Spike Lee is a passionate and prolific filmmaker, but few would deny that it’s been a while since he released anything of real gravitas. BlacKkKlansman is therefore, far and away the most exciting movie he’s made in years, even though (perhaps typically for him), it’s far from a straightforward proposition.
Take the opening scenes for example. We get that famous sequence from Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett O Hara wanders through hordes of injured Confederate troops and then cut to a 1950s KKK recruitment film shoot featuring Alec Baldwin as ‘Dr Kinnebrew Beauregard,’ spouting his white supremacist worldview as scenes from D W Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation are projected onto his face. The problem with this is that we’ve already been advised that the film is based on a true story – yet Beauregard is a completely fictional character, a twist that seems to undermine Lee’s good intentions. Why not feature the words of a genuine racist? There are surely plenty to choose from.
But then we are into the ‘fo’ real shit’ as Lee likes to call it – and I can’t help thinking that if this wasn’t a true story, nobody would believe it ever happened. It’s the 1970s and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black man ever employed by the Colorado Springs Police Department. He is eventually allowed to prove his worth and is promoted to the role of undercover cop and, on a slow day in 1979, he impulsively decides to answer a newspaper ad by the Klu Kux Klan, who are looking to form a new chapter. He does this by simply picking up the phone and giving them a call. He hits it off with the man on the other end of the line, former soldier Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), by telling him that he hates blacks, Jews and homosexuals and, on that merit, is promptly invited to pop along for an informal chat.
Obviously, that won’t work, so Stallworth talks his white fellow-cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into impersonating him for the meeting. Despite his Jewish upbringing (the KKK are, after all, equal opportunities racists), Zimmerman manages to infiltrate the organisation, even hooking up with head honcho David Duke (Topher Grace). Meanwhile, Stallworth is becoming romantically involved with black rights activist, Patrice Dumarr (Laura Harrier), who is unaware that he is a police officer and clearly won’t be pleased if she ever finds out…
The tone of the film veers alarmingly between laugh-out-loud depictions of the KKK’s trusting naivety, sprightly ‘afros and flares’ nightclub scenes, full-tilt action sequences and searing polemics about historical injustice. Veteran screen actor Harry Belafonte appears as Jerome Turner, relating the true story of the horrific murder of black teenager, Jesse Washington, accused of raping a white woman in 1916 (the same year that Birth of a Nation was released). This is intercut with scenes at a Klan get-together, where the film is being screened to an enthusiastic crowd. It’s a powerful concept, beautifully shot, but it’s a tad overlong and there remains the overall conviction that, trimmed down a little, the film could have made all the same points just as effectively. It’s as though, Lee, enthused by the project, wants to throw in every idea he has – and sometimes, less is more. But that said, there’s still plenty to enjoy here, not least Washington’s solid and immensely likeable performance in the lead. Driver is good too, but then, I don’t think I’ve seen him make a bad job of any role he’s undertaken.
Just when I think the whole things’s being neatly wrapped up with a pink bow, Lee brings me suddenly and shockingly up to date, with a montage of recent real life footage that sends the audience stumbling out into the night in stunned silence. There is no doubting the director’s commitment to the cause of black rights and no arguing with his view that the world is in dire danger of slipping back into the kind of horrors we thought had been vanquished forever. It’s a sobering moment.
BlacKkKlansman may not be perfect, but it’s nonetheless a heartfelt and important movie that stays with me, long after viewing.