Review

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Director: Spike Lee

Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace

Running time: 135 minutes

4-stars

In 1970’s Colorado, African American police detective Ron Stallworth (Washington) goes undercover and successfully infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

Cinema is created purely for entertainment purposes. Discuss?
(10 marks)

According to director Spike Lee, it is impossible to make a film that is wholly absent of politics – the choice not to address the political climate in some way is a political choice in itself. A topic for meaty discussion if ever there was one, but for a filmmaker who has built a career around voicing the African American experience – Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X – it’s unsurprising that his latest film has political agenda in abundance. And then some.

BlacKkKlansman, by its very title – bringing together ‘Black’, ‘KKK’ and ‘Klan’ – and premise – an African American detective infiltrating the infamous KKK – is almost too outlandish for it to be anything but a true story.

Adapted from the memoirs of his real-life on-screen counterpart, John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth: an assured African American detective (the first in the Colorado police department) who requests to go undercover to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In order to be successful, however, Stallworth singular must become Stallworth plural, as Ron enlists the help of colleague Flip Zimmerman (Driver – the man who can currently do no wrong), to be the face behind his telephone voice. Inevitably, this throws up all manner of complication and threat of exposure; but, remarkably, the pair are able to convince chapter leader Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) into integrating him into the Klan.

But Ron himself has been infiltrated – with a confliction that sees an inner battle between a loyalty to a police department riddled with racist officers, and the inspiring activism he witnesses in his growing interaction with plucky Colorado College black student union president, Patrice (Harrier). It’s a tug-of-war between heritage and professionalism that gives added fleshing to Stallworth’s character, and a delicate intricacy to couple the narrative’s damningly broad strokes.

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Unsurprisingly, it’s the implausibility of Ron’s story that opens the door for much of BlacKkKlansman’s dark, often ironic, humour to run riot – Stallworth and KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Grace) complimenting each other over the phone on their shared hatred for all things non-white being one such example. But, Lee’s film is largely a delicate balancing act. With a script that certainly doesn’t pull its punches in its use of racial slur, BlacKkKlansman is an at times fiercely funny film, painting Klan members as uninformed, dim-witted buffoons who say ‘circumstance’ when they mean ‘circumcise’, but one that remains firmly underpinned by the fact that that same comical ignorance breeds a most terrifying evil.

Lee’s film might have narrative hinges generously oiled with satire, but those hinges are bolted stiffly to a cinematic door that connects the shocking past to the damning present. Combining 70’s Blaxploitation tropes with horrifying historical realism and sobering commentary on the world today, Lee’s self-labelled “contemporary period piece” bears the bitter fruits of one of America’s darkest periods, formulating a powerful response to the disconcerting parallels that persist in a time of supposed post-racial liberalism. As one character exclaims; ‘America would never elect anyone like David Duke’, to which another responds that racism can fester if slipped under conversations about ‘immigration, crime, and tax reform’. It doesn’t take a space force team to figure out where this finger is being pointed at.

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But alongside such explorations into the socio-political climate, BlacKkKlansman also has the feel of something very personal to Lee. Two works that feature at crucial moments in the film – the long-heralded classics of cinema Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation – are unapologetically thrown under the microscope for their contribution to the African American experience. In particular the latter, where, as a first-year student at NYU, Lee was shown D.W. Griffith’s 1915 work and told he wasn’t allowed to discuss the racial politics of the film, only appreciate the pioneering technical accomplishment on show. With BlacKkKlansman, this is the assignment Lee always wanted to write.

2017 had Get Out. 2018 has BlacKkKlansman – a vital, pertinent work with a painful sting in the tail. Undoubtedly the most important film you’ll see all year.

Now answer the question at the top of the page…

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