One of the few positives of a contentious period in American politics is the fiery vitriol and furious response it can elicit from the liberal-leaning arts communities. George W. Bush’s presidency and controversial invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan inspired some of the greatest (and angriest) films, albums, and prose the 21st century has known. Is it any wonder the Trump era is already influencing a new wave of topical “damn the man clown” cinema? Arriving at a time when racial tensions in America are teetering on a knife’s edge, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman could be the year’s most important and relevant piece of cinema.
With one foot firmly standing in comedy and its tongue planted hard against its cheek, BlacKkKlansman is easily Lee’s most giddily entertaining and commercially viable film in years. Its absurd setup lends itself to numerous laughs throughout, making it more accessible than most of his recent work. And, yes, it’s more “mainstream” too. But, at a certain point, it no longer becomes funny and Lee’s deft skill to strike an uncomfortable nerve hits you right between the eyes. The result is a film that’s as bitingly relevant and undeniably confronting as cinema gets in 2018.
Based on an incredible true story, or, as the opening titles put it, “Dis Joint Is Based On Some Fo’ Real, Fo’ Real Shit,” BlackKkKlansman tells the tale of Afro-topped Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a recent college grad keen to make a difference by becoming the first African American cop of the Colorado Springs police force. But, despite speaking with a tone more akin to his white co-workers, Ron’s blackness is inescapable, and he’s disappointingly assigned to assisting in the records room, where he’s treated more like a piece of furniture than a respected member of the team.
Desperate to prove his worth, Ron begs Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) to take advantage of his black “niche” and use him for undercover work. His opportunity arrives sooner than expected when he’s assigned to infiltrate and cover a local gathering of the black students’ union where a former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture (a brief but powerful Corey Hawkins) has been invited to speak. Fearing the impassioned speaker is meaning to insight a violent uprising, the Chief suspects Ron can ascertain intel to quash this “bunch of subversives.”
The student union’s leader Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), with an Afro even larger than Ron’s impressive do, takes a shining to the undercover cop, blissfully unaware he’s one of the “enemy” she’s determined to bring down. She sees apathy in Ron’s outlook on the lives of black people in Colorado, encouraging him to take a more active approach to enact change. Inspired by both Patrice’s words and brother Kwame’s passionate speech, on a whim, Ron responds to a newspaper ad for the local chapter of the KKK. Using his ability to “speak white,” Ron asks the local chapter’s president, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) for some reading material. His approach is so convincing, Walter wants to meet immediately and potentially invite Ron to join their ranks.
Seeing this as an opportunity to infiltrate the real enemy of Colorado, thus taking the attention off his other uncover mission, Ron isn’t about to let a thing like his skin colour ruin this moment. Recruiting fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (the ever-reliable Adam Driver), he concocts a scheme to send Flip to be the white face to match the “white” voice on the phone. Despite the reservations of suspicious member Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), who rightly suspects their new pledge might actually be Jewish, Flip is able to convince the group “Ron” is just as racist and xenophobic as the rest of them. Perhaps even a little too much, leading to some surprising interactions with the Grand Wizard of the KKK himself, David Duke (Topher Grace).
The KKK and its vile members provide Lee with the ripe chance to lampoon one of America’s most shameful group of moronic nitwits. The film’s laughs come at the expense of these xenophobic cretins, particularly how easy it becomes for Ron and Flip to fool them into thinking they’re interacting with a fellow negro-hating white man. Duke even proudly claims he can acutely tell when he’s speaking with a member of his own creed over the phone, even though it’s clear he cannot. Lee takes great delight in showcasing how laughable and dullwitted this group really is, providing the film with the levity it needs to entertain its audience.
But for all its pitch-perfect humour, BlacKkKlansman knows when to pull it back, exposing the deeply serious intentions of its narrative. For all their ineptitude and ridiculous practices, the KKK were (and are) a highly-dangerous group of radical white supremacists. The threat they posed in 1979 (and still pose now) is unsettling, and Lee wisely captures the crippling fear faced by those the KKK set their target on and why it’s still should concern us now. And that’s the film’s truest success. For all its 1970s nostalgic period setting (the production and costume design is sublime), this entire narrative could be set in modern-day America, and it shockingly wouldn’t feel out of place.
There’s little subtlety in Lee’s work here. But given the current state of America, this is not the time to be subtle. When Duke spews his “America First” rhetoric and desire to “give America its greatness again” by placing someone in the White House who embodies the Klan spirit, we know the parallel Lee is making. It’s as purposely understated as a sledgehammer. When a character scoffs at the very notion of someone like Duke being elected president of the United States, it’s a tongue-in-cheek moment that will make you laugh and cringe all at the same time. When Lee juxtaposes the Klan initiation ceremony of “Ron” with a damning retelling of the violent lynching of a black teenager in 1914, he’s really going for the throat. And rightly so.
Lee has every right to be angry. As we see from his topical and relevant narrative, America has been in its current precarious position before. Clearly, it’s not learning from its past mistakes. He understands the power of cinema in changing the public’s perception. In one sequence, the Klan cheer and holler during a screening of the controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which gave rise to the second coming of the hate group and was used as a recruitment/propaganda tool for decades. With BlacKkKlansman, he’s practically begging audiences to see how little things have changed in 40 years, particularly in its climax, which hits with full-force and leaves its audience breathless.
BlacKkKlansman concludes with footage of the hateful “Unite the Right” rally which occurred in Charlottesville last August. This film will actually be released to time with the one-year anniversary. We’re forced to again face the disturbing images of dozens of torch-bearing white men, carrying Nazi flags while chanting shameful slogans like “Jews will not replace us”. But the shocking footage of Nazi-sympathiser James Alex Fields Jr. deliberately ramming his car into a large crowd, injuring scores of people and tragically killing Heather Heyer, is almost unbearable to watch.
Lee wisely follows these images with that of the real-life David Duke who, if you weren’t already aware, is still very much alive and was naturally spouting his vile hatred at this very rally. But nothing completes Lee’s film better than Donald Trump’s subsequent and now-infamous “very fine people on both sides” press conference. It’s a powerful message that reminds us of the backwards direction America is currently heading. Yes, Duke did, in fact, succeed with his goal of a man in the White House who had his group’s back. And if nothing else angers you in BlackKkKlansman, that little fact sure will.
While it may be criticised by some for being too “mainstream,” BlackKkKlansman clearly needed to appear entirely accessible to deliver its important and relevant message to the masses. If a socially-aware film has to hide amongst some absurdist humour and ridiculous scenarios to get its point across, so be it. Get Out did much the same last year, and it’s no surprise Jordan Peele is one of this film’s producers. The time is right for “woke” cinema like this. We need a film like BlacKkKlansman right now. Come for the laughs but leave with anger in your blood.
According to Childish Gambino, racism, violence, and black oppression is America. With BlackKklansman, Spike Lee is clearly saying this was always America.