Spike Lee
Screenplay by – Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel & Kevin Willmott
Based on – Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth
Music by – Terence Blanchard
Cinematography by – Chayse Irvin
Edited by – Barry Alexander Brown
Starring – John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Paul Walter Hauser, Michael Buscemi, Ashlie Atkinson, Robert John Burke, Ken Garito, Frederick Weller, Nicholas Turturro, Isiah Whitlock Jr. & Alec Baldwin
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: 12; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R