“With the right white man, we can do anything!”
In Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman – perhaps his most nakedly mainstream offering (ironic, given its incendiary title) since 2006’s Inside Man – the director finds himself pulled in many directions, its innumerable narrative twists, textual allusions and intermittent asides all jostling for attention and threatening each to drown out the others.
What steadies the ship and maintains focus in this busy, multitudinous epic is its wit. Dry, ironic and shot through with the restrained rage of black America, it’s the jokes that pull the madcap ideas together to work harmoniously towards the common goal of telling the true story of Colorado Springs PD detective Ron Stallworth’s implausible, audacious, full-on batshit scheme to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
Breaking through racial lines in a time when they were more plainly drawn in bright red ink, Stallworth was the first black police officer in his department. Behind a polite, scrappy façade, he was barely hiding a restless need to prove himself as a bold and capable lawman. Quickly ingratiating himself within the intelligence section of his squad, he first cut a niche in surveillance by blending into crowds of young, angry African Americans at political rallies. Before long, though, his façade fell away and he made the rash decision to insinuate himself into a local chapter of the KKK over the phone.
Played by John David (son-of-Denzel) Washington, Stallworth makes for an instantly likeable, sharp protagonist. His polite, nasal speech pattern amicably offsets the swagger of his late-70s cool, as Washington epitomises the struggle between two worlds so many black Americans have lived for decades – modulating his blackness in different social environments to make nice with his white colleagues, or dialling it up to charm whip-smart black rights activist Patrice (an excellent Laura Harrier). Stallworth isn’t quite fully himself in either world, and Washington plays with that unease in the subtle ways he adjusts himself from scene to scene.
What Lee creates here is an accumulative result of both 20th century Black Power rage, and the insidious, ubiquitous paranoia of being black in Trump’s America today. It is very much of the time in which it is set, with a killer soundtrack of disco, funk and prog rock, while also being a quasi-sibling to its producer Jordan Peele’s superlative Get Out from last year in the way it uses schlocky genre tropes as a Trojan horse in which to introduce complex ideas about racial identity to a mainstream audience.
It plays with the familiar structure of the buddy cop caper – Washington and his co-conspirator Adam Driver as Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman, who must be the white face of Stallworth’s infiltration, are a perfectly-calibrated odd couple. There is good humour, quiet affection and fricative tension in their dynamic, carrying Klansman through its too-crazy-to-make-up adventure into the belly of the beast.
Lee deals in irony and juxtaposition for much of the piece – editing scenes of black empowerment against the preposterous, terrifying rituals of the Klan – addressing politics through the execution of his artistry. Instances of systemic racism rearing its ugly head are peppered throughout in the casual slurs dropped by Stallworth’s fellow cops, or in an unmotivated roadside stop-and-search of a car of black students, and Lee is sure to drop in enough nudges and winks towards the notion that nothing is really that much different now.
Throughout, though, there is an unshakeable feeling that Lee is holding something back, like the true state of affairs is being lightly obscured behind snappy dialogue and lively set pieces. Even David Duke – KKK head and titanic totem of American white supremacy – is rendered queasily amicable by a stunningly deft performance from That 70s Show alumnus Topher Grace.
You find yourself having a whale of a time – enjoying the acerbic wit and the sly nods, the investigatory shenanigans and the wailing guitar of Stallworth’s very own cop show-style musical cue. There’s constantly something unidentifiable bubbling under the surface until, in the last few minutes, Lee allows the curtain to drop away. Like Washington exposing the resentful anger behind Stallworth’s affable front, the veil of genre thrills falls away to reveal grim reality in all its naked horror and the stark, unavoidable truth that nothing has truly changed in America. In fact, under Trump, it might be getting even worse.
BlacKkKlansman will make you laugh and cheer throughout, playing skilfully to cinephiles’ expectations of the genre piece, but its final moments put an end to that. As the credits roll on this Spike Lee Joint, you will only be silent.
Dir: Spike Lee
Scr: Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
Prd: Jason Blum, Spike Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele, Shaun Redick
DOP: Chayse Irvin
Music: Terence Blanchard
Country: United States
Run Time: 135 minutes