In 1992, Spike Lee chose to open his biopic of Malcolm X with a shot of the American flag cut against genuine footage of the Rodney King assault. His latest movie closes with footage, shot some twenty-five years later, of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally and a washed-out black and white image of the flag, along with a depressing sense nothing much has changed.
BlacKkKlansman, like much of Lee’s work, is a nakedly political, often angry movie: a re-telling of a remarkable true story of Ron Stallworth, a black policeman who, in the late 1970’s, managed to infiltrate the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan by impersonating a white racist over the telephone. Crass, rude, shocking and wildly inconsistent in tone, it’s an alarming, hilarious and often depressingly current movie that confirms Lee’s status is a consistently exciting filmmaker.
Set in 70’s Colorado, Stallworth (John David Washington) joins the local police force, initially carrying out humiliating administrative work while enduring the openly aggressive prejudices of many of his colleagues. After being forced to go undercover at a rally for black students, Stallworth realises he has a gift for subterfuge and responds to an ad in the paper advertising the local KKK. Stringing along the bigots on the telephone, Stallworth recruits his white Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to take his place in the flesh with ,a view to currying favour with and, ultimately, bringing down the racists.
It opens with Alec Baldwin delivering some horrendous lecture about the growing multiculturalism in the States, decrying the growth of the US as a “mongrel” nation, before incorporating clips from Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind and mashing together moments of brutal casual racism with deadpan farce. There’s a danger that the absurdity of the comedy will undermine the disturbing reality of the hate, or that the racism will water down the hectic comedy, but the juxtaposition of the two disparate elements actually works to give the movie a sharper edge. Obviously seasoned with references to the Make America Great Again movement, BlacKkKlansman is something of a product of Trump’s America and plainly happy to labour the point. If it feels uneven or overwrought in tone, then it’s something you feel is justified; what with life not just imitating, but exceeding art to a shocking degree of late.
It feels, rather, unfortunately, like a remarkably contemporary and politically astute movie; one which highlights the depressing lack of progress between the 70’s, when the movie is set, and the present day. It’s vital and terrifying watching but tempered with a humour that makes the violence feel all the more real. Spike Lee has delivered a brilliantly ferocious movie, but it’s a shame he still has to make this kind of a point.
Chris Banks | [rating=4]
Crime, Comedy | USA, 2018 | 15 | 24th August 2018 (UK) | Universal Pictures | Dir. Spike Lee | John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Robert John Burke, Topher Grace, Aslie Atkinson