BlacKkKlansman – Film Review
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Herrier
Runtime: 135 minutes
Out now on general release
BlacKkKlansman follows the journey of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American officer of Colorado Springs Police Department, as he advances through the ranks from filing records to undercover detective, his own racial profile enabling him to infiltrate the Black Panthers. The plot becomes more complex when Ron seizes an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke, gaining membership and personal endorsements over the phone while his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) attends the Klan meetings posing as Stallworth, in another undercover operation.
Spike Lee’s latest offering took the Grand Prix at Cannes and it’s easy to see why. In both content and form this is a film that defies categorisation, a cinematic multiplicity that operates on many levels, often simultaneously, from the direct to the complex and demanding. BlacKkKlansman is everything that a film on the big screen should and could be; experiencing it in the cinema is to experience the best of what cinema-going – as a real, visceral, informative and entertaining experience – can be.
Incredibly, BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth that dates back to 1973 as revealed in his book, Black Klansman, Race, Hate and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime, adapted and re-written by Lee, Rabinowitz, Watchel and Keith Willmott, the latter of whom also scripted the mighty Chi-Raq, Lee’s last cinematic revelation. Loaded with binary pairs, the film circulates between various dialogues – between Ron’s African-American heritage and Flip’s Jewish identity, how they are revealed and concealed, how they afford and debar them from opportunities; between the differing standpoints of Ron and Patrice on the ambitions of black power; on the rule of law and unlawful rule; on action movies and documentaries… the more you look, the more you find in BlacKkKlansman.
But there is one central dialogue that rises above all: the dialogue between Spike Lee and Hollywood. Spike Lee subverts the history of American cinema simply by making the films that he does and here we find subtext becoming explicit as Klan members whoop and holler, gorging themselves on popcorn with sickly triumph as DW Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation gallops across the screen. The narrative arc of the film is self-reflexive, nothing is discreet, everything is imbued with multi-layered meanings often articulated explicitly by arguments between the central characters. So we see a romantic scene with soft focus, bokeh and 70’s sunlight hues skewing the colouration as Ron and Patrice stroll along a riverside promenade before the scene evolves into a split screen critique and discussion of blaxploitation movies of the era.
It is because of the film’s diversity of scope, the fact that Lee is wrestling, as was the real Ron Stallworth, with the many and varied tentacles of institutionalised, deeply-embedded racism that for brief moments, the switches between exposition, documentary and the central narrative result in an uneven tone that threatens to eject the viewer from the ‘moment’ of the film. But as soon as this begins to happen, Lee is deft enough to bring you right back into your chair with the feeling that there are so many aspects of the battle he is fighting, he must use every weapon in his armoury… and yet, as he knows and as the despicable scenes from Charlottesville remind us, seemingly it can never be enough.
In some ways, this is the simplest of stories once stripped back to its bare bones yet in Spike Lee’s hands it is incendiary. BlacKkKlansman is darkly comedic, riveting and tense, thrilling and urgent in both its power to entertain and to challenge the audience. I left the cinema, my eyes stinging, literally unable to speak, wondering how long this story will need to be told and retold, told and retold over and over again? It is clear that in the post-truth age, Spike Lee is a master communicator, as for all its technical, cinematic innovation, BlacKkKlansman speaks truth to power and amongst our increasingly virtual lives, you can feel the weight of its veracity.
Check out the trailer for BlacKkKlansman here:
All words by Lee Ashworth. More writing by Lee Ashworth can be found at his author’s archive. Lee Ashworth is also on twitter as @Lee_Ashworth_ and has a website here. He is one half of The Manchester Art Authority.