BlacKkKlansman (2018) – Writer and Director: Spike Lee
Reviewed by Jackie Bergson
For those of you who missed out on seeing BlacKkKlansman while it was on general release earlier this year, you might like to make a point of catching it now on a digital format. Insightful and pointedly timely, Spike Lee’s crime drama’s truth-telling quality bears relevance from the 1970s until today, through both political and social currency.
Lee famously directs dramatized real-story genre films with political savvy and knowing wit. Amongst his award-winning back-catalogue of films is the powerful, biographical drama, Malcolm X. Narrative connections into BlacKkKlansman are represented through such as Black Panthers founder, Kwame Tunde (Corey Hawkins) whose main influence was reputed to be Malcolm – real last name Little.
BlacKkKlansman itself is based on a true story about Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel’s son) who was the first African-American police officer and detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. His journey begins when, armed with a college degree, he decides to become a police officer. This moot point is itself fascinating because it coincidentally – intentionally for the purpose of the film – represents his character’s schismatic value.
Enrolled into the police department, Stallworth quickly tires of being demeaned by his records department supervisor. Subsequently, he succeeds in requesting to be transferred to the undercover division. During the division’s first task of infiltrating a Black Panthers rally, he witnesses the charismatic Tunde delivering an expressly intelligent, vitalising speech which succeeds in changing African-American self-perceptions. Reporting back to the police station, Stallworth and his detective colleagues assure their Chief that no violent threat is imminent from Black Panthers. Other more sinister KKK goings-on are, thus, given due priority thanks to Stallworth already being on the case.
Understated and assured performances by Washington and Adam Driver as his detective colleague, Flip Zimmerman, justly reflect the actual men’s trusting, intelligent partnership. Driver’s laconic style and Washington’s confident demeanour of natural ingenuity draw us into their bold world, from the offset to the closing stages of the film. In particular, Driver’s ability to portray terse rage just under the surface of his character is impressive in scenes such as when, as Stallworth’s white proxy, he has to fall into line with his ‘fellow KKK members’ as they habitually espouse racist hate and vitriol. Another scene, where the infiltration detective trio rehearse so that Zimmerman’s voice and dialect will be identical to Stallworth’s reverberates with irony and satire which are internal and external to the film.
Intrinsically strategic to the film’s plot is the fact that the detectives’ infiltration and exposure plan could be easily exposed to the KKK, if their judgement of characters or situations fails. There is a lie detection scene, where the odious, sadistic Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen) corners Zimmerman, who he suspects may be a police officer. Covert listening devices and Stallworth’s pragmatic action save the moment, while coincidentally almost revealing the sting operation itself. This palpable tension throughout the film contrasts with the incidental love story between Stallworth and Black Student Union president, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), although both situations rely upon Stallworth’s ability to reveal his real identity at exactly the right time: perfectly judged, in-film characterisation and direction reassures.
Humour-drama paradoxes reflect the real necessity of the detectives having to keep their nerve under the eyes of sinister and dangerous KKK idolatry. Ultimately, Stallworth, with help from his detective colleagues reveals both the ‘great white wizard’, David Duke (Topher Grace), and his KKK members as abusively misogynistic and absurdly farcical. Wryly accurate in conveying terrifyingly ignorant witlessness of prejudice and vitriolic hate, espoused from the inside out through the film’s plot medium, BlacKkKlansman on the whole delivers thought-provoking, truly edgy impact rather than a more blockbuster-type visceral thrill.
Superb matter of fact-ness; theatrical support cast; a clear message at its heart about the unthinkable repeating itself – legendary singer Harry Belafonte as Judge Jerome Turner, calmly describes the lynching of his friend to Black Panthers; a quietly divulging, private conversation between Stallworth and one of his police colleagues that Americans will eventually elect someone who embodies racist ideals embody this film’s power.
The currency and relevance of casting fine actor and erstwhile Trump impersonator Baldwin as right wing, ill tempered, prejudiced academic, Dr Kennebrew Beauregard, is right on the money. With his introduction bookended by the real Trump’s Charlottesville ‘there was blame on both sides’ speech, which is cut with recent documentary news footage of the horrific event itself and of David Duke’s resurgence as a right wing activist, the meaningful impact of BlacKkKlansman is stunningly executed.
Jackie Bergson has worked in the voluntary sector and commercial business development in technology and creative sectors. Educated in and living in Glasgow, her political and social views chime left-of-centre.