In the early 1980’s, while studying at NYU film school, Spike Lee was almost expelled for daring to criticise D.W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. After the film was screened to students, the director was appalled that instead of assessing the repugnant, pro-white supremacist message on the surface, he was being asked to overlook it in order to assess the revolutionary filmmaking techniques instead. When he made a short film (The Answer) satirising Birth of a Nation, about an African-American filmmaker tasked with overseeing a modern remake, his tutors reacted with disgust – how dare he speak up, and criticise Griffith’s unquestionable genius, despite his disgusting personal views?
If 2001’s Bamboozled returned to this original short by following an African American in the entertainment industry being confronted with white American pop culture harming his cultural identity, then BlacKkKlansman is his most damning critique of Griffith yet – the film that returns to his original source of socio-political ire. We are told within the film that when Birth of a Nation screened for President Woodrow Wilson, the first time a film got screened at the White House, he deemed it “history written in lightning”. Lee’s latest could accurately be described in the same way; it may be a period piece, but following the first anniversary of Charlottesville, this fiery exposé of America’s ceaselessly racist underbelly feels like a film that could only exist at this moment in time.
Trump’s America has brought the racism that festered under the surface for generations back up to the fore – and here, Lee unflinchingly portrays it as both hilariously pathetic, and genuinely harrowing, which he remarkably pulls off without lapsing into the tonal inconsistencies of his recent efforts. Here, his anger is more focused than it’s been for over a decade, and the results are electrifying.
John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, from whose memoir the film is based. In the late seventies, he was hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department as part of a major diversity push, and instantly relegated to working in a downstairs administrative department. Convinced his skills weren’t being utilised, he talked himself into working in the intelligence department; after a task to infiltrate a speech by a black panther gets no results, he spots a newspaper ad asking for new recruits to the KKK – he calls, speaks to the leader of the local chapter, and is instantly in demand for membership.
Hastily, colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is brought on board to play the role of “Ron Stallworth” in person, while Ron himself continues to play the role of a white racist caricature over the phone. The plan goes too well, with the undercover cop soon nominated to be head of the KKK chapter – and Flip suddenly under suspicion of concealing his Jewish identity by one loose cannon member. This doesn’t stop the fake Ron getting the endorsement of Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), but simultaneously, the real Ron’s involvement with a major police investigation is halting him from forming a deeper relationship with student Patrice (Laura Harrier), whose innate distrust of the police is stopping them from getting close.
Director Boots Riley, the creator of recent US indie hit Sorry to Bother You, was fast to criticise the supposedly simplistic and tone deaf message of the film on Twitter; that the film was essentially claiming that police reform and fighting societal injustice can be successful with a diverse team at hand. To come away from BlacKkKlansman with this message is to ignore the wider complexities of the two central characters – the film may grab your attention with its relevance to contemporary politics, but it’s the small scale character study where it excels with aplomb.
This is a film defined by identity; whereas KKK members are fast to label people in simplified, derogatory terms, being in environments surrounded by casual racial epithets causes Flip to confront his own identity. At one point, Driver delivers a quietly affecting monologue about how he barely considered his Jewish identity once throughout his life, until it became a point of contention – an archetypal “white kid” who has risen to a position of power, only to realise that his identity can’t be simplified as such. Then, of course, there’s the character of Stallworth, Lee’s most intriguing protagonist since Mookie in Do the Right Thing. He’s harboured a lifelong desire to work for the police despite the injustices committed against African Americans by the same people who still work within his desired profession. Even in his job interview, he’s bluntly asked how he’d respond to a white colleague who would casually fire a racial epithet in his direction.
Washington has perfect comic timing, easily obtaining belly laughs for deadpan line deliveries. But as funny as the film is at times, and politically charged as it is throughout, the most remarkable thing is how the performance is calibrated to feel somewhat subtle; when not playing the role of “Ron Stallworth” over the phone, to the hysterical delight of his (white) colleagues, you can see him trying to reconcile his inner conflict. It’s not that he’s in two minds about being a police officer – intriguingly, the character is more concerned with the lack of trust he’d receive if he confessed his profession to the black people in his life. To call it an idealised portrayal of the police, especially considering the sharply contradictory criticisms of the current political climate, is to not fully reckon with the complexities of this character.
BlacKkKlansman is released on August 24th 2018
Special nationwide screenings + Live Satellite Q&A with Spike Lee on August 20th via www.BlackkklansmanScreening.co.uk