BlacKkKlansman ★★★★


Spike Lee’s favourite shot, which he loves so much (and always executes very effectively) that it has become his signature shot, is the dolly shot - . It’s such a thing with him that I spent the whole of BlackKKlansman waiting to see how and where he would use it. And right when I began to get disappointed that this would be perhaps the first film in which he doesn’t use it, there it was, Spike utilising its inherently oneiric and transcendent characteristics very strikingly, in order to transition to the extremely powerful and moving ending (perhaps the best “lets show some real people/real life footage” ending in, like, ever).

I hope that Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke sees this film. Because unlike the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK in the late 70’s shown in it, you’ll get exactly what you expected from Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s latest joint – a bold, brash very well put together yarn (albeit one that has slight pacing issues) that deals in racism and rituals, then and now.

The “fo’ real, fo’ real shit” that the film is based on (as we are told by a title at the start) concerns the story of how Stallworth, the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, managed to join the KKK in the ’70s with the help of a white, undercover cop colleague posing as him in person. The investigation, which includes trying to prevent cross burnings and violence in the streets, takes them all the way to the top with Stallworth shooting the shit over the phone with Duke while having no clue he’s talking to a “negro” and not to a “pure white American” – even as he brags he knows how all black people speak (and uses how he thinks Afro-Americans pronounce the word “are”, in one of the many funny sequences of the film). It is such an outlandish scene that I had to google it to verify that this conversation really happened (it did).

The film, like its black klansman John David Washington (Denzel’s son, who seems almost as talented as his dad) has charm, charisma and swagger to spare. It’s by turns cheeky, funny, suspenseful and disturbing, a period piece that has a lot to say about modern America, though typically for Lee in the parallels with Trump(ism) and the Make America Great gormless idea are a little too on the nose.

The rest of the cast goes all-in as well. Topher Grace in particular is delightful as the all-American, apple-pie-and-picket-fences, hate-spouting David Duke.

The soundtrack is a mix of ’70s soul classics and composer Terence Blanchard’s moody guitar motifs, that does well to evoke the feel and spirit of the late 60s/early 70s.

The script has, perhaps predictably, Hollywood-ised the real life events somewhat. Characters like the student activist and love interest Patrice (Harrier) and Jewish undercover cop Philip “Flip” Zimmerman (Driver, understated) are apparently fictional, but they add more perspectives to the main plot. Patrice is modelled on real figures like activist Angela Davis (who is name-dropped a number of times in the film), and a few standout moments which one assumes must be made up turn out to be true (such as the abovementioned sequence with the pronunciation of the word “are”).

Lee manages, commendably, to tease out some of the subtleties in Stallworth’s roles in society as both a black man and a “pig” police officer. It serves as a reminder that the literal black and white approach to politics and power we see descending on Colorado Springs isn’t going to work.

The film is also quite interested in exploring the the power of words to spur people into action. Lee gives quite a chunk of screen time to three impressive displays of rhetoric from Duke, civil rights organiser Kwame Toure and fictional activist Jerome Turner (surprisingly, played by Harry Belafonte). He shows us, in a restrained manner (as restrained as can be reasonably expected in the circumstances), exactly what alchemy of polemic and charisma can bring a room full of people to shout “Black Power” or “White Power”, and a surreptitiously harrowing true story of the worst kind of race hate and its consequences is given all the space it deserves. And yet on account of the titular shenanigans, a feel-good vibe is also woven in and out of this in a balanced fashion

Lee has said that he wants the film to encourage Americans to vote in the US midterm elections, and it’s probably the less militantly “black” film he has made to date other than Inside Man. Ron Stallworth may not have brought down the KKK but hey, he did something. He – a black man no less – got one over on a bunch of incompetent, yet dangerous, white supremacists, not to mention he stalled and thwarted their activities in his city. Lee has much more than a roomful of people for his audience and this film is his fiery speech. When he stops going for gags, he reminds us of a pretty harsh truth: that we can’t simply close our eyes hoping the David Dukes of the world will disappear, and BlacKkKlansman does its darnedest to be the brazen wink needed to wake us up.

2018 film list
Spike Lee joints ranked

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