Spike Lee’s account of African-American detective Ron Stallworth’s efforts to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan during the 1970s is furiously funny and hugely entertaining. Given its serious subject matter, BlacKkKlansman really shouldn’t be so much fun to watch, but as Lee tells us in the film’s title captions, this surreal and farcical story is ‘based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real shit’.
Lee pokes fun at the film’s ridiculous racists with humour and style, then finally drives his point home using real photographs and video footage, jolting his audience awake to both past and present racist violence.
When Ron (John David Washington, son of Denzel) applies to become a police officer in Colorado Springs he is asked ‘if someone called you nigger, would you turn the other cheek?’ Articulate and resilient, the cool dude with the halo afro proves himself capable of this and more, asking for undercover assignments, even willing to ‘chop down the natural’ (have a haircut) to progress.
When he notices a recruitment ad for the Ku Klux Klan in a local paper Ron decides to give them a ring. So begins an unlikely pairing, as the detective seeks to infiltrate and disrupt the local hate group from within. To get around obvious obstacles, ‘Ron Stallworth’ takes on a dual persona: real Ron on the phone and colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in face-to-face meetings. ‘With the right white man,’ says Ron, ‘we can do anything.’
First they have to fool the ‘organisation’, which seems stupidly easy. But among the ramshackle rednecks is weasel-faced Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), who has a nose for non-Aryans and his own lie-detector machine to winkle them out. His wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), with her ‘homely’ hair and big-ribboned dresses, is equally up for the race war. On the eve of a planned bombing, her pillow talk is passionate: ‘we’ve been talking about killing niggers for years. This could be the new Boston Tea Party.’
Washington and Driver are both excellent, fluent and natural in the way they handle Lee’s quickfire dialogue. We get a sense of depth, with each character battling his own issues around race (Flip is Jewish), identity and working within the system. Until its tonal shift at the end, BlacKkKlansman feels like a comic thriller, with Buddy Cop elements, and can be enjoyed as such. It also features a rather sweet romance between Ron and student activist Patrice (Laura Harrier).
But this being Professor of film Spike Lee, there’s much more going on. He uses clips of ‘classic’ films to show cinema’s own collusion in fostering racism. BlacKkKlansman starts with a famous scene from Gone With the Wind (1939), the camera sweeping over the American Civil War’s dead and wounded, tattered Confederate flag at the edge of the frame. Cut to a mocked-up vintage film of a fictional white supremacist Dr Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) spewing racist vitriol and stoking paranoia (‘we are under attack’), accompanied by shots from The Birth of a Nation (1915).
In one of BlacKkKlansman‘s most memorable scenes members of the Klan sit watching D.W. Griffith’s silent cinematic landmark (originally called The Clansman), munching on popcorn and cheering their hooded heroes. This is the film credited with rejuvenating the KKK, who were a spent force at the time, and it lead directly to racist murder.
At the end of BlacKkKlansman the link between the 1970s and the present is made explicit, with video footage taken at the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in Virginia, in which protester Heather Heyer was murdered. KKK leader David Duke, who appears as a character in Lee’s film, is interviewed at the rally, and we also see President Trump’s revealing response (‘very fine people on both sides’).
Spike Lee might be preaching to the converted but he is also on a mission to get people to register to vote, so that America can be free of the toxic ‘Agent Orange’ (Lee’s nickname for Trump). The fight against institutionalized racism, police brutality and ‘red, white and blue homegrown terrorism’ continues.
Stylistically, BlacKkKlansman is shot in grainy 35 mm to emulate the look of Spike Lee’s favourite Seventies movies such as The French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon. The saturated colours during its disco scene bring to mind Scorcese’s Mean Streets, and BlacKkKlansman features a jukebox soundtrack to match. Always a pleasure to hear Jean Knight’s Mr Big Stuff and The Temptations’ Ball of Confusion, but even better to hear a new (to me) soul gem, 1972’s It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now (Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose).