Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Paakkonen, Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Frederick Weller, Robert John Burke and Alec Baldwin
BlackKklansman is Spike Lee’s most straightforward narrative since 2006’s Inside Man, for which he was merely a director for hire. BlackKklansman is a more personal film for Lee, given his politics. However, throughout his career, Lee has never been afraid to work within genre. Heist film, Inside Man, or war film, Miracle at St. Anna (2008), are modern examples but the list could go on.
BlackKklansman has all the tropes of an undercover cop film, the twist being that two undercover cops play the same role. Ron Stalwart- played by John David Washington, son of Denzel- infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan by calling their Colorado Springs chapter over the phone. Flip (Adam Driver) Zimmerman is the man tasked to impersonate Ron for face-to-face meetings with the notorious ‘organisation’.
The relationship between Ron and Flip is indicative of the buddy cop scenario. There is a woman, student activist named Patrice (Laura Harrier), who Ron clearly shouldn’t get involved with but does anyway. The police chief (Robert John Burke) makes things as difficult as possible, along with a mustachioed, racist cop (Frederick Weller) not unlike Dixon, Sam Rockwell’s character in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), all of which are devices to keep the film ticking along.
Yet, despite conforming to formula at almost every turn, BlackKkKlansman is still an excellent film, in equal parts comic and thrilling. From the word go Lee makes correlations between his 70’s set feature and the unfortunate climate of modern day America. The first link is the casting of Alec Baldwin. In a cameo, Baldwin plays a KKK leader making a propaganda promo video. He constantly messes up, forgetting and fluffing his lines. Baldwin is, of course, now synonymous with his less than flattering impersonation of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election. Later on, David Duke, portrayed in the film by Topher Grace in full weasel mode, talks to Ron, under the impression that he is also a racist bigot, about making America ‘great again’. When Ron has a conversation about Duke with Patrice she suggests that Duke is angling to get into politics. Ron retorts that American’s would never be so stupid to vote for someone like David Duke, to which Patrice replies ‘Wake Up!’, a signature mantra Lee has used to his fellow African-Americans throughout his 30-year-plus career.
Whatever way BlackKklansman is being received, this is not a ‘long-awaited’ return to political cinema for Lee. He landed a punch right on the nose of American gun violence in 2015 with Chi-Raq, unfortunately nobody saw it. Chi-Raq took in just $2.7 million off a $15 million budget. It was a modern adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, in which the black women of Chicago withhold sex until gun violence ceases, their mantra- ‘No Peace, No Pussy’. Like BlackKklansman it had an extraordinarily timely message with moments of hilarity as a counterbalance. However, because of its rhythmic dialogue and unconventional filmmaking style, nobody seemed to be interested. BlackKklansman has taken $40 million from a $15 million budget since its release in the States on August 10th. Chi-Raq and BlackKklansman are both equally important films, but crucially the latter is far more accessible for a wide reaching audience.
Lee expertly balances the film’s tonality. He depicts the Klansmen as clear buffoons, whose political views are something to laugh at and ridicule- while also keeping in the back of the minds of his audience that these views are dangerous and should be dealt with seriously. He does this through the character of David Duke, an ambitious man who is willing and able to sanitise his bigotry in order to get into positions of power- where he can really do some damage. The final scenes and images are deeply affecting, almost making one forget how entertained they were for the film's previous two hour running time. Dare I say it is the most hard-hitting sequence Lee has put together in his career, played out by a live recording of Prince’s Mary Don’t You Weep. It is a sequence that instantly takes us from the distance of entertainment and brings the film’s serious thematic message crashing down on our chest. An accomplished and important film.