Spike Lee, 135 mins, starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Alec Baldwin, Ryan Eggold
Robes and hoods are not included with your membership fee when you join the Ku Klux Klan. You have to pay extra for those. Administration isn’t as efficient as you might hope.
Unless you’re able to call on the Grand Wizard personally to intervene on your behalf, you might have to wait some time for your membership card to arrive – and without it, you won’t be able to participate in the cross burnings and racist rallies.
Details like these are what make Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman so funny and so chilling. Lee takes a very matter of fact approach to telling the true story of detective Ron Stallworth, the young black police officer in Colorado Springs who infiltrated the KKK in the late 1970s.
Stallworth is played by John David Washington (Denzel Washington’s son), who gives a tremendous performance as the detective regarded as an outsider in the police department but seemingly welcomed with open arms by the Klan. Some of his fellow police officers are openly racist.
They humiliate him by making him do menial work in the filing office. They even call him “boy”. Stallworth, though, is a resilient and ingenious officer. He’s the local police force’s equivalent to Jackie Robinson, one of the first black men to play major league baseball, and knows he is bound to face harassment and abuse along the way.
Like Ron, Lee is always ready to use some sleight of hand in his storytelling. The cop doesn’t physically join the KKK. A Jewish white colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), stands in for him at meetings. However, Ron speaks continually on the phone with the Klansmen. He also does get to guard KKK leader David Duke (Topher Grace) and has a Polaroid taken with him.
Lee includes plenty of self-reflexive moments in which characters will talk directly to camera. The film opens with a racist academic played by Alec Baldwin giving a sinister lecture about how America is becoming “a mongrel nation”.
There are references to (and clips from) DW Griffith’s 1915 blockbuster, The Birth Of A Nation, a silent movie that portrays Klansmen as heroes – and still appears to be watched with relish by members of the KKK today. Lee also includes an account of a lynching that took place in 1916, not long after the release of The Birth Of A Nation.
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The harrowing true story of the death of teenager Jesse Washington is told by an old-timer, Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte), who was there when it happened.
BlacKkKlansman blends comic irony and outspoken polemic but still works very effectively as a hard-boiled crime drama. It’s funny, fast-paced and never loses its dramatic tension. Many of the most gripping scenes are those involving Adam Driver as the Jewish cop going undercover in the KKK, trying to convince the other Klan members he is just as proudly racist as they are.
The most suspicious, Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen), sets him all sorts of tests and traps, even at one stage trying to inspect his foreskin (“is your Jew dick circumstanced?”) but Flip is quick witted enough to keep his cover.
Lee plays up the incompetence of the Klan members and the banality of their day to day lives. They’re hospitable and welcoming to those who share their prejudices. If it wasn’t for their extreme racism, they could easily be mistaken for members of a local Rotary club.
They’re secretive and fussy about the language used to describe them. (They call themselves the “organisation”, not the Klan.) In their white robes with fiery crosses burning beside them, they may seem very intimidating but making small talk in their kitchens or sitting rooms, they’re as comical as they are sinister.
David Duke is portrayed as a smarmy, narcissistic figure with a Trump-like hairdo who feeds on flattery. He is almost purring in pleasure at the way Stallworth praises him during their telephone conversations.
Not that there is anything funny about their plot to attack the black student leader Patrice (Laura Harrier) who invited Black Power leader, Stokely Carmichael now known as Kwame Ture to talk in town.
Felix’s frumpish wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), generally confined to the kitchen during Klan meeting nights, is part of the plot to attack Patrice.
At times, the film uses the kind of grotesque slapstick you might find in a Mel Brooks satire. Racist cops are always ready to feel up the women they are arresting. If a white woman is in confrontation with a black man, they will immediately beat up the black man, no questions asked.
Lee’s work sometimes risks sensory overload. He fires off so many different ideas and storytelling styles that audiences can become bamboozled by his scattergun approach. BlacKkKlansman is one of his very best films because the digressions are as entertaining as ever but don’t get in the way of the main story.
He throws in sub-plots (the burgeoning romance between Stallworth and Patrice), dance sequences, soapbox oratory, asides about Gone With The Wind and in-jokes about blaxploitation movies such as Shaft and Coffy without forgetting this is a thriller. The cop’s cover could be blown at any minute.
It helps that the film has such strong character actors. Robert John Burke, a veteran from Hal Hartley’s indie films of the 1990s, excels as the no-nonsense police chief; Pääkkönen makes a memorably creepy villain and there’s comic pathos in Ryan Eggold’s performance as the Klansman desperate to be admired by his peers.
The depressing twist to this invigorating and entertaining tale is that for all the heroics of the Civil Rights leaders and of cops like Stallworth, nothing much changes. The film has veiled references to Donald Trump throughout.
Its most despairing moments come with its coda – newsreel footage of white supremacists in Charlottesville last summer and Trump trying to excuse their murderous excesses by claiming there are “bad dudes” on both sides.
BlacKkKlansman hits UK cinemas 24 August.
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