Spike Lee is angry. In all honesty I could end this article with that one sentence and it’d perfectly sum up BlacKkKlansman, along with almost all of Lee’s cinematic output to date (not including his rubbish Oldboy remake, which had no emotion attached whatsoever).
That’s right, everyone’s favourite outspoken director is back and champing at the bit with his new release, based on the true story of Ron Stallworth: the African-American retired police officer who in the late 1970s infiltrated the ranks of the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. As per the original operation, Ron Stallworth exists in two entities: as the man himself, played to perfection by John David Washington, and the cover used by Stallworth’s white partner, Flip Zimmerman. Zimmerman is played here by Adam Driver, who continues his trend of being absolutely flipping brilliant in everything.
Given the amount that’s already been talked about with regards to the film’s historical accuracy of the events depicted, and some very public, vitriolic responses to the movie since its release, BlacKkKlansman has become a very difficult film to talk about. With that in mind I’m going to be very upfront and say that I enjoyed this movie very much. I think that a story with ties to factual events does have some obligation to honour the truth, but that story also needs to be entertaining. Spike Lee clearly had something to say about the state of the USA in 2018 and I think this was more important to him than portraying Stallworth’s operation with a high degree of factual accuracy. It’s called artistic licence, and if white directors can legitimately get away with using it with no backlash, then it’s about time we extend that courtesy to every director and filmmaker.
BlacKkKlansman is a film designed to provoke; whether in terms of getting people talking or making certain members of society very upset. It has no interest in being subtle – this is a movie made with, for and about anger. This is definitely not a film aimed at anybody wanting to have a discussion about the current racial or political climate, Lee is way past that here, almost to the point of saying “I told you so” once the parallels are drawn between 1970s Carolina Springs and modern day America.
Those comparisons come thick and fast throughout BlacKkKlansman, from characters paying direct homage to certain demagogic catchphrases (“America First”, “Make America Great Again”), to white supremacists at their peak in the 1970s and still asserting their toxic influence on the cultural landscape of the US (aka David Duke, played with real edge and fervour here by Topher Grace).
Grace’s portrayal of the former Grand Wizard was probably about as good as it gets as far as this film is concerned with accurately depicting its antagonists. I want to make it perfectly clear, the Ku Klux Klan are evil, sick, loathsome excuses for human beings, but here they’re almost entirely set up as gormless pantomime henchmen. At no point do they pose any credible threat to any of the characters and once they get underway in carrying out their terrorist acts, it feels more like the Three Stooges than Four Lions.
But maybe that’s the point, that these idiots have no real hope of winning whatever war they make up for themselves, and that even the highest of their ranks – who know oh so much about what sets the white man above all others – can be outwitted by a simple set of phone calls. I guess it’s an optimistic take, but given the recent emboldening of racists and bigots all the way to the highest office of government, it does inspire a bit of hope to see a gang of white supremacists outdone by a small-town black cop.
Hope, in the end, could well be the emotion that Spike Lee was aiming for in BlacKkKlansman. While there’s plenty to be angry, maybe even fearful about, there are glimmers of light in the darkness. Whether it’s in the words of Kwame Ture at a gathering near the beginning of the movie, chants of “Black Power” rising above and over the cries of “White Power” or in the very last passage of film, when the modern horrors are laid bare, we can still make out the chants of “Black Lives Matter” fighting against the tide of white supremacist vitriol.
It feels like a tall order, but if the world has more Ron Stallworths than David Dukes taking action then maybe we’ll be alright in the end.