Film review Jason Day of BlacKkKlansman, the Spike Lee directed thriller about a black policeman going undercover and posing as a new member of the Ku Klux Klan with a view to dismantling it from within. Starring John David Washington and Adam Driver.
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Rookie cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) starts his police career for the Colorado Springs for stuck in the files department. Cocky, ambitious and hungry for action, he pushes himself forward for undercover work and quickly finds himself a unique opportunity. Spotting an advert for the Ku Klux Klan in a local paper, he poses as a white man wanting to sign up. The KKK take the bait and Stallwood finds himself coaching Jewish colleague Flip (Adam Driver) to pretend to be him in order to bring down the Klan’s chief David Duke (Topher Grace).
I love movies that bristle with signs and symbols in the background – semiology saturation and BlacKkKlansman is full of them.
During a Black Power speech, the speaker’s head obscures part of the word ‘Colorado’. The banner appears to read: ‘Color College Student Union’, close-ups of African American audience members faces then fill the screen.
At a KKK meeting in a church hall, a black man is stood between two white racists, the stained glass window showing redemption from an angel and the inscription above: ‘Thyne O’Lord is the victory’.
BlacKkKlansman almost gave this critic, a nerd for such things, an eyegasm. Thank you, Spike Lee.
The reinvigorated ‘New Black Cinema’ of the past half decade has helped showcase many fresh talents so it’s good to see one of the Old Guard back in the directors chair. Lee shows these new whipper-snappers that the boss is still very much alive..and kicking the hell out of the competition’s modern swish.
He even indulges himself a few tricks of the old-time director’s magic box: split-screens and screen ‘wipes’.
Old Guard but not ancient, he still knows and references his cinematic antiquity. We open with a clip of the melodramatically racist Gone With the Wind (1939), satirising it as a troubled Scarlett O’Hara is seen amidst a sea of inured Civil War soldiers, Vivien Leigh’s voice comically dubbed, making her sound even fake and hysterical.
Far older is what was a deadly a piece of cinema and another Civil War picture, The Birth of a Nation (1915), clips of which feature prominently here.
Lee doesn’t need try hard at satirising this movie. For modern eyes, the ridiculous action, members of the KKK depicted as angelic saviours on horseback and the crude depictions of blacks slovenly, rapacious villains portrayed by white actors ‘blacked up’ render it instantly laughable.
But in 1915 when it was first released, the film was seen by millions and taken as gospel by many white people. It led to a dramatic resurgence of interest in the Ku Klux Klan. Its damaging mass popularity is one reason why America still reels from racial divides. The Birth Of a Nation became one of the, if not the, highest grossing movie of the entire silent movie era.
We don’t need to say that it goes without saying there are ace performances in this film. Washington (yes, son of Denzel) is a charismatic, bolshy leading man and he, Adam Driver and Mike Buscemi (yes, brother of Steve) make a fantastic trio. Despite the racism in the police force both then and now, Lee concentrates on the camaraderie of these men and their professional approach to rooting out hatred, things they have in common rather than their different skin colour.
(NB: It’s funny that Lee looks to the past, when there was much racial unrest, as the setting for a story of hopeful reconciliation between black and white people. His modern-era set movies reflect how much more work is to be done. Is he jokingly looking through rose-tinted glasses? Or does he truly feel that there was the whiff of progress in the air?)
Washington’s cool, calm, level-headed, almost jocular performance fixes your attention and shows he may need a bigger award shelf than his father in the future.
Mightily impressive too is Laura Harrier, who proves to be more Washington’s equal than a common-or-garden foxy Cleopatra Jones.
That symbolism continues as Lee plays with the duality of scenes. The KKK initiation led by David Duke (Topher Grace), with their hate filled rituals and diatribe, is followed by a champagne dinner reception in which black men wait on their white guests, jaws slamming on the floor at the job they have been given.
At the same time in another setting an old man (played by gravelly voiced 50’s crooner Harry Belafonte, no less) recounts the wrongful conviction for rape and subsequent torture of a mentally disabled black man.
One group wants to annihilate, the other wants a paradigm shift. One argues for more blood shed, the other emotionally recounting the spilling of it.
Lee seems to be in reflective mode here, giving a more nuanced view of this troubling social issue than I was expecting: black power and white supremacy are two sides of the same coin, with history and politics favouring what side is flipped up at any given time.
Lee’s film is marked by stunningly obvious comparisons; he literally deals in black and white. After footage of modern racial unrest in the States, the final image he presents us with is the star spangled banner that fades from red, white and blue to black and white.
There is no grey area. The lines are not so much drawn throughout the film, as branded onto you.
Is his approach ‘sledgehammer cracking nut’? Do we need subtlety? I usually argue for it in movies, but perhaps in this case Lee is bang on for not shying away from giving us a good filmic ass-whooping.
Nearly 50 years after the events depicted in this film, we are nowhere nearer to tackling racial inequality. In fact, given the emphasis here on the Trump administration, we are probably set back a few years. If Lee had balked at stating the bleeding obvious then this peppy, smart and knowingly written movie would have had much less impact.
One one of the final scenes reveals David Duke sat alone in his office, the clock ticking loudly telling us his time is nearly up. His new found pals have been killed by their own inept hand and Duke is mocked by black and white people who enjoy professional companionship and the possibility of friendship.
Perhaps in real-life, too, we are slowly edging nearer to this than what Duke represents.
Cast & credits
Director: Spike Lee. 2hr 15 mins (135mins). 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks/Blumhouse Productions/Legendary/Monkeypaw Productions/Perfect World Pictures/QC Entertainment/Universal. (15)
Producers: Jason Blum, Spike Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele, Shaun Redick.
Writers: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee.
Camera: Chayse Irvin.
Music: Terence Blanchard.
Sets: Curt Beech.
John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Michael Buscemi, Robert John Burke, Topher Grace, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Alec Baldwin.